If Mormon Cinema isn't dead, it's seriously ill.
"Mormon Cinema in general, I think it's done," said filmmaker Richard Dutcher, whose "God's Army" started the genre in 2000. Audiences "don't trust LDS films anymore. After they've gone and spent $7.50 on a ticket four times and seen poor quality work, the audience has really lost faith."
Dutcher's assessment comes as another LDS film company, HaleStorm Entertainment, today releases what it bills as potentially its last Mormon comedy - and its first nondenominational film - "Church Ball."
"The earlier films enjoyed a novelty," said Kurt Hale, HaleStorm's co-founder and the director of "The Singles Ward" and "Church Ball." "It was new, and, hey, that's us - you should go see it."
Scott Swofford, the producer of the LDS-historical "Work and the Glory" movies, agreed that it's "not enough just to be Mormon anymore. . . . Those films had better compete with whatever's out there."
Box-office statistics show audiences, primarily in Utah, largely have given up on seeing homegrown LDS-themed movies in theaters.
Of 19 major Mormon Cinema titles released in the past six years, only nine made more than $1 million at the box office. Some of those, such as the Larry H. Miller-bankrolled
"Work and the Glory" films and the missionary drama "The Other Side of Heaven," failed to earn enough at the box office to cover production costs.
Swofford said Miller "has got over $20 million invested, and it's going to be a long time before he'll make back even half of that." (The third "Work and the Glory" movie is slated for a November release.)
And many films in the past year or two - such as the HaleStorm-distributed comedies "Sons of Provo," "Mobsters and Mormons" and "Suits on the Loose" - have failed to draw an audience.
"If anybody's saturated the market, it's been us," Hale said. "There are no home runs in this genre."
But, in Dutcher's view, it's not just the number of LDS-themed movies that are choking Mormon Cinema, it's the quality - or the lack of it.
When "God's Army," a missionary drama made for $250,000, made more than $2.6 million at the box office, Dutcher envisioned an opening for other Mormon filmmakers to tell their stories. Instead, he saw "an avalanche of mediocrity."
"I feel like I built this pool, and I thought, 'Hey, let's all have this party.' And everybody came over and said, 'Hey, that's a really cool pool,' and they all jumped in and started peeing in it," Dutcher said. "And the people who peed in it are now saying, 'We don't want to swim in that pool anymore because there's pee in it.' "
Dutcher reserves his harshest criticism for HaleStorm's product. "They've absolutely destroyed the LDS market," he said. "They're seriously not trying to make good ones, and making excuses for why their movies aren't good."
Hale shrugs off Dutcher's criticisms, preferring to focus on HaleStorm's efforts to move from strictly LDS-themed movies to more mainstream comedies. "Church Ball" starts in that direction, as Hale removed the script's overtly Mormon references and cast such familiar Hollywood faces as comedian Fred Willard, character actor Clint Howard and former child star Gary Coleman.
Hale and company co-founder Dave Hunter are branching out with a new company, Stone Five, which is slated to make and distribute five low-budget movies for non-LDS audiences. HaleStorm will continue to sell DVDs of its LDS titles, and Hale said he may produce a direct-to-video sequel of "The Singles Ward," which four years later is still the company's most asked-about title.
DVD sales may be where some Mormon Cinema films make some of their money back. Swofford recently struck a deal with Paramount's home-video unit for the second "Work and the Glory" film. "Paramount has come to the conclusion that there's a niche market here, and it should be served," Swofford said.
Dutcher is editing his most recent movie, "Falling," which has LDS themes. But he has disavowed the Mormon Cinema movement he started.
"Mormon filmmakers have turned Mormon Cinema into a joke," Dutcher said. "I used to be very proud to call myself a Mormon filmmaker. But, because of what has happened over the last five years, I get as much or less respect calling myself a Mormon filmmaker as if I called myself a pornographer."