“Heaven Is For Real,” the story of a child’s near-death experience, is the latest major motion picture that shows that Hollywood may be getting the message that there is, in fact, a sizable audience for religious-themed entertainment. I find that encouraging, but it also leads me to wonder what happened to the boomlet of popular Latter-day Saint-themed films that came and went.
The market for Mormon movies is not what it once was in the early 2000s, and I’m worried that it’s all my fault.
Let me back up. Growing up as an LDS actor, I thought that our culture was too idiosyncratic and odd to hold any appeal to the world at large, and the Mormon community seemed too easily offended to accept any authentic depiction of what Mormons were really like. Such stories would have to include the flaws of the community as well as its strengths, and the Mormons I knew weren’t comfortable putting any of their dirty laundry on display.
Then “God’s Army” changed everything.
The movie about struggling LDS missionaries was released in 2000, and, while far from a perfect film, it presented a Mormon narrative that rang true to many of those who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a former real-life missionary, I recognized and identified with the struggles of these fictional ones. I was heartened by the idea that my church’s story could be told on a wider canvas.
“God’s Army” was followed by “The Singles Ward,” which, as the first major LDS comedy, demonstrated that Mormons had a sense of humor. Both of these films were extremely profitable and demonstrated that a market exists for entertainment targeted to my culture.
But things went downhill from there.
Kurt Hale, who directed “The Singles Ward” for his company Halestorm Entertainment, was my neighbor during all of this. One Sunday at church, he told me he was making a movie called “The Home Teachers,” which was a sort of Chris Farley/David Spade-esque buddy movie, except the Farley and Spade characters were Mormons. Kurt then graciously offered me a part.
“You’d play this total burnout guy, Jim,” he said. “You’re perfect for it.”
I took that as a compliment, and I showed up for three days to a house in Springville to portray Pat Mori, the first victim of the titular home teachers. The stars of the movie show up at my house, and they end up flooding my bathroom, falling through my ceiling and accidentally launching a roasted turkey out of my living room window. A good part of my time on set was figuring out how to plot the poultry’s trajectory through the shattered glass.
I can’t remember a time when I’ve had more fun. But, alas, audiences didn’t have much enthusiasm for my motion picture debut.
“The Home Teachers” was the third Halestorm movie in theaters, but it was the company’s first major bomb. The turkey proved to be a metaphor for the film’s box-office performance.
There have been quite a few Mormon movies released since them, but nothing like the wave that followed “God’s Army” and “The Singles Ward.” Some assume that the initial burst of interest was something of a fluke, and that there isn’t a viable Mormon market after all.
But I disagree. I think the hunger is still there but the novelty has worn off. At first, it was enough just to be a Mormon movie. But now, the movie has to actually be good. The audience will reward quality, but it will take better material to get them interested.
At least, I hope that’s true. The alternative is that once Jim Bennett showed up, the whole thing fell apart.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.