Mitch Davis on Mormon Movies
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Part II (Read Part I)

As the readers of Meridian Magazine know, our publication has been an active forum for discussions regarding the evolution of “the Mormon movie movement.”  For the most part, that movement has consisted of low-budgeted films targeted primarily at the LDS audience.

We have been interviewing Mitch Davis, writer, producer and executive director of The Other Side of Heaven on his thoughts on the subject. 

MERIDIAN:  The last piece of your formula for a successful movie is “a lot of money.” 

MITCH:  Yes.  That’s the tough part.  Because movies are expensive to produce.  They’re not like poems or paintings or musical compositions.  They are multi-layered pieces of art that are constructed by huge armies of highly skilled technicians and artists.  It costs a lot to pay all those people to create all those layers, so movies are expensive.  But they are also the undisputed medium of the world’s masses.  They sit firmly atop the food chain in the realm of popular culture.  So the only real question is whether or not we think we have stories worth placing on the world stage.  If we think we do, we should pay the price and take the risk necessary to put them there.  If not, we should not be surprised when HBO does it for us and includes a lot of salacious material we find highly offensive.

MERIDIAN:  How much should we spend?

MITCH:  We should spend whatever it costs to do the job right!

Which story intrinsically has greater worth, the Joseph Smith story or the Hannibal Lecter story?  If you can spend $80 million dollars making and marketing a movie about a modern-day cannibal, why can’t you spend the same amount making and marketing a movie about a modern-day prophet? 

And I should emphasize the importance of spending money on marketing, not just producing your movie.  Of the $80 million price tag, only $45 million goes to production.  The other $35 million is spent on advertising and promoting the movie after it’s done.

MERIDIAN:  So.are we through with that topic?

MITCH:  I think so.  Except for this, which I think is the most important part:  The LDS movie movement hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of its potential.  There is so much more power in that movement than we can even imagine.  If LDS filmmakers could figure out how to start making their movies with recognizable actors and credible production values, we could begin propelling LDS stories all over the globe “without compulsory means.”  We could begin providing a viable alternative to popular culture using popular culture’s own delivery systems. 

MERIDIAN:  Haven’t we already done that?

MITCH:  Only to a very small degree.  Most LDS films have a limited life in regional theaters where they play almost exclusively to LDS audiences.  They are then sold on video and DVD to primarily LDS audiences inside LDS bookstores.  As I said earlier, we make movies about ourselves for ourselves, then show them to ourselves in our own backyard.  

MERIDIAN:  How can we change that?

MITCH:  There is only one way I can think of.  We make bigger and better movies capable of achieving bigger and better results.  We make less numbers of movies so the LDS audience doesn’t get bored and worn-out and we figure out a way to get that audience to manifest itself more forcefully. 

The Other Side of Heaven achieved almost $5 million at the U.S. box office, or approximately one million ticket sales.  As I said earlier, about 200,000 of those ticket sales went to non-Mormons, which means that only 800,000 of the five million Mormons in the U.S. went to see this movie in theaters.  At that relatively low level, it was still far and away the most successful LDS movie in theaters.  I think we can do better than that.  I think we must.

With a theatrical box office of only $5 million, our movie still got enough attention in Hollywood that it was given fair access to all of the ancillary distribution systems – video/DVD, cable TV, foreign markets, airlines, etcetera.  But if our box office had been double what it was, if two million Mormons had gone to see it in theaters rather than 800,000, our movie would have exploded into the ancillary markets in a manner that would have sent shock waves all over the world. 

You see, the LDS market is still a relatively small market.  But if that market can learn to speak with one voice, it will be given a voice to shake the earth.  Right now I think the LDS market is too fragmented.  We have taken a niche market and broken it down into smaller niches, rather than creating content that is broadly appealing to all members of the LDS niche. 

MERIDIAN:  Some people have said the LDS market is too easily accessible, too vulnerable.  Do you agree with that?

MITCH:  No, I don’t agree with that.  I think it has been hard to separate those who wish to access the LDS market because they want to change the world from those who want to access it because they want to make a quick buck.  There are significant limitations placed on those who wish to access the LDS market today, and that has the unfortunate consequence of making the LDS market invisible to the rest of the world. 

I contrast that with the experience of the producers of The Passion of the Christ.  This very dark, hyper-violent Catholic film got the unabashed support of thousands of preachers of dozens of different faiths across America.  I mean, there were Southern Baptist ministers canceling church services and taking their entire congregations to see an R-rated, Catholic film on Sunday!  Talk about blurring the boundaries!

And what was the end result of that?  Well, you got a faith-affirming movie about Jesus Christ that is going to gross $1 billion bullying its way across the planet, speaking emphatically to “every nation, kindred, tongue and people.”  And you got all of the Hollywood studios lining up to make religious films all of a sudden.

On a different scale, the LDS niche could do something just like that if only we could figure out a way to speak with one voice.  There must be a way to do it, but nobody has found it yet.  

MERIDIAN:  Enough of that topic?

MITCH:  Too much, probably.

MERIDIAN:  Why do you get so passionate about this?

MITCH:  Because it’s the future of our planet.

MERIDIAN:  What is?

