Mormons in Hollywood

brighamcityThe New York Times had an interesting article on the LDS Church’s relationship with Hollywood, and how they’re making inroads:

The typical B.Y.U. student doesn’t seem like a natural fit for Hollywood. Mormon culture tends to see the entertainment industry as both a reflection of and contributor to our “morally bereft society,” as one alumnus put it. Many of the students I met rarely, if ever, watch R-rated films and could name the handful of exceptions they had made. One 27-year-old junior remembered seeing the Civil War drama “Glory” in high school. Another was working part time at a company in Salt Lake City that cleaned up Hollywood films and released family-friendly versions on DVD. Recently, the student told me, he digitally replaced a cigarette in a character’s hand with a pretzel.

The B.Y.U. program is designed to be a similar kind of ethical counterweight: it’s trying to unleash values-oriented filmmakers into the industry who can inflect its sensibility. “Without being preachy about it,” Adams told me, “if we can add something to the culture that makes people think about being better human beings — more productive, more kind, more forgiving — that’s what we want to do.”

That’s really a smart thing on the part of BYU (and, by extension, The Church). It’s part of a larger thing, which I’ll get to in a minute, but entertainment is a great example of using institutions to further not just the religion, but the culture the religion stands behind. The same extends to any cultural movement, really.

It’s noteworthy that this project isn’t about making movies by Mormons for Mormons. It’s Mormons influencing films for mass consumption.

There is actually a cottage industry for Mormon-to-Mormon entertainment. I was introduced to it when I lived in Deseret. I was, by and large, unimpressed. But then, why would I be? I’m not the target audience. I am not particularly religious. Though I share concern about sex in entertainment, I like a lot of the dark and morally complex stuff that is anathema to a lot of Mormon entertainment. But… I do like a fair number of “family” movies. I can imagine a lot of movies from the Book of Mormon that would interest me[1].

Richard Dutcher’s Brigham City walked the line pretty nicely. On the face of it, it’s a movie about a Utah town[2] that is faced with a serial killer. Mormonism plays a role in the film, but it manages to place it in a context that is engaging for gentiles. The movie did not have all that much success because it was tagged “an LDS film” and was an indy film to boot, but as a blueprint for introducing the faith and worldview[3] without overwhelming people who are not particularly interested in seeing “a Mormon movie.”

Aside from the LDS Church itself, this is something that conservatives in general should take to heart. The LDS Church, of course, has BYU and conservatism is not top-down enough to have much in the way of formal institutional support. But interested parties can invest in Liberty University’s film school. Those Catholic colleges that are still actually Catholic colleges can improve. This should be more of a priority than it has been[4], and shifting in this effort could easily pay dividends.

If you want to reach minds, create art. The best way to do that is to create artists and cultivate their works.

I found this by way of Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, who wonders why the Catholics don’t have their own BYU.

[1] Though, for non-Mormon audiences, it might be better to put a bit of a veil over it to allow for more creativity and be a little less off-putting to those people uninterested in attending a 90-minute sermon. (Note: it won’t work if it’s a 90-minute sermon, veiled or not.) Not as thick a veil as Battlestar Galactica, necessarily, but I’d guess there would be some reluctance within the church to get too fictional while purporting to be a reflection of a work from God.

[2] The City of Brigham, not Brigham City which you can find on a map. I know this because not a single person in the movie complains or comments about the terrible, terrible odor from that town. Oh, plus the county name is different.

[3] Not all of which was flattering. There is a scene where hero sheriff goes house-to-house. The words “search warrant” are not mentioned. And yet that was not entirely incredible, as I am not sure who, in a town full of Mormons, would actually demand the sheriff (who is also the local bishop) produce a search warrant. And non-Mormons would be outnumbered.

[4] Bitching and moaning about popular culture doesn’t actually constitute making it a priority.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. Here’s part of a comment I made on this post at Hit Coffee (edited):

    Something I find interesting about my own reaction to your blog post is that I kind of look forward to the type of LDS-inflected entertainment you describe, even though I’m far from ever being a Mormon. But I would be very skeptical, at least as a knee-jerk reaction, of a similar project from Liberty University.

        • Jaybird must die. There is no excuse, ever, for mentioning the unmentionable.

      • That said, there are a lot of reasons to be afraid (very afraid) of these types of movies.

        Not only is there going to be a Hays Code kinda thing going on (but one that will out-Hays Hays), there will be wish-fulfillment galore.

        It won’t be enough for the Christians to finally get a UHF Station license and broadcast Good Christian Programming into our little town, the UHF Station will have to become the most popular station on the dial. And then the bad guy will take the UHF Station over and give an on-camera rant about how he’s going to bring back *ENTERTAINMENT*… and then the television station’s ratings will bottom out overnight! And he’ll beg! *BEG*!!! the Christians to come back! But they won’t! And he goes bankrupt! And they get the UHF Station for pennies on the dollar!!!! Ah ha ha! Ah ha ha ha!

        Where was I?

        Oh, yes. People hate Wesley Crusher no matter where he shows up.

        • (By way of comparison, the Mormon movie I saw (Best Two Years) had the missionary get dumped by his girlfriend because she started dating a missionary who just got back from his mission, he hadn’t converted anybody since he got there, and was essentially having a huge crisis of faith. Spoilers: at the end of the movie, he converts *ONE* guy. This is portrayed as a *HUGE* victory that makes up for every single trial and tribulation he went through over those two years. Christian movies aren’t anywhere near that subtle… they’d convert the entire town, we’d see Jesus come back, and bad people be poked with pitchforks over the closing credits.)

        • I don’t quite get most of these references, except the Wesley Crusher one, and even then I suspect I’m missing something.

          • The movie I described is more or less a movie I saw in the 80’s. It was a story of a bunch of Christians who got their hands on a UHF station and it became the most popular station in town because it played wholesome entertainment rather than trash.

            The bad guy wrestled the station away from the Christians and gave an on-air rant about bringing back REAL ENTERTAINMENT… and the station went bankrupt because everyone turned their televisions off. The Christians got the station back and everyone was happy.

            This is, seriously, the plot of the movie.

            I honestly wonder if Weird Al saw it and said “with a little tweaking…” before he made UHF.

            Wesley Crusher is usually hated because he’s considered the ultimate “Gary Stu”. Gary Stu is the male version of Mary Sue, who is the quintessential character written into a fanfic that is obviously a proxy of the author. The youngest to ever graduate Starfleet, placed on the Enterprise, upstages Scotty, upstages Bones, upstages Kirk, has a whirlwind romance with Spock. This character is usually despised upon sight and is recognizable from a million miles away.

            Thief in the Night is one of the MOST FREAKIN AWESOME Christian movies ever made. It’s a horror flick, it focuses on post-rapture persecution of the folks who turned to Christianity after they had been left behind. Guillotines. Seriously, if you’ve never caught it, you could do a lot worse if you’re drinkin’. (It’s on the youtube.)

        • People hate Wesley Crusher no matter where he shows up.

          Just to specify: Wesley Crusher, not Wil Wheaton, right?

          • From what I understand, Wil Wheaton is so awesome that he understands why people hated Wesley Crusher.

          • I recall Wil Wheaton talking about the movie galaxy quest, and how he would have literally begged to be cast as a bit role in the crowd solely to yell “CHILDREN DON’T BELONG ON STARSHIPS!” at the crew whenever the guy playing the former child actor came on stage.

          • yes wil wheaton gets the problems with crusher. He has a great sense of humor about it and can pick out all the flaws in the character and even with his own performance. he used to review TNG episodes on his site. They were a riot since he is funny, told some good stories, digs ST and can laugh at himself.

  2. As a theatre director and general art fan, and also possibly as a Jewish person, I had a very strong and visceral negative reaction to the sections of the articles where the students and faculty were complaining/scared of darkness, moral complexity and such in art. Also the section where they talked about cleaning up films for Mormon audiences.

    This is not the first time I’ve seen complaints about how entertainment and art can be dark and messy and it will not be the last but it perplexes me. Milan Kundera defined kitsch as being “the absolute denial of shit” and this sort of stuff always seems to fit strongly within that definition.

    Life is hard and often life can involve very bad things happening to good and decent people with a lot of horrible timing. Shakespeare was right when he had Hamlet rail against the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” You can’t be a good artist if you deny this and try to hide it. This is not to say that art can’t be light or all of life is misery but a good artist needs to be exposed to the wide-variety of the human experience. They seemed so panicked at anything dark especially the presentation by the young woman at the end. The reaction was so visceral.

    What often perplexes me about Mormonism and other forms of Christian evangelical-fundamentalism is the constant need to focus on absolute sunniness. Don’t they read Job? A lot of Judaism is about wrestling with the pain and suffering of life that seems to happen to everyone. We don’t run from these facts, we embrace them, debate them, and fight them:

    Of course Jewish history might help explain this.

    • I agree that good art or good literature involves–perhaps requires–looking at complexity, at the dark as well as the light (bad things happening to good people, bad people doing good things, good people doing bad things).

      I don’t think I agree as an empirical matter that Christian evangelicals evince a “constant” need to focus on “absolute sunniness.” Perhaps more of them do than other groups of people (but I’m not quite sure on that score, either, only allowing that it might be a possibility).

      • I should just clarify that I see and agree with your larger point. I think it’s important to examine the messiness of life and not focus only on the good or the enjoyable or “the sunny.”

    • While I don’t disagree, there are two sides to this point. Entertainment often confuses gritty for realistic, sex and violence for maturity, and depressing for depth. I think some degree of pushback to this is proper and right. For years Hollywood-types peddled the line that sex sells and don’t blame them blame the consumers, while short-siding a huge market for family and family-friendly entertainment (stuff that’s also entertaining to adults, even!).

      I have at least some skepticism towards overly-sunny entertainment. I like some of it, but I like a lot of the other stuff, too. It’s only recently that the upbeat stuff has actually started to become good (family-friendly movies that are also adult-friendly). Efforts to make this stuff better is great. So while I don’t support Bibleman, I can definitely support other projects.

      I don’t know that there is actually a rule that the Christian or Mormon stuff has to be sunny. I think the preference for that is rooted in opposition to the ubiquitous other stuff. It’s an oasis, of sorts. I’m sympathetic to that.

      • I think there is a valid debate about why entertainment seems to confuse gritty for realistic, sex and violence for maturity, and depressing for depth. But the counterargument is not found in the films as described in the article as projects of the BYU animation studio. Nor does it seem to be what the people in the program are describing:

        “At first, I struggled to understand the specifics of that mission. Everyone talked about wanting to make “clean movies” or “movies I wouldn’t be afraid to take my mother to,” but these phrases were shibboleths, loaded and tough to pin down. It wasn’t simply a matter of avoiding sex and violence. (A few times, I heard even “Shrek” described disapprovingly: too many fart jokes, too much cynicism.) There was, instead, a fixation on whether you walked away from the movie feeling uplifted. That question superseded everything, even the usual genre and age-demographic lines. A senior, Megan Lloyd, told me: “I just saw ‘The Dark Knight.’ It was wonderful, but it’s just so dark. I didn’t feel better about myself after I saw it. Instead, I felt like, I’m a horrible human being — like all human beings are. Now,” she went on, nearly in the same breath, “contrast that with a film like ‘Wreck-It Ralph.’ That teaches you: Hey, you can be a better person. Here’s how!”

        “The conversation became scattered and confusing. There was technical resistance to the project but also, it seemed, emotional resistance that masqueraded as technical resistance. Parris Egbert, the head of the university’s computer-science department, told me: “From a C.S. perspective, I hated ‘Bothered.’ I don’t like it. I dislike it.” But when I asked him why, he said, “It’s just too weird for me,” a critique that was not computer-science-based at all. At one point, Skyles tried to speak and started crying instead.”

        We all very telling. When I think mature and adult films, I often don’t think of American cinema. I think what the Europeans and Asians are doing or did for the post-WWII period. My favorite living filmmaker is a Japanese man named Kore-eda Hirokazu. The first film I saw by him is called “After Life” in English. It takes place at what looks like a dilapidated boarding house in the middle of winter. The recently dead (of all ages) are told that they have seven days to pick one memory from their life. You then see people of all ages aided/interviewed by a crew about their lives. The whole thing is done a very verite style. The memories are then filmed in a very low-tech way that works as a homage to filmmaking. Not everyone picks a happy memory. Many people pick memories tinged by sorrow or bitersweetness.

        The film is compassionate ans serious and embraces the full view of humanity. I don’t think the kids described above would like it.

        My version of serious tends to be very anti-spectacle and special effects. The films described in the article might be uplifting but are too sweet.

        • Well, if your point is that all movies don’t need to be uplifting, I’d very much agree. I’m not sure that they would disagree. Or maybe they would. Rather, I think they see – and I am inclined to agree – that too many movies are in the other direction. Not enough uplifting movies are being made. Which, if you don’t like uplifting movies, you’d disagree. I think that’s mostly a matter of taste.

          But I think the trend in family entertainment has been fantastic. No, they’re not the kind of movies you’re going to go to a coffeehouse afterwards and talk about for hours and hours. But they’re significant. Just as not every movie should be uplifting and light, nor should every movie try to capture the sobriety of existence.

          Anyhow, the quote is from one person, and the BYU project angled towards a particular kind of movie (one of many kinds of movie). I was speaking more towards the broader picture.

          I don’t think this:

          What often perplexes me about Mormonism and other forms of Christian evangelical-fundamentalism is the constant need to focus on absolute sunniness.

          is quite right. I don’t think it’s a demand that the depressing or complex stuff stop existing – or a desire never to watch it – but rather that our current culture has become overly infected with it. Contrary to what a lot of people tell me that Christians (of the more conservative ilk) and Mormons do, they don’t close themselves off from the more complex stuff. It’s just that, after a while, it becomes a drag.

          (For my own part, there was a time when I was really into very complex, and dark, independent-type movies. It got tiresome after a while. Sometimes I like heavy, sometimes I like light, sometimes I like a thrillride. It’s possible that I am doing some projection here onto the BYU students.)

          (I also wonder if there isn’t a thing where both you are looking at Iron Man as the problem.)

          • I do think there is at least a little bit of complexity in putatively “family style” entertainment.

            Take “Eight Is Enough,” for example. I think I’d be right in arguing that its message, such as it is, is generally uplifting or meant to be, for lack of a better word, “nice” or family friendly. But there are complexities [spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen the show]: dealing with the death of a parent, dealing with unexpected pregnancy, dealing with divorce, dealing with living with a stepparent (after the one parent dies), etc.

            The trick is probably in the details. My memory is that by the end of the show, the problems were usually resolved or on their way to a resolution (except for the “to be continued” episodes). If they were recurring issues, they were recurring in the sense that the same characters tended to get into similar types of trouble over different episodes. But within each episode, or within most episodes, there were real problems addressed regarding moral issues the right and wrong of which weren’t dyed-in-the-wool obvious to discern.

            I’m not necessarily arguing that “Eight Is Enough” was masterful drama, although I do have a certain fondness for it and will probably view it if/when netflix ever offers it. It’s more to elaborate on some of the dramatic potential of a “family friendly” genre.

          • I think the majority of movies would qualify as uplifting and they’re not hard to find. Let’s look at last year’s Oscar nominees (which I would not call a particularly uplifting year).
            In the uplifting category: Argo (winner), Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook
            In the dark: Django Unchained, Amour (dark, but touching, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Mis (though family friendly)
            Don’t know enough about Beasts of the Southern Wild to comment.

    • it’s probably for some of the same reasons you’re not going to listen to any black metal that smacks of anti-semitic content.

    • and also possibly as a Jewish person

      Your parents should be able to clear up your uncertainty about that.

        • considering the dropping rates of circumcision in the us it should get considerably easier in the future for the non-gentiles.

  3. Tangential, but this struck me as weird. In the movie 42, Leo Durocher’s suspension during almost all of the ’47 season was explained as a morals issue, based in his fooling around with a married woman, who was played like a blonde bimbo and identified in the credits as Laraine Day. This is nonsense for a few reasons:

    1. The real story is they were involved, but that she had gotten a quickie Mexican divorce from her previous husband and married him. The divorce was found to be invalid in the US, so they had to wait for her American divorce to become final before they could marry.

    2. She wasn’t a bimbo, but a respected Hollywood actress and (here’s the tangential association) a devout Mormon. She and Durocher stayed married for about 12 years.

    3. It’s public record that Durocher’s suspension was for “association with known gamblers”, and fairly well known that he was suspected of winning large sums from ballplayers at craps using loaded dice.

    Anyway, if I were a Mormon, I’d be very offended at a film that disparages a member of my church to cover up for a famous sleazeball.

  4. “I found this by way of Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, who wonders why the Catholics don’t have their own BYU.”


    The Catholics have Catholic University. And Notre Dame, and Georgetown, and Boston College, and Holy Cross, and Gonzaga, and Loyola Marymount, and another Loyola, and yet another Loyola, and you get the idea

    (oh, I guess from reading the link, (which needs a nip&tuck btw) they’re CINO’s or something)

      • 1) With the exception of Catholic and Notre Dame, the schools you mentioned are specifically Jesuit. There are 28 such schools.

        2) I would imagine that JPCU was named after 2, not 1. Even though 1 was alluded to in Wall Street.

        • What’s wrong with the Jesuits?

          I went to a Jesuit law school. I love the Jesuits.

          • I didn’t say anything was wrong with them. They are known to be pro Education.

    • Link fixed, thanks for the heads up.

      The difference between BYU and Catholic universities (as I understand them, I didn’t go to one) is that the former is really geared towards helping Mormons get a great (by their standards, anyway) education. They subsidize it for members of the Brethren to keep it affordable. And, of course, it remains more thoroughly religious.

      • When I was at Notre Dame*, there was/is a push to get more Catholic professors. They’re definitely torn between the mission of providing the best education possible and their Catholic mission. But you are correct that ND, BC and Georgetown have a major interest in being catholic and Catholic. IMO, I thought it was great. Heck, it allowed me, as a Muslim raised, agnostic get elected class president.

        Also, I would hardly hold up BYU’s honor code standards and enforcement up. As they typically are applied to minority, non-LDS athletes.

        *Note: I’m not a Catholic

        • I hear ya. Were it not for the cost, I would consider a Catholic school. There is no way in the world that I would go to BYU, even on scholarship.

        • Oops, I meant to say, “As they typically are applied disproportionately to minority, non-LDS athletes. Does anyone think that Jim McMahon upheld the honor code or engaged in his shenanigans quietly?

    • “The Catholics have Catholic University. And Notre Dame, and Georgetown, and Boston College, and Holy Cross, and Gonzaga, and Loyola Marymount, and another Loyola, and yet another Loyola, and ”

      Maybe he was being (wayyyyy overly) literal – Catholics don’t have the literal ‘Brigham Young University’. In Utah.

  5. How many cast/crew members are Mormon themselves? The business end of Mormon-to-Mormon — or any form of Christian-to-Christian — entertainment matters, particularly in terms of building up an industrial infrastructure to produce future product of improving quality.

    • The cast of Brigham City appears to tilt pretty heavily in that direction. Of the top five, three are confirmed Mormons (including Wilfred Brimley), a fourth appears to only star in Mormon films (so it would be a safe assumption), and there’s no information on the fifth.

      I had no complaints about the acting, or the quality of film-making considering the budget constraints I am sure they were under (and even then, it didn’t seem like a “cheap film.”

  6. Here is the thing with Mormons that the article misses. That person in the NYT story who was president of the animation company that gave the talk at BYU? Mormon. When us Mormons want to make Mormon specific content then you will know it. We really do know how to blend in while making things our own at the same time. Because of our history and how even today we are treated, us Mormons have learned how to keep our heads down while contributing without recognition. Chances are you have bought a product or watched a movie or television show with Mormon involvement and had no idea or ever will. True, that is still 1000 to 1 odds in entertainment, but tit still holds.

    “I can imagine a lot of movies from the Book of Mormon that would interest me[1]. ”
    Maybe not a movie, but Orson Scott Card’s book series “Memories of Earth,” is loosley based on the Book of Mormon.

  7. I feel like this is a story that’s not really about anything. There’s no battle between twisted, evil Hollywood and Mormons looking to make good, clean entertainment.

    Because frankly, if there were such a battle, the Mormons would be losing. Because that’s not how you make art. They can talk about avoiding darkness, but one of the two films featured in the article is about a child coping with the death of his grandfather. The article mentions another film about anthropomorphized piñatas. Anthropomorphized piñatas. That’s some conceptually dark shit.

    Don Bluth is Mormon. This is the guy who’s responsible for An American Tale, Secret of NIMH, and All Dogs Go to Heaven. You do not make children’s films about psychic lab rats and gilded-age immigrants because you want a nicer, cleaner Hollywood, no matter how uplifting those films might end up being.

    BYU just has a decent animation program. Maybe they also have infiltrationist motives, but that’s not what’s getting those students hired. It’s the program’s ability to put out talented, hard working animators. If some of those animators go on to champion their worldview, well good luck. But championing your worldview (whatever it is) makes for bad art. And bad art gets you fired.

    • Escaping the conservative bubble is hard work. It’s a whole ecosystem in there and it thrives on this well-scrubbed paranoia about Hollywood’s evil influences. The reality of Hollywood — it’s a dump. If it weren’t for the tourists, nothing would be left. It’s low rent. The studios and the talent have decamped for elsewhere. Elvis has left the building.

      But even as a metaphor ,everyone’s trying to infiltrate Hollywood — conservatives, too. I have no idea where the idea of Liberal Hollywood arose, the entertainment industry has always had its conservatives.

      • “I have no idea where the idea of Liberal Hollywood arose, the entertainment industry has always had its conservatives.”

        More importantly, the entertainment industry has always had an (or the main) eye on the dollar.

    • As the NYT is wont to do, I agree that it’s likely drawing a more clear picture than actually exists. That said, I do think that the cultural origins of creative talent can make quite a bit of difference. If Hollywood were 80% Mormon, or 80% Evangelical, or 80% conservative, we’d likely see a lot of different content (even if production studio personnel were exactly the same).

      I also don’t think that championing one’s worldview necessarily makes for bad art. It’s mostly about knowing context and how to do it (not to let it overrun the entertainment value).

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