Big-Screen Religion

Jaelan Petrie roams London in
Jaelan Petrie roams London in "Piccadilly Cowboy," one of the films premiering at the LDS Film Festival. (Ford Films)
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 26, 2006

OREM, Utah -- Two thousand feet below the crowds of mainly New Yorkers and Californians filling theaters at the Sundance Film Festival, a large gathering of mostly locals in this Mormon-majority city spends a few days at the movies. Unlike Park City's Main Street, with its bars and boutiques rented by Intel and Volkswagen, this lower-elevation festival is centered on State Street, just down from the quilting store and the Curves gym, in a cheerful theater that, incidentally, has never shown an R-rated movie.

In Orem, there is no Justin Timberlake, and no paparazzi to trail him; you're more likely to find a cluster of teen girls keen for a glimpse of Kirby Heyborne, star of the movie "The R.M.," about a returned missionary trying to readjust.

Dark sunglasses and Ugg boots? Here it's BYU (Brigham Young University) sweatshirts and hand-knit sweaters. And rather than queuing at the clipboard for the Beastie Boys party, audiences shuffle out while the credits roll to get home to relieve their babysitters.

Organizers scheduled the LDS (Latter-day Saints) Film Festival to coincide with the deal-making Sundance festival. It's interesting timing in light of the question that some Mormon filmmakers are increasingly pondering: How do you make movies about Mormons or for Mormons that will also appeal to people beyond the Jell-O Belt (the self-referential term for Utah and Idaho, home to large Mormon families that consider the colorful gelatin a staple food for dinner and church socials)?

Perhaps no one knows the Jell-O Belt rut better than Kurt Hale and Dave Hunter, founders of Orem-based HaleStorm Entertainment. Sort of a Mormon version of the Farrelly brothers (although family-friendly Mormon films generally don't feature profanity, nudity and the like), the pair are famous within LDS circles for their lowbrow comedies. Their 2002 debut, "The Singles Ward," is about a Mormon man looking for love in a special congregation designed for matchmaking. Their dozen films since include "Sons of Provo," a mockumentary about a Mormon boy band called Everclean.

But they realize their easy-laugh, comedic formula is beginning to wear on many Mormon moviegoers, and that with all their insider jokes, they have a slim chance of finding much of an audience beyond Utah.

"The novelty factor has worn down quite a bit," Hale concedes. And so the two thirty-somethings from San Jose have a new plan: "We're calling it 'sanitizing' our films. We're taking the religion out of them," Hale explains to a room of 40 people during a preview of their newest film, "Church Ball." Instead of relying on easy Mormon digs, they are now trying to appeal to universal themes: "Broken-down athletes who are trying to relive their glory days. This is something that transcends religion -- Mormon, Islamic . . . everyone's going to love it," Hale says.

The pair have doubled their usual production budget to almost $1 million for "Church Ball," enabling them to cast better-known actors: Fred Willard ("Best in Show"), Andrew Wilson (brother of Luke and Owen) and Gary Coleman.

As part of the sanitizing, Hale and Hunter are building a new studio. And because HaleStorm has become synonymous with Mormon movies, they're taking a new name: Stone Five Studios. "We don't want the LDS baggage with us," Hale says, when they go to look for backing in Los Angeles. (They'll still produce Mormon films under the HaleStorm brand.)

Nearly 4,000 people turned out for the fifth annual LDS Film Festival this week, up from 2,800 last year. The increase is a testament to a growing community of Mormon independent filmmakers and the Mormon audiences who love them, or at least live with them, because Mormon cinema -- or Mollywood -- is better than the alternative.

"If Mormons will let other people tell their stories, they will end up with something very far from reality," said filmmaker Richard Dutcher. Case in point: The March HBO drama "Big Love," produced by Tom Hanks, about a fictional polygamist's family is just the latest piece of pop culture to focus on the religion's fundamentalist fringe.

It's not surprising that there should be a growing film presence within the Mormon community: Film has long been part of how the Mormon Church teaches and converts, explains Randy Astle, a film instructor at the Mormon-affiliated Brigham Young University. "Since the 1880s, missionaries were carrying around big, bulky magic lanterns with slides on glass" before film had been fully developed, he says.

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