MITCH:  Popular culture.  And as that culture drifts further and further from the realm of righteousness, as it gets harder and harder for Latter-day Saints to live in the world and not be of the world, I think it is imperative that we create an alternative culture, what BYU used to call “a style all our own.”  I think there is a huge difference between having one’s own style and having no style.  It is much easier to condemn popular culture than to provide a viable alternative.  When all we do is nullify what is available, we consign ourselves to living life in a vacuum.  That is a depressing, empty way to live, and it falls far short of the Savior’s injunction to set our light high on a hill, “that it might give light unto all who are in the house.”  I think it is a scriptural imperative that we create our own, alternative popular culture.  And I think when we do there will be millions of people who will flow unto it out of hunger and desperation.  But we haven’t built that culture yet. 

MERIDIAN:  Any bright spots?

MITCH:  Absolutely.  That’s a perfect segue into Napoleon Dynamite.

MERIDIAN:  Okay.  I can’t wait to see you connect those dots.

MITCH:  Many years ago, President Kimball gave a seminal talk to many of the Church’s highest leaders.  He was speaking about how we couldn’t expect the Lord to open the doors to countries where the gospel was not then allowed unless we were fully prepared to walk through those doors.  And then he sort of threw down the gauntlet.  He said to all those great brethren there assembled, “How many of you here speak Mandarin Chinese?”

Well, the other day I was thinking about that talk, and I could almost hear President Kimball’s voice.  Only this time he said, “How many of you here speak MTV?” At first I was kind of amused at the thought.  At first it seemed so incongruous to me that we would even try to preach the gospel in the language of MTV.  But then I thought, if that question were asked today, a handful of BYU film students could raise their hands at the back of the room and say, “Dude!  We totally speak that language!”

I’m talking, of course, about the intrepid band of filmmakers who produced Napoleon Dynamite.  That is a movie that has, literally, changed popular culture in America.  And a bunch of first-timers made it for a few hundred thousand dollars over a few weeks in a small town in Idaho.

MERIDIAN:  So, I gather you liked the movie?

MITCH:  I loved the movie, for what it was and for what it accomplished.  I’ve seen it a few times, and each time I see it I check out the audience.  It’s usually a mixture of young teen-agers and twenty-something hipsters.  I love watching the older ones, coming out of the theaters in their black clothes and body piercings, grinning from ear to ear.  And then you hear the younger kids, jabbering away in the lexicon of Napoleon Dynamite instead of doling out four letter words..

MERIDIAN:  Do you really think there is a way to preach the gospel in the language of MTV?

MITCH:  I think God has told us he speaks to men “in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.”  I think it’s a lot more of a stretch  for God to condescend to speak to us in our language than it is for us to condescend to speak to our teens in their language.  I don’t think God will be happy with those of us who are too arrogant to make the little reach when he has modeled the quantum leap for us.

MERIDIAN:  As you’ve noted, Napoleon Dynamite was made for a tiny budget.  How do you square that with your statements about the need for movies with bigger budgets?

MITCHNapoleon Dynamite broke completely new ground.  It was made and marketed brilliantly.  I think everything about it was an anomaly, and I think it would be unwise to make a business model out of it, particularly within the LDS niche.  Because Jared Hess and the other makers of that film successfully targeted the entire U.S. teen-age niche.  It would have been crazy for them to expend the same effort targeting only the LDS teen-age niche; a niche within a niche, so to speak.  So my advice about bigger budgets and bigger movies comes out of a desire for LDS movies to be produced which capture most or all of the LDS niche market, because it’s already a pretty small pie and I don’t think you want to slice it down into smaller pieces.  And you also want to begin capturing part of the cross over audience.

MERIDIAN:  So, Napoleon Dynamite changed the world?

MITCH:  Absolutely!  In a big way!  You tell me which religious, political or social leader in the last century could have succeeded in making it cool to say, “Gosh!” rather than using profanity.  This movie offers a kinder, gentler contrast to the stark, cruel world served up by most teen pop culture.  It is one facet of the kind of alternative culture I referred to earlier.  Cool but kind.  Cool but clean. 

MERIDIAN:  How should we expect the critics to respond to us?

MITCH:  I think we’re going to have to win the critics over.  I think we’re going to have to convince them we’re serious, that we have something to offer, and that we’re not trying to convert everybody with our movies.

MERIDIAN:  How do you propose winning the critics over?

MITCH:  That’s actually harder than it seems, particularly for LDS filmmakers making LDS-themed films.  Because the LDS audience gravitates toward warm, faith-affirming content, and critics usually gravitate toward darker, edgier material.  It is very difficult to serve both of those masters. 

The Other Side of Heaven, for instance, got slaughtered by critics on the east and west coasts.  Critics for the mainstream wire services and middle America treated it more kindly and the LDS audience loved it.  On the other hand, Richard Dutcher’s movie, Brigham City, was the LDS film that immediately preceded The Other Side of Heaven.  Critics on the east and west coasts praised that movie profusely, but a good part of the LDS audience wanted to tar and feather Richard Dutcher over it.

So it’s very, very difficult.  I don’t think we should make our movies to please the critics, especially if it means alienating our audience.  But if we make movies that are more considerate of the non-LDS audience, and if we make movies without a hidden agenda, the critics will come around.

MERIDIAN:  Last words?

MITCH:  I think the reality is that our culture is just now evolving to the point where it is being forced to confront certain realities it never had to confront before.  When we were a little church, safely ensconced in the Salt Lake valley, it seemed easier to do justice to the phrase, “in the world, but not of the world.” 

It is only going to become harder to figure out what those words mean as the world roams farther afield and we struggle to maintain our spiritual moorings without losing relevancy.  It is crucial that we figure out how to maintain that balance, and that we include popular culture in the equation. 

Because, when all is said and done, we will not be “in the world, but not of the world.”  We will be the world.