Richard Dutcher and I agree that LDS cinema is in crisis. But we disagree about the reasons, and I personally believe that his approach to filmmaking is a big part of the problem.
Recently I sat on a panel of LDS filmmakers at the annual LDS booksellers' convention. I'm generally known as a fiction author ("Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites," etc.) but was invited as the writer/director of the new LDS-genre feature film, "Passage to Zarahemla." Other panelists included representatives from Halestorm, Candlelight, Excel and Lightstone.
The fieriest issues were ignited by the "father" of LDS cinema, Richard Dutcher. I consider Richard a very talented filmmaker. He understands the whole package storytelling, acting, editing, promotion. But we differ dramatically in our view of LDS film, its flaws and its future.
His volatile opening words to booksellers were, "I don't make movies for you." He later tried to explain this in softer terms, but the lingering sentiment was, "I make movies for myself, and if you don't like them, I don't care!" Many artists proclaim this; but don't trust them. We care deeply about what others think or we'd never express such passionate opinions at film panels.
Dutcher still seems to be nursing a grudge against the LDS community for not supporting "God's Army 2: States of Grace." Like most Latter-day Saints, I haven't seen this film. I've heard it's well crafted, well acted, well directed and inherently offensive to most church members. But instead of blaming himself, Dutcher blames its failure upon fellow LDS filmmakers for "poisoning the pond" with a rash of recent bad films, or he blames the LDS people themselves for not recognizing great art when it's dropped in their lap.
Dutcher's overall message was that LDS cinema, and even LDS culture, was in crisis for its lack of courageous vision. Such sentiments from an artist have always bothered me. I make my living as a storyteller and have done so for 17 years. Nevertheless, few careers in our culture seem more expendable than that of LDS fiction author or filmmaker. Making films, writing stories or producing art for Mormons is a precious honor in my view. The market owes me nothing. I owe it everything. I am its servant, not the other way around.
I believe many Latter-day Saints rejected Dutcher's last two films because they found them patronizing and elitist. And storytellers who seek to "awaken" the LDS people from their stupor of ignorance are almost always relegated to insignificance. By spurning the sentiments or intelligence of their audience, I believe the "fathers" of LDS cinema have done as much to destroy their creation as they've done to give it birth.
An equal amount of blame must be placed upon LDS cinema's "co-founders" Halestorm Entertainment. Lately their in-house films have been dramatically lower in quality.
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But whoever is to blame, it's not filmgoers. We were so lucky in the beginning. Movies like "God's Army," "Charly," "Singles Ward," "The Best Two Years" and "Saints and Soldiers" were extraordinary films for their budgets.
Now, filmmakers are faced with the difficult task of reconverting a tainted audience. It remains to be seen if my movie will be a shining gem or another "forgettable." But after the smoke in LDS cinema clears, I believe the moral will be that our movies should celebrate our doctrines and focus upon who we are as a people. We should abandon the notion of "crossover."
Chris Heimerdinger is the author of more than a dozen novels, including "Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites."