Opening an LDS Cinema Film

By Mark Potter

23 July 2003

A thought provoking question was recently asked at LDSFilm.com about why so many LDS movies open in the fall which has a shorter window than the spring. It was also pointed out that the Mormon Genre films in the spring have done better at the box office. LDS Filmmakers do not plan to glut Utah theaters every fall with Mormon Genre Films. It just happens that way. The first key to understanding this is to realize that films in this genre are very low budget movies (all but one has had a budget under $1,000,000 and most are under $500,000) made on a shoestring by people who have had to scrape and work to get their movie done. It takes strength, stamina, fortitude, and sheer will to get a low budget Mormon Genre Film planned, shot, edited and shown. These LDS Filmmakers are pioneers.

Like many of our forefathers who crossed the Great Plains, they start their journey filled with hope. The Mormon Genre Filmmaker has prepared himself (or herself) just as the pioneers did before they started their long, hard trek. Before setting foot on the trail, the Filmmaker will have loaded his handcart with what he has been told that he will need for this journey. There are so many choices for the low budget Filmmaker to deal with. What will he be shooting on? 35mm is the best but 35mm is so expensive. Will he have to manage with 16mm, high definition or dv? What can they afford? The decision has to be made and will affect the overall look of the film.

Pre-production is a long journey itself. There is finding of locations, hiring key positions. There are many meetings. Later there is the finding of additional crew and cast who will work for little or no pay. The pre-production takes a lot of effort. Once on the way, the weight of the handcart grows wearying. The Filmmaker must decided what he really needs on this pathway and what he can do without. Everything that he wants is important and has value but something must go. There are more difficult decision that have to be made. Scenes may be cut due to cost. Characters might be cut from the script. Like those on the trail of old, things of value are left behind.

It takes effort to keep pushing forward day in and day out. Well into the journey, the day finally comes when filming starts. Filming is long and demanding on everyone involved, yet it is an exciting time. All involved are reinvigorated by the filming process. This is what they have dreamed of doing. It took so long to get here and is over so quickly. The movie wraps and the film is in the can. For the first time the Filmmakers realize that they made it across the Great Plains. They think that they are halfway to Zion as they look at Independence Rock.

Now at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the Mormon Genre Filmmaker must press on though drained from the energy and demands of filming. As post-production begins, they must now face the mountains. It's not just one mountain but mountain after mountain. Post-production is a very expensive process with many pitfalls. Many an independent moviemaker has given up here. The task seems to daunting, but for the pioneer Mormon Genre Filmmaker, it is time to gird up his loins and keep going or the movie will be buried and forgotten along the trail. It has now been months; maybe even years on this long, lonely trail. New problems pop up; things that were unforeseen appear out of nowhere. More than once, the journey seems impossible to finish; yet there is faith. There is a belief that this can be done. With the strength and stamina carried by our forefathers, the LDS Filmmaker does not give up, he keeps going-keeps struggling. Finally he is through the demands of post-production, ! but he is still not to Zion. The Filmmaker now has a movie.

His hope is to open his picture. The Filmmaker has spent so much capital by this time; little is left in his purse. It is possible that he may get a distributor to take the film. This is not a free service and can take a large portion of the profits. Some Filmmakers have seen a return on their labor while others have been left with nothing. If the Filmmakers backers do not get their money back, the Filmmaker may never be able to work again. For other LDS Filmmakers there is no choice as they will not be able to find a distributor to sign with. The Filmmaker will then have to search for a theater to show their work.

It is not easy to find someone to let the LDS Filmmaker open. Fortunately there are some Latter-day Saint theater owners and other theater owners who believe in independent films, but they too are limited in what they can offer the Mormon Genre Filmmaker. They can do little to advertise for the Filmmaker. Theater owners must show the movies from the large studios and cannot always pull one of the big studio movies to show an independent film without suffering repercussions from the big studios.

By the time the LDS Filmmaker opens his Mormon Genre Film many hurdles and problems have been overcome. The movie has already taken up many hours, cost more money than anticipated, been reworked and reedited, been cried over and rejoiced over. It has been pushed and pulled more ways than a piece of taffy. The opening date has been changed over and over again as one problem after another has been addressed and overcome. The LDS Filmmaker has begged, pleaded, bargained and persevered and finally someone agrees to show the movie in their theater. And still the Filmmaker can not rest.

It has taken so much to get here, yet they still are not to Zion. There are more theaters to open in. There is the struggle to find the other markets that will hopefully allow the movie in the Mormon Film Genre to open. Then there is the effort to sell the picture on video/DVD. There are still so many mountains to climb. Some in Zion might wonder if it might be better to wait to another season to open, but it has taken so much to arrive at this place. The Filmmaker takes the gift of opening his film when it comes and then prepares to start climbing mountains again.

One day he will get to Zion. This is not a journey they are sorry that they have taken. Like their forefathers they are grateful for this experience. Yet at the same time it is one of the hardest things that he have ever done in his life. So by the time most LDS Filmmaker finishes their movie, they have been working very long hours for over a year. So when the opportunity comes to open in a theater, they take it. They are grateful for the day whether is the fall or the spring.

It was also stated that the movies that opened in the spring do better at the box office than those in the fall. Most of the movies that have opened in the spring ("God's Army", "Brigham City", "The Other Side of Heaven", "The Singles Ward" and "The R.M.") had a distributor behind them. They all grossed over $900,000. Each had print and ad budgets well above a hundred thousand dollars. They were able to advertise and build an audience. Most of those that have opened in the fall were self released. They had little money for advertising and were not able to inform the general public of their work. This might explain a bit of the difference in the box office results. "Charly", which had a distributor, opened in the fall. Like the films listed in the spring, "Charly" made nearly $900,000 at the box office.

Some of the movies slated for opening this fall might not open. A few are still working through the rigors of post production. Most of these films are be self distributed. Every time a Mormon Genre Film opens there is a story of courage, sacrifice and commitment that never gets told on screen. The story of how an independent Mormon Genre Film reaches the theater is one full of hope and many times one of countless struggles. Cheer them on, wish them well and see their works.

Mark Potter directed "Suddenly Unexpected" and can be contacted at: mpotter1@pdq.net

The author's title for this essay was "Opening a Mormon Genre Film."