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Lights, camera, gospel: A look at the pioneers of Mormon cinema

Published April 3, 2014 3:03 pm

Movie pioneers • Four figures inspired future LDS filmmakers.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Mormon cinema has had its ups and downs in the past 15 years — an early boom, followed by a glut of lesser-quality films that left audiences disenchanted.

In those years, though, some notable figures changed the movie landscape and inspired LDS filmmakers to tell their stories. Here are four of them:

Richard Dutcher

Why he matters • Dutcher launched the genre with his well-received 2000 missionary drama "God's Army." He followed that up with a murder mystery, "Brigham City," set in an LDS-dominated small town, showing Dutcher's determination to explore deeper issues of faith in daily life.

What happened • A proposed biopic of Mormon founder Joseph Smith never materialized. In fact, Dutcher later acknowledged, researching the script for that film led him to leave The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Now living in Salt Lake City, Dutcher continues to make movies, such as the horror thriller "Evil Angel" and a soon-to-be-released indie comedy, "The Boys at the Bar."

Interesting note • Dutcher engaged in a 12-day hunger strike in 2013 to call attention to a crowdfunding campaign for "The Boys at the Bar."

Kurt Hale

Why he matters • Hale launched the formula that sustained Mormon cinema for years: breezy comedy poking fun at LDS culture. He scored in 2002 with "The Singles Ward" and followed that with "The R.M.," "The Home Teachers" and "Church Ball."

What happened • Legal issues bogged down Hale's production company, Halestorm Entertainment, for several years. The company settled a lawsuit in 2010 about alleged budget problems with "Church Ball." Hale's last screen credit was writing the 2012 horror movie "Osombie," about a zombie Osama Bin Laden.

Interesting note • Hale gave early career boosts to actors Kirby Heyborne ("The Three Stooges") and Will Swenson (now playing Javert in a "Les Misérables" revival on Broadway).

Ryan Little

Why he matters • Little managed to balance the "Mormon" and the "cinema" parts of Mormon cinema with the acclaimed 2003 World War II drama "Saints and Soldiers."

What happened • Little's career has mixed made-in-Utah films, such as the 2008 rugby drama "Forever Strong," with commercial fare (for example, 2011's "Age of the Dragons," a fantasy take on "Moby-Dick" starring Danny Glover). He's also gone back to "Saints and Soldiers" with two sequels, "Airborne Creed" (2012) and "The Void" (due this summer).

Interesting note • Before they co-wrote "Napoleon Dynamite," Jared and Jerusha Hess worked on the crew of "Saints and Soldiers."

Larry H. Miller

Why he matters • Miller, the late auto magnate and Utah Jazz owner, got involved early in the Mormon cinema boom. He supported Dutcher's "States of Grace" and bankrolled three historical dramas based on Gerald N. Lund's "The Work and the Glory" novels.

What happened • Selling movies wasn't as predictable as selling cars, and Miller became disillusioned by film producing. He channeled his movie love into the Megaplex Theatres chain. Miller died in 2009.

Interesting note • The Miller family still operates the Megaplex Theatres, the go-to venue for filmmakers debuting Mormon-themed movies.

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