The Mormon cinema movement of 1999 was a false façade of sorts, enshrouded with ambiguity and uncertainty. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been producing and distributing films since the birth of the cinema itself. If there was some aspect of the cinema that was uniquely new about this theatrical product, it was the most under looked element of the equation, the marketing of Mormon cinema.
Editor’s Note: This article was written in the fall of 2004 and reflects some premature conversations on the topic. That understood, the conclusions derived are still presented for personal consideration and further discussion.
In our BYU class, “Mormon Cinema: Mirror of Our Times,” we have made a study of the commercial Mormon film movement since 1999, with the release of God’s Army. This distinction was made to be the significant starting point but built on, what I believe, was a false assumption. Similar to the claims of a new revolution in digital media, the Mormon cinema movement was a false façade of sorts, enshrouded with ambiguity and uncertainty. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been producing and distributing films since the birth of the cinema itself.
If there was some aspect of the cinema that was uniquely new about this theatrical product, it was the most under looked element of the equation, the marketing of Mormon cinema. The marketing of Mormon cinema has become a unique movement in the last five years.
Never before has an LDS film needed to make money. Never before has a distribution system or a marketing campaign been needed to sustain such an endeavor. Previously, each major film that was produced for the Church already had its market defined. A need existed, so a film was made. A distribution system was already in place. No one had to recoup cost, or let alone try to make a profit.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been watching movies and Church-sponsored movies for a long time. Perhaps to understand the nature of the market that is targeted by the “Mormon cinema” movement, an understanding is needed of where and how the target audience gets their sensibilities.
Viewers have been raised on numerous short films, produced or sponsored by the Church, and a few longer format films. The selection of approved church material is numerous, and readily available at any local church meetinghouse library or, more modestly, in the Church’s distribution catalogue. The standards of production value are high and each has had its contents approved by the general governing boards of the Church. These institutionalized films have four common points of access: purpose, production value, content, and ultimately, audience.
For the purposes of this paper, the points of access are defined as such:
- Purpose- A reason beyond the film text itself for its creation. A need that is to be fulfilled by the creation of the film. This is where a film’s life begins.
- Production Value- The time and resource of a creative team of media persons that resulted in the creative expression/ interpretation of the material presented.
- Content- The story, influenced by a moral order, which has the objective of communicating a specific message.
- Audience- Closely related to the purpose, it more reflects the targeted people and how those people are to be reached, their sensibilities, and their perception of the world. This is where a film’s life ends, and its distribution and reception begin.
Two such films, On the Way Home and The Mountain of the Lord represent quality Church material from the recent past that may have shaped the perception of what “Mormon” films should typify.
On the Way Home was a contracted project, made by Bonneville Communications in 1991 for the Church’s missionary department. It is important to note that its initiation came from a source other than the production entity (for the purpose of this discussion, Bonneville). In this sense, institutional church film is very similar to industrial filmmaking or advertising. The need that the missionary department had was to make a film that gave missionary work a human face. This need was effectively and creatively addressed. Its purpose was to make the missionaries appear as more approachable to the average non-member.
On the level of production value, this film employs cinematic story telling techniques to convey its message. Switching between black & white and color to illustrate change, using saturated oranges for pleasant memories, and the use of sounds and music are just a few examples of the techniques used. Its smooth fluidity, as a result, allows for the spectator to focus on the message behind the story, which is a strong argument for high production value in Church media.
The story is of a family that is preparing to be baptized and their transition from an old life to the new. Statements are made clearly and meanings are absolute. It models effective member involvement in the missionary process. The missionaries make direct statements of doctrinal clarity, explaining that, through Jesus Christ, family relationships can be perpetuated beyond the grave. The simplicity and clarity with which the film’s story is told allows for understanding of the message being presented–families can be forever by obtaining essential gospel ordinances.
The targeted audience for On the Way Home is investigators that missionaries teach. A strong secondary audience becomes the membership of the church. With a strong and active missionary force, this film became a tool to use in helping to explain the essence of the message that they represented. The distribution system was already in place.
Additionally, the film has inspirational value bestowed upon its characters. Personally speaking as a young man, there are two characters from On the Way Home that I connected with. Out of a desire to emulate them, I admired the father’s experience with the representative from the homeless shelter, and his eventual decision to support it with a generous donation. I wanted that to become a part of who I am.
The other character of notable influence for me was the daughter’s college friend who served as a member support for the family as they took the discussions and were baptized. I wanted to be that friend for someone investigating the Church, and be a support to the missionaries.
The behaviors thus modelled in this film became a reason for my preferential interest in it. Being able to see correct behaviors modelled in a contemporary setting makes this film unique. It is this quality that gives the film a strong audience appeal among general church membership.
On the Way Home, along with other church films, runs about 30 minutes in length. Most church produced films are shorter in length. There are only a handful of films that run for a longer duration. Perhaps the only feature-length, narrative film produced by the Church, The Mountain of the Lord, was created to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple.
