In 2005 a trio of young Mormon authors, Shannon Hale, Stephanie Meyer, and Brandon Sanderson, achieved national attention for their novels. As has been the case with successful Mormon authors for the last decade, their work has been in the young adult and speculative fiction fields. There were very few novels by Mormon authors produced by national publishers outside of those two genres worth noting. Mormon-specific publishers, on the other hand, have been producing a wider variety of novels than in the past. Juvenile fantasy in particular appears to be a growth area in Mormon publishing.
Part 1: National market novels
Shannon Hale leads an impressive pack of Mormon authors writing for the national young adult and middle school markets. Hale’s first two fantasy novels received considerable critical applause and commercial success. Her third, Princess Academy, won the 2006 Newbery Honor Book award, which is an honorable mention for the Newbery Award, one of four books so honored. The American Library Association, which gave the award, wrote, “The book is a fresh approach to the traditional princess story with unexpected plot twists and great emotional resonance.” Princess Academy was also on the New York Times Best Sellers List for children’s chapter books, was one of ALA Notable Children’s Book, and received the 2005 Young Adult Novel Award from the Association for Mormon Letters (AML). A reviewer in Booklist wrote, “Hale nicely interweaves feminist sensibilities in this quest-for-a-prince-charming, historical-fantasy tale. Strong suspense and plot drive the action as the girls outwit would-be kidnappers and explore the boundaries of leadership, competition, and friendship. Orson Scott Card, himself a great Harry Potter fan, went as far as saying Princess Academy is, “quite frankly, better than any of the Harry Potter books. . . . It’s been along time since I’ve read an adult novel with anything like Hale’s knowledge of human nature and human communities. There is a magical element in their world, and it’s crucial to the story, but there are not spells or fairy godmothers or pumpkin coaches. Instead, there are real girls learning real-world lessons that nevertheless will set readers dreaming in completely unexpected ways. . . . . compared to the life of this academy, Hogwarts seems almost a caricature of a school.”
Fellow young adult author Stephanie Meyer also received some critical applause and even more commercial success with her first novel, Twilight. It was named one of ALA’s 2006 Best Books for Young Adults, and has been among the best selling young adult books of the year, as well as the subject of spirited bidding war for foreign and movie rights. Meyer turned to the currently popular subject of vampire romance, this time set in the modern world, between a human girl and a vampire boy who is part of a community of vampires which have sworn off human blood. A stared review in School Library Journal stated, “The tension strips away any pretense readers may have about the everyday teen romance novel . . . the novel’s danger-factor skyrockets as the excitement of secret love and hushed affection morphs into a terrifying race to stay alive. Realistic, subtle, succinct, and easy to follow, Twilight will have readers dying to sink their teeth into it.” Jana Reiss, a noted professional book reviewer as well as a Mormon, commented that she could not put the book down, that it was amazingly well plotted, with “some of the scenes achingly beautiful and poignant.” She also noted, however, that “the feminist in me hated it, to put it bluntly. I haven’t read such a retrogressive book in a long time. Bella, our heroine . . . is weak, unobservant, and almost ridiculously dependent. By the end of the novel, after Bella has been saved from certain death for the third time by her vampire hero, I wanted to throw the book . . . But I loved the world that Meyer created.”
Speculative fiction author Brandon Sanderson also made a national splash with his first novel, Elantris. The fantasy tells the complex story of a godlike race whose powers have degenerated. A reviewer at Publishers Weekly said the novel was “outstanding . . . free of the usual genre clichés, offering something for everyone: mystery, magic, romance, political wrangling, religious conflict, fights for equality, sharp writing and wonderful, robust characters.” Orson Scott Card positively gushed, calling it, “the finest novel of fantasy to be written in many years . . . a truly original world of magic and intrigue, and with the rigor of the best science fiction writers he has made it real at every level. What makes this novel unforgettable, however, is the magnificent characters he has created. True heroes who, in the face of adversity, find strength they did not know they had, make mistakes from whose consequences they do not shrink, and sacrifice to save what is worth loving in their world.” Elantris won the 2005 AML Novel Award.
Another year went by without a significant literary novel by and about Mormons. Two Mormon authors did publish literary novels in 2005, but neither garnered much notice. Darrell Spencer, an academic literary author, produced his latest novel, One Mile Past Dangerous Curve, a story of a son returning to a family on the verge of collapse. I have seen no reviews for the novel, besides the blurb on the back by Ron Carlson, which reads, “Darrell Spencer has been writing top flight, razor sharp fiction for years . . . (this novel) is absolutely dire and dear, his best book, a novel about American life right now.” Marilyn Arnold, a retired literary scholar and author of several novels for the Mormon market, published her first national work, Minding Mama, a comic novel. It is the story of a woman taking her deceased mother back to Utah to be buried., who encounters a variety of eccentrics on the road. Dennis Lythgoe in the Deseret News wrote, “This is a wild story about the southern Utah culture . . . As is Arnold’s modus operandi, the characters all have predictably weird, awkward names, and they talk and behave like hillbillies. . . It’s just too much . . . On the other hand, Arnold is a talented writer who can tell a good story.”
Two non-Mormon literary authors with Utah connections produced novels with significant Mormon characters. Darren DeFrain’s The Salt Palace is a heavily footnoted comic road trip, centered on a lapsed Mormon/obsessive Utah Jazz fan who travels back to Utah to help family, making several unexpected detours on the way. Katherine Coles’ Fire Season, the story of a mother and daughter moving to Southern Utah, where they meet cancer-stricken downwinders, and an AIDS suffering black-sheep of a Mormon family. Salt Lake Tribune reviewer Martin Naparstek named it as one of 2005’s Best Western Books.
Returning to juvenile literature, veteran author Thelma Hatch Wyss’s Bear Dancer: Story of a Ute Girl, was highly praised. Written for readers in grades 4-8, it tells the true story of a heroic Ute woman, beginning with her childhood among the Ute people in the 1860s, her capture by Arapaho and eventual marriage to a white soldier, and her return to her people soon before her heroic actions during the Meeker Massacre of 1879. A reviewer at Booklist wrote, “Wyss refuses to allow readers to fall back on assumptions culled from lesser novels’ tropes. Whether Indian or white, her characters span the full spectrum of human nature–and for every compassionate white woman who sews her a calico dress, there are others who encourage Elk Girl to ‘talk treaty’ with her Ute community.” The book won the 2006 Mountains & Plains Regional Booksellers Association Regional Young Adult Book Award, and was a finalist for the 2005 Utah Young Adult Book Award.
Dean Hughes’s Search and Destroy is the second time he has reapplied his research for his Deseret Book “Thomas Family” series for a national young adult novel. In this case, Search and Destroy is about a young man who enlists and goes to war in Vietnam, serving in a Long Range Patrol unit, is wounded, and becomes disenchanted with the war, just like the Gene character in the Hearts of the Children series. A reviewer at Booklist wrote, “Hughes is especially effective in conveying the brutality and horrors of combat, and Rick’s conflict between his sense of duty to his country and the compassion and responsibility he feels for the ruined lives of so many Vietnamese. After being wounded during an act of heroism, Rick has a homecoming similar to that of many other Vietnam veterans. He comes back feeling the war was a senseless waste, and tortured by recurring nightmares, he finds it difficult to adjust normal life. The story ends with his future uncertain but hopeful. This is a compelling, insightful story about the emotional, physical, and psychological scars that wars leave upon soldiers.”
Besides Hale, Meyer, Wyss, and Hughes, Mormons produced three nationally published novels for young adult or middle-grade readers. Rebecca Tingle wrote Far Traveler, a sequel set in 10th century England. A reviewer in School Library Journal wrote, “This compelling novel is filled with well-researched details, an action-packed plot, and well-drawn and sympathetic characters. Tingle is a worthy successor to Rosemary Sutcliff, sharing her ability to make British history come to life for modern readers.” Janette Rallison’s Fame, Glory, and Other Things on My To-Do List is the third in her series of young adult comic romances, this one set in a high school drama department. A reviewer at Booklist wrote, “Jessica’s cool, hilarious first-person narrative mocks her dreams of stardom . . . plenty of readers will enjoy the fun of putting on a play and the humorous take on what can go wrong.” Randall Wright’s The Silver Penny is a time travel story for middle readers. A reviewer at School Library Journal wrote, “This historical fantasy is filled with unexpected twists and turns. The characters are realistically drawn, rich details evoke the rural setting, and the fantasy elements are woven into the story with a deft touch. . . . Recommended this tale to youngsters who like their fantasy on a small, more homegrown scale.”
In speculative fiction, Orson Scott Card remains a dependable source of a good story, with two new novels—Shadow of the Giant, the fourth in the Ender’s Shadow series, and Magic Street, a contemporary fantasy set in an African-American suburb of Los Angeles. Of the latter book, a reviewer in the Los Angeles Times wrote, “It’s a great read, Card’s take on his characters as sure as ever, his narrative rock solid, his dialogue crackling and authentic.”
Anne Perry, Richard Paul Evans, and Christine Feehan, all popular, well-established authors, continued to produce works that their devoted audiences expect and demand. Freehan was recently featured in a Time Magazine article about the popularity of vampire romances. It stated, “Author Christine Feehan sells around half a million copies of each book she publishes and finds more readers with every title . . . ‘I think vampires are very dark, and women have a tendency to want to save them,’ says Freehan. After Bram Stoker, Anne Rice and Joss Whedon, Feehan is the person most credited with popularizing the neck gripper as bodice ripper. A fifty-something grandmother from north of San Francisco, she has written 30 books since 1998 about the Carpathians, an undead race of mainly men, and their struggle to find undying love.”
Prose Fiction, Pt. 2. The Mormon Market
After several years of a steady increase in the number of literary titles produced by Mormon publishers, the market appears to have finally reached a ceiling in 2005. Here is a chart of the number of literary works (novels, short story collections, poetry collections, etc.) released by Mormon publishers over the last six years.
|Deseret/Shadow Mountain||12||9||8 6/2||13 12/1||13 10/3||13 10/3|
|Sounds of Zion||2||3|
Covenant has consistently published the most literary works per year. 2005 was the first time in six years the number of literary works they published did not exceed that of the year before. Deseret Book has maintained a stable number of releases each year, while Cedar Fort, Granite, and Spring Creek cut back the number of titles they produced. Altogether, there were 107 literary works published by Mormon presses in 2005, down from 122 in 2004. The volume is still quite remarkable. The days when a Mormon novel would stay on shelves for years is gone, titles now have to find a readership quickly, or be swept away with the tide.
The LDS Booksellers Association published a bi-monthly best sellers list of fiction and non-fiction sold at member stores in 2005. This is the first time I have seen reliable information about the relative success of books in the Mormon market. They have not created an overall list for the year, but putting together the six bi-monthly lists, and giving some extra weight to the presumably strong November/December bestsellers, I came up with this estimate of the fifteen best-selling books for 2005.
1. Obert Skye, Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo. Deseret.
2. Chris Heimerdinger, Kingdoms and Conquerors (Tennis Shoes Adventure Series vol. 10). Covenant.
3. Dean Hughes, So Much of Life Ahead (Hearts of the Children, vol. 5). Deseret.
4. Anita Stansfield, Timeless Waltz. Covenant.
5. Anita Stansfield, Hearts Crossed (The Buchannan Saga, vol. 4). Crosswalk.
6. Ron Carter. By the Dawn’s Early Light (Prelude to Glory vol. 9). Deseret.
6. Betsy Brannon Green, Copycat. Covenant.
6. Kay Lynn Magnum, The Secret Journal of Brett Colton. Deseret.
6. Rachel Ann Nunes, Winter’s Fire. Deseret.
6. Chris Stewart, The Second Sun (The Great and Terrible, vol. 3). Deseret.
6. Jack Weyland, Saving Kristen. Deseret.
7. Jason Wright, Christmas Jars, Deseret.
13. Anita Stansfield, Full Circle (Legacy of Gables, vol. 6) Covenant.
14. Jerry Borrowman, ‘Til the Boys Come Home. Covenant.
15. Julie Wright, My Not-So-Fairy-Tale Life. Deseret.
Looking at the publishing houses, Deseret Book produced only one third as many titles as Covenant, but Deseret had more books on the best seller list. It appears that Deseret sold at least as many novels in 2005 as did Covenant. Deseret on the whole boasts more well-known, established authors, on whom it focuses. The next tier of publishing houses, Cedar Fort, Granite, and Spring Creek, are far behind the two leaders in terms of authors with name-recognition and advertising budget. Signature, a house with much higher literary aspirations than the others, published only one literary work in 2005, a poetry collection. One new publishing house debuted in 2005, Palmyra Press, an imprint of the Massachusetts-based Drummond Publishing Group. Editorial director Gordon Laws, a Mormon author and an employee at Drummond, founded the LDS imprint, and struck the distribution deal with Deseret Book. Palmyra’s initial mission is to publish works produced by the students and teachers of the Lifesong group, a BYU interdisciplinary program dedicated to producing authors and screenwriters. It initial run of novels appears to be much more daring and literary than the average Mormon market book. With their apparent high literary ambitions, and their distribution deal, they represent best hope in many years for a stable, independent publisher of high-quality Mormon fiction.
A clear trend in the Mormon fiction market is the attempts by publishers to ride the success of Harry Potter by producing juvenile fantasy series about a contemporary boy who gets drawn into a magic realm. These fantasies avoid any specific Mormon references, apparently in hopes of breaking into the wider national market. The first of this kind, published by Cedar Fort, is James Dashner’s Jimmy Fincher Saga, four volumes of which have appeared since 2003. In 2005, Deseret Book, using its national imprint Shadow Mountain, published the Obert Skye-authored Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo. Skye is a pseudonym, apparently of Robert Farrell Smith, who has written several comic novels published by Deseret Book. The book is about a boy who can glimpse at and manipulate the future. A reviewer at Publishers Weekly wrote, “Foo contains many whimsical and delightful elements . . . (but) at times the prose does not match the quality of the story . . . . Skye resorts to telling instead of showing, especially with character descriptions . . . However, the story’s pacing is excellent, and the last hundred pages build palpable excitement and suspense.” Covenant released the first volume of its own series, David Farland’s Ravenspell: Of Mice and Magic, about a boy turned into a mouse. Farland is the pseudonym of Dave Wolverton, a nationally best-selling speculative fiction author. Jeff Needle wrote, “It deals with moral and ethic, and indeed religious, issues without being overtly religious. . . . strong themes of love, loyalty and courage infuse the often hilarious escapades of its protagonist. But we must not confuse Ben with Dr. Doolittle. In order to help his new friends, he must become one of them, and so doing, suffers what they suffer and enters fully into their lives.” Leven Thumps was the best-selling Mormon novel for 2005. I do not know if the publishers are attempting or succeeding at distributing these works in non-Mormon outlets. Both Deseret Book and Covenant have additional juvenile fantasy books on tap for 2006.
Another trend in 2005 was the publication of serious novels which explored difficult social problems in with less caution than seen in the past. A leading example is Julie Wright’s My Not-So-Fairy-Tale Life (Deseret), a novel written in the first-person about a young woman from a dysfunctional family who indulges in drugs, becomes pregnant, and then decides to change her life. Wright has received substantial praise for her ability to fully portray the protagonists mistakes without turning her into a villain or preaching to the readers. Jeannie Hansen at Meridian Magazine called it “The best book I’ve read yet about a young woman who must make agonizing decisions concerning the fate of her unborn child . . . it is an absorbing, thought-provoking story.” Three other novels similarly have been praised for frank explorations of young people’s suffering and pain, and role of the atonement. Gary Huntsman’s Leaving Moscow (Cedar Fort) tells the story of a young man caught in a spiral of substance abuse. Pamela Reid’s Remember No More (Covenant) explores a woman’s determination to overcome the harm done to her by sexual abuse. Finally Kay Lynn Magnum’s The Secret Journal of Brett Colton (Deseret) is a coming-of-age story about a young woman rediscovering her dead older brother through his journal.
Palmyra Press published four novels in 2005. Two of them, Michael Fillerup’s Go in Beauty and Nathan Chai’s Fire Creek, are marked by gritty realism, and received particularly strong reviews. Fillerup, who has had two books published by Signature and has published several stories in Dialogue and Sunstone, has been an instructor in the Lifesong project. His new novel is the story of a white man hired to teach at a Navajo school, and called to be president of the local branch, whose life is nearly destroyed by tragedy. Richard Cracroft called the book “A significant contribution to Mormon fiction . . . remarkable for its fresh, fascinating vision of atonement.” Chai was a student in the Lifesong project, and is now an instructor in the BYU English Department. Fire Creek is the story of a young man returning home from Afghanistan emotionally and physically scarred, but eventually finds new purpose in life through an improbable friendship. Richard Cracroft commented, “Here are LDS values written at once boldly yet subtly.” I hope Palmyra is able to continue producing quality literary works, there is a great need for a strong independent publishing house in that area. Signature’s reputation is such that it can rarely get its titles in traditional LDS bookstores, and although the mainstream houses have certainly improved in recent years, publishing a few adventurous works, they can only go so far. Several times over the last twenty years a small press has appeared that showed promise of being a producer of quality literