Meet the Mormons opens October 10, beginning in approximately 200 theaters. Opening weekend and first-week sales will largely determine how much farther the movie penetrates the market. You can help by attending the movie the first week. You can request the movie to come to your area by clicking on the website: meetthemormons.com This is one way to do your part to hasten the work.
It’s such a bold move when you think about it. We give away copies of the Book of Mormon for free. We put hours and hours of videos about the gospel and about Latter-day Saints for free on the Internet. But now, we are going to put a full feature-length film called Meet the Mormons in the theaters right up against Hollywood’s blockbusters and expect people to pay to get acquainted with us.
What’s surprising is that according to numerous focus groups the Church has conducted to determine how people who aren’t members of our faith respond to the film, they probably will do just that and buy tickets. In focus groups conducted from California to Connecticut, people, who were not LDS, saw this film and loved it. 74% of them said they would recommend it to a friend.
“We were stunned. We were shocked at those numbers,” said director Blair Treu. “When we took the data back to the Brethren, they said we shouldn’t restrict this. We need to get the story out in a very broad way.”
Those were such surprising results, the Church changed its original plans for the film. According to producer Jeff Roberts, the idea for the film began when a small group of executive producers at the Church were kicking around ideas for a replacement movie for the Legacy Theater at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.
These films had mostly been narrative, but they asked themselves, what about doing a documentary that could help dispel common misconceptions about the Church while at the same time being entertaining in a sometimes self-deprecating way?
The goal was not to proselytize, but to introduce people to what makes Latter-day Saints tick. It seemed to work. Treu said, “These people of other religious persuasions in the focus groups didn’t feel like they were being preached to or proselytized. It is a fun, entertaining film that shows us for who we are. We don’t consider ourselves perfect or better than anybody else. We just wanted to tell the authentic stories of people who are trying to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and whose goodness shines a light on everyday life.”
The challenge became to find six stories of Latter-day Saints to tell. It wasn’t that there were too few. There were too many remarkable stories.
Treu said, “We were not after celebrity. We wanted each one to have a Mormon next-door quality. Yes, among them is Ken Niumatolo, the Head Football Coach of the U.S. Naval Academy, but when you drill down to his story, there’s something that is absolutely ordinary and typically Mormon about him. His calling to teach 10-year olds in Primary is as much a part of him as coaching hefty football players.” The film takes us to both scenes as this coach refuses to have football meetings on Sunday.
The Church gave Treu and Roberts complete creative freedom, and they began scouring church wide for stories to tell, asking local leaders, following up on newspaper stories looking for those six stories they wanted to tell. Treu said, “It was anything but scientific. We used everybody and all available networks.” In all they considered about 200 people and their stories, but in the end “we were just led to the people we chose”.
For instance, Treu is a pilot, and one time he looked out the window and saw a man in a flight suit. He had a gut feeling he should go talk to him. The man in the flight suit just happened to be Gayle Halvorsen, the candy bomber from the Berlin Airlift Days who dropped candy tied to white parachutes to children who had very little that was sweet in their lives. His kindness caught worldwide attention and is just as moving today as the story is told in the new film.
In another instance, Roberts came upon an article featuring a humanitarian in Nepal named Bishnu Adikari who does significant work with the extreme poor. Roberts didn’t think Nepal had any Latter-day Saints, but he just felt that somehow this man was a member. The film takes us to the mountains of Nepal to meet Bishnu as he dedicates his entire life to lifting his people.
According to the focus groups, one of the most moving segments of Meet the Mormons, was ironically, the section about Dawn Armstrong. Ironic, because though the film is not meant to proselytize, if it edges that way anywhere, it is in this story.
Dawn was a struggling single mother who had given birth at 16. She had hit rock bottom when she met the Mormon missionaries. In the teachings of the gospel she realized that God really did remember her and care for her. Now, her son is older and we watch her prepare to send him on a mission.
Anyone of another religious group who sees the tenderness of these scenes would have a hard time treating a missionary harshly again. Suddenly those boys in the black suits with the black badges take on humanity.
Viewers who don’t know Latter-day Saints and have mostly taken their image of us from the media may be surprised to meet Bishop Jermaine Sullivan of Atlanta. He may shatter stereotypes of what it means to be a Mormon bishop—not just because of his ethnicity, but because instead of being a full-time bishop he has a full-time job as an academic counselor.
Finally, Carolina Munoz Marin’s story certainly dispels stereotypes of what a Mormon woman is. She has fought her way to the top of amateur kickboxing in Costa Rica, while, with her husband, runs a charity in Costa Rica to help the poor.
Whether they were LDS or not, these people shine. They are good. They are human. They are real. As a viewer, you’d like to sit up a little taller just watching them.
Best of all, their stories are moving. We were joking as we entered the press preview that the Church should have provided free popcorn for the screening. As we left, we changed that to, it would have been helpful to have free Kleenix.
How do Treu and Roberts feel with that October 10 opening speeding up so quickly? Roberts said, “I have zero fear that people will like the film. What I am concerned is if they will go that first weekend. How it is attended that opening weekend will determine how far it will go. Treu said, “They hope people will see the universality and authenticity of the message.”.
Does this the premiere of Meet the Mormons mean that now the Church is in the movie business? No. All of the proceeds from the film go to the American Red Cross.
If people who don’t know us say, “I don’t want to see the movie, I’d rather read the book,” we wouldn’t mind that either.