This narrative following the life of President Wilford Woodruff, who was the prophet of the Church at the time of the temple’s completion, is a personal story aligned to compliment the progress of the temple. The script was based directly from the journals of the President Woodruff and is structured around an interview with a New York newspaper reporter.
The film’s production value was remarkably authentic, offering the appearance of the actual temple block construction site and granite quarry. The invaluable cooperation of the Church to allow for the Salt Lake temple to become part of the film set gave this film its authenticity.
It is the inspirational value, however, that this institutional church film holds that makes it particularly persuasive. Notice the difference between inspirational value and spiritual experience. There are no spiritual experiences, or miraculous depictions, only actual real characters. The processes of constructing the Salt Lake Temple makes it awe-inspiring and there was no miraculous solution when the temple foundation was crumbling. The film effectively, but without any fanfare, teaches the importance of scriptural passages and has a strong spirit about its presentation. The conversations are portrayed with respect and dignity of character. As a spectator, I feel the characters are stalwart depictions and not exaggerated, as they experience emotions and concern for one another. They are hard working and strong willed.
I personally enjoy the sequence where young Wilford hears a girl singing and joins in with her as he is walking down the street at night. Wilford prior to this had been enjoying the company of the Prophet Joseph Smith. The prophet explained, with strong personal conviction, the importance of temples. Another point of inspiration for me was the model of President Woodruff as one who had faithfully kept a journal since his youth. The film is full of characters and examples worthy of emulation. It has strong inspirational value without being heavy on the spiritual experiences.
As for a distribution strategy, the film “fulfilled the measure of its creation” and then some. It originally aired on the Church’s own satellite system to stake centers between sessions of its General Conference in April 1993, 100 years after the temple’s dedication. It was subsequently made available on video cassette for home and church use.
Marketing for the film was successful, even though it wasn’t called marketing or even called a publicity campaign. The Mountain of the Lord was announced, via the church’s print media, the Ensign magazine and the LDS Church News. In March 1993, the month before it was to air between sessions of General Conference, the Ensign publlished a feature article about the centennial of the Salt Lake temple. The article introduced The Mountain of the Lord and was complimented with images from the film. A small section of the article addressed the making of the commemoratory film, but it was actually downplayed so as not to be the focus of the article. The film became a side highlight to the celebration. Additionally, articles specifically addressing the film appeared in the LDS Church News, but these still correlated it to the centennial celebration. Thus, the success of this film came because it was part of something bigger, as demonstrated by its marketing approach. (We will probably see this same publicity strategy take place again this year with the anticipated release of the film commemorating the 200th birthday of the Prophet Joseph Smith.)
Comparing distribution and marketing techniques of The Mountain of the Lord, a film like The Other Side of Heaven was able to access potential audiences via the LDS Church News, firesides, and devotionals. Because there was more to the story beyond what the film portrayed, that is, Elder Groberg was also able to accompany the filmmakers and discuss the spiritual significance of the events depicted in the film, the LDS audience awareness of the film was increased. In addition, a complimentary half hour documentary about the making of the film was made available for distribution via BYU Broadcasting services. Because it was a subject that the Church-associated media outlets could endorse without significant concern of misrepresentation, The Other Side of Heaven, like The Mountain of the Lord, was able to enjoy the benefits of the Church’s established promotional mediums.
Returning to the “Mormon cinema” movement, there is a complexity to the package. Marketing a church film in a commercial market was a new challenge. Suddenly, these films are no longer church films, but films being interpreted by some quasi-crossbreed, influenced by Mormon cultural practices more than theological teachings. Before the “Mormon cinema” movement began, institutional films were being made with much more clarity and conviction. These newer films have been, for the most part, ambiguous about their moral order when contrasted with the institutional product. This general ambiguity is thus perceived as a weakness by the audiences.
Instead of building upon the Church’s efforts at filmmaking, some followers of the “Mormon cinema” movement have come out critically against the institutional Church films, working to find new ways to express their spirituality.
Reflecting on the majority of aspiring filmmakers trying to get involved in the British documentary film movement of the 1930’s, John Grierson aptly pointed out that self-expressive (or for the purposes of this discussion, self-interpretive) interests of aspiring filmmakers were out of their realm. Grierson understood the service that the film unit provided to the commissions under which it operated. A lack of such understanding may be the downfall of an inward-looking group of filmmakers who have tried to target their films to an LDS Church audience.
In conclusion, I would like to suggest that the very teachings and beliefs that set the LDS community apart from others contain the solutions for the challenges that are currently sinking the “Mormon cinema” movement. Along with our high moral standards, we must also have high production values, excellent storytelling techniques with characters worthy of emulation, and a purpose beyond making film for the sake of making films alone. Indeed, we have a great purpose in wanting to employ film. As filmmakers seek to find multiple layers of understanding for the Church’s teachings in themselves and their films, they will be rewarded with a success that will leave the rest of the world astounded and amazed. Inspired individuals will have a greater awareness of the world around them and instil within themselves a sense of their own divine personal worth.