As the predicted hordes of locals flock to theaters this week cash in hand to catch the latest movie geared toward members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, marketing gurus who hope to capitalize on a burgeoning thirst for all things LDS will be watching carefully.
"The Work and the Glory," a $7.4 million movie adaptation of author Gerald Lund's best-selling series of LDS historical fiction, has been widely touted ever since Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller announced months ago that he would fund the project. Believed to be the most expensive LDS film ever produced for a general audience, Miller told the Deseret Morning News if he is able to at least break even he will probably consider production of up to five sequels in order to do justice to Lund's nine-volume series.
The books chronicle the story of the fictional Steed family, using the backdrop of 19th century LDS history as the setting for their conversion to the fledgling faith and their migration West with the Latter-day Saints. The story line fleshes out the details not only of their daily lives but of the places and events that some 12 million Latter-day Saints the world over have come to revere as sacred.
Miller sees the film as "more than just an LDS story. It's a love story on the frontier and happens to take place in an LDS setting. People won't come away feeling LDS values were jammed down their throat, but then I'm like a dad talking about his kids."
The film, produced by Excel Entertainment, will be the first to be released by Deseret Book since its merger with Excel last week.
Excel president Jeff Simpson, who is now executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Deseret Book, will oversee product development under the company's Shadow Mountain label which targets both LDS and secular audiences.
That desire to find a "crossover audience" is becoming more common as LDS filmmakers and other artists find commercial success. The coveted status is represented in a new version of the national best-selling series of Chicken Soup books, the newest of which will be "Chicken Soup for the Latter-day Saint Soul," according to Salt Lake advertising executive Peg Fugal.
She is seeking short stories to be e-mailed by the end of the month to her at firstname.lastname@example.org to appear in the book after being approached by one of the series' original authors. The 90 titles in the Chicken Soup series have sold more than 90 million copies, and Hansen was convinced the time had come for an LDS version.
Aside from financial incentives, the quest to produce meaningful art for a wider market comes in part, Miller believes, from a sermon delivered more than 20 years ago by then-LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball, who asked church members to perfect their skills in order to produce great masterpieces of all kinds that would be recognized by the world at large.
"In talking to people who want me to invest or use me as a sounding board, I've seen that speech in four or five day planners. I'm motivated by what President Kimball said, but it's almost like it has become canonized to the LDS artists."
As more filmmakers enter the fray, some have wondered what the result will be in terms of quality. Miller said while the film's storyline virtually ensures that viewers will feel that LDS history has been dealt with respectfully, marketing to Latter-day Saints can become dicey when there is a fine line between the sacred and the secular.
Fugal said LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley's ability to laugh and his encouragement for members to lose a "holier than thou" attitude may have something to do with a growing acceptance among Latter-day Saints of self-deprecating humor in movies and books geared to them.
"I love people who are confident enough in themselves that they can laugh at themselves. I think that's evolved only in the past couple of years we're confident" in unprecedented ways, she said, in large measure owing to the success of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. "We had negative press for so long," yet during the Olympics, much of the national and international media was saying, "rah, rah, Mormons," Fugal said.
But Gary Rhoads, a professor of marketing at Brigham Young University, doesn't believe Latter-day Saints can laugh at themselves very well.
"Sometimes, particularly I think in Utah County, we're just so serious we don't let our hair down. I think it goes back to a strong cultural value that being light-minded is not looked upon favorably."
He cited the recent flap on campus over T-shirts that read "I Can't. . . . I'm Mormon." Though Rhoads and some of his students found it funny, managers of the campus newspaper pulled an advertisement for the shirts after numerous complaints that it was offensive. Some felt the slogan implied wearers wished they could drink, smoke or have casual sex but were prevented only because they are Latter-day Saints.
Marketers don't have a clearly demarcated line for what is acceptable and what isn't, he said, and marketers will no doubt continue to push in order to find it.
The same may be true for commercial products that some may see as exploitative.
KSL Radio has recently been airing ads for maple syrup from Vermont, dubbed "Land of Joseph Pure Maple Syrup" because LDS Church founder Joseph Smith was born in Vermont. The Web site for the syrup, www.timesandseasons.net, adds that the prophet's family made maple syrup and that he probably received his First Vision during the maple syrup harvest.
The bicentennial of the church founder's birth next December will likely provide an incubator for other products seeking a link to him or his birth and the planned churchwide celebrations and scholarly events surrounding it.
Yet Rhoads maintains that such regional marketing is the latest trend and that an Angel Moroni replica being sold at Wal-Mart shows that the giant retailer is realizing there is a niche market in Utah.
Are such endeavors simply cashing in on LDS theology?
The question "assumes that developing products for the LDS community is a bad thing and I can't see where that is ever the case," Rhoads said. "They vote with their dollars. If you launch a product and they vote your way, that was a good thing. It shows there was a need in the market and you filled it."
Some take it a step further, attaching religious significance to such dealings.
One Web site, www.buildingthekingdom.com, boasts that philosophy, offering a virtual marketplace for LDS businesses to list their services so other church members can find them.
It says those who organized the site "feel that when Latter-Day Saints support each other in our individual professions, we really are helping to further the work of the Lord. Did you ever stop to think that by hiring an LDS plumber, you're helping his son to serve a mission in Russia? . . . Every time we support a faithful LDS businessperson we help build chapels and temples throughout the world."
That combination of tight-knit community, well-defined values and trust in other Latter-day Saints also provides what state and local officials have come to know is a steady pool of locals who become victims of con artists who exploit relationships with fellow church members to get them to invest in bogus ventures, Rhoads said."There's a reason they start in Utah."