Latter-day Cinema: Like Everyone Else, Looking for the Next "Napolean Dynamite"
by S.T. VanAirsdale
From his office at Utah's HaleStorm Entertainment, Dave Hunter can look out the window at Sundance Canyon. Out there lies the snow-shrouded home of the Sundance Film Festival, the event that has long symbolized the evolution of American independent cinema from upstart novelty to industry player.
As an indie film producer, Hunter has made the short jaunt to the festival in past years. But even before Sundance 2005 opened last month, he admitted he would be pursuing other plans.
"We're not edgy, we're not pushing the envelope and we don't need distribution," Hunter said. "And it's just a clown show up there. We are the antithesis of the Hollywood type. We don't have black turtlenecks, we don't have nice cars. It's just not our crowd."
Hunter's "crowd" belongs instead to Utah's burgeoning Latter-day Saint film industry, in which HaleStorm and rival producer Excel Entertainment grapple for a share of a Mormon viewing audience comprising as many as five million Americans.
Since 2000, when LDS auteur Richard Dutcher scored a break-out hit with his film "God's Army," budgets and expectations have exploded among producers looking to expand the market. And last year's unprecedented crossover success of Jared Hess' "Napoleon Dynamite" -- a $400,000 film that earned more than $44 million at the box office -- indicated to many in the business that the mainstream will welcome a fresh cultural voice.
"I think there's something beginning to blow up here, whether with a pure crossover sensibility like 'Napoleon' or a little more specific to the Mormon audience," said Dean Hale, V.P. of film distribution at Excel Entertainment. "Here we sit in the red flyover states, and maybe we have a perspective that's a little bit different."
The perspective is easy enough to determine: The upsurge in LDS cinema favors the presentation of good-humored and family-friendly offerings like "Napoleon Dynamite" over a didactic approach to Mormon theology. Misconceived efforts such as 2003's "The Book of Mormon, Volume 1: The Journey," which recouped only half of its $2 million production budget in limited release, have been eschewed for micro-budget pictures like Scott Anderson's missionary slice-of-life "The Best Two Years," over which distributors Excel and HaleStorm engaged in what may have unofficially been Mormon cinema's first and only bidding war.
In the end, HaleStorm released the film to critical accolades from sources ranging from the hometown Salt Lake Tribune to Hollywood's industry bible Variety. Moreover, Hunter said, the film's success reinforced the leverage that allows for growth even in this niche market.
"We had a good reception," he said. "Now that we've blazed these inroads to theaters, we're hopefully going to be able to take some of these things that the outside world is going to want to see and start exploiting these markets."
That being said, HaleStorm's business model continues to allow only the most carefully calculated growth, typically including four or five annual releases with budgets not exceeding $500,000. Hunter considers his company's upcoming project, the $800,000 missionary caper "Suits on the Loose," as close to a Hollywood exercise as HaleStorm has yet taken on.
Compare HaleStorm's aesthetic to that of Excel Entertainment, whose $7.4 million period piece "The Work and the Glory" opened nationally Jan. 21 and represents the most expensive LDS film ever made. Based on a beloved series of historical novels by LDS author Gerald Lund, the project attracted the interest (and investment) of influential Mormon business leaders such as Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller.
The film has grossed more than $2 million nationally, doubling its take from last year's limited release in Utah. But faithfully adapting Lund's work demanded high-end art direction and costume design recalling upstate New York's Mormon communities of the early 19th century -- the cost of which Excel executives say may be impossible to recoup on its 100-screen wide release, considering both the film's narrow crossover appeal and Excel's limited marketing budget.
Excel CEO Jeff Simpson acknowledged the challenges his company faces in breaking even on "The Work and the Glory," but says he prefers not to view the enterprise as either a niche market experiment or gamble.
"I think it's more of a plan to make a big-budget film succeed in the market," Simpson said. "We're not trying to see if it will happen; we're trying to make it happen. Does that mean that every film that comes out should be a big-budget film? Absolutely not."
In contrast, Simpson invoked last year's Excel success story: Ryan Little's World War II saga "Saints and Soldiers." Little substituted present-day Alpine, Utah, for wintry wartime Belgium and featured Allied troops struggling with both the physical and spiritual toll of war. The film pulled in seven Best Picture honors at festivals including the San Diego Film Festival, the Sacramento Festival of Cinema and Indiana's Heartland Film Festival.
Simpson added he would love to pick up more films like "Saints and Soldiers," which he suggests have crossover ability to spare. He also mentioned that while he considers Little's film a success, he would like to have pursued an even greater crossover share during the film's 2004 theatrical run.
"I would like to entertain more people and have that reach be bigger," Simpson said. "But each film is different. Each film should be its best version of what it can be. Because it didn't cross over doesn't make it a failure. I think what you learn from one benefits the other."
Simpson and Hale represented Excel at this year's Sundance Festival, prowling perhaps for the next "Napoleon Dynamite" or another unheralded crossover candidate. Hale said he has his eye on Greg Whiteley's documentary "New York Doll," about the late punk bassist (and converted Mormon) Arthur "Killer" Kane. Hale would not comment, however, about the status of distribution negotiations between Excel and Whiteley.
For his part, Dave Hunter says HaleStorm will probably return to Sundance in 2006 with some of the resources from its nascent $30 million acquisitions arm. But he emphasized that despite his love for HaleStorm's loyal Mormon audience, 2005 is the year the company must carry its family-friendly message into new professional territory -- crossover or otherwise.
"This is the year," Hunter said. "Our company is at the crossroads. In this Mormon market, we have done all we can possibly do. We have essentially captured the entire market, and this is it. Now it's time to go fry a bigger fish."