- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 30, 2005

OREM, Utah - After almost five years of making movies for Mormons, the group of filmmakers who were part of the genre’s most prolific production studio are branching out with projects that leave the church jokes behind with the hopes of engaging a broader audience.

And they want to do it in their own back yard. Could Utah become a “Mollywood” of sorts — a family focused, film-making Mecca that still caters to Molly Mormons, the nickname given to those who embrace the faith’s clean-cut morality?

If filmmaker Richard Dutcher started it all with “God’s Army,” his 2000 film about missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Los Angeles, Dave Hunter and Kurt Hale perfected it. The two formed Halestorm Entertainment in 2001 and went on to release a string of movies over the last four years, mostly comedies, aimed exclusively at a Mormon audience.

Members of the LDS church are discouraged from watching R-rated films.

Halestorm’s films are made with small budgets that are easily reclaimed by screening in states such as Utah, Arizona and Idaho, where a significant number of the population belongs to the Mormon church. DVD sales of the movies are where the filmmakers make their money, they said.

While Mr. Hale says the niche possibilities are endless — “there are three or four great stories on my desk right now … a Mormon horror comedy, a Mormon musical” — Messrs. Hunter and Hale are ready to develop a broader, commercial base and maybe turn Utah into a wholesome Hollywood along the way.

Their company has gotten the attention of motion picture industry insiders by shooting films for $400,000 to $500,000 and making double or triple that back. But that seems to be the ceiling.

The company also has been an incubator for other filmmakers, including Jared Hess, who had a breakaway hit in “Napoleon Dynamite” last year.

“We’re done engaging the Mormon audience,” Mr. Hunter said. Added Mr. Hale: “There [are] just not enough Mormons.”

Early next year, Halestorm plans to move into a $5 million production studio with 46,000 square feet of space that will house all of its offices, production and distribution, as well as two large sound stages.

“We’ll be able to do a film from beginning to end in the studio,” Mr. Hunter said.

They hope the studio, combined with Utah’s unique geography, will draw one big outside production each year. Within an hour of the studio, a crew could be filming on desolate salt flats, sand dunes, mountains or dense forests, and just a three-hour drive away is Utah’s red rock country.

While Halestorm will remain true to its family-friendly ethic, it won’t monitor what other film producers want to do.

“To have a censor board to read scripts and approve productions, that would not only be damaging to us, it would be damaging to the state of Utah,” Mr. Hunter said.

Marketing to the Mormon niche has boomed recently, providing the devout with ample entertainment focused on their faith, including “The Work and the Glory” trilogy bankrolled in part by Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller. Its second installment had a nationwide release last weekend.

A sampling of plots from Halestorm movies include a romantic comedy set in a singles’ congregation of the church, the trials and tribulations of a young man back from his two-year proselytizing mission and a spoof about a fictional Mormon boy band.

Halestorm begins its foray into the mainstream with the upcoming release “Church Ball,” a farce about how viciously competitive Mormon church basketball leagues can be. It has a more recognizable cast, including Fred Willard and Gary Coleman, and the religious denomination of the church players is obscured.

Halestorm deserves a lot of credit for finding and developing a niche market, said Jason E. Squire, an instructor of cinema practice at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television.

He said such films as “Napoleon Dynamite” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” are examples of how to break out of that niche while trying to maintain a certain ethic.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of movie it is. What matters is capturing the audience’s imagination,” he said.

Utah lawmakers are considering increasing incentives to entice more production companies.

Mormon-genre films have made their mark on the Utah Film Commission’s revenues, bringing in $500,000 in 2001 and more than $2 million last year, said commission director Aaron Syrett. But that’s still a fraction of the more than $60 million the commission sees annually from filming in the state.

Mark DeCarlo, the host of the Travel Channel’s “Taste of America” program and the star of Halestorm’s current release “Mobsters and Mormons,” said he enjoyed working in Utah and was charmed by the “good, honest people” he met on the set. But to lure more productions, local filmmakers need to have a more Hollywood-like professionalism, he said.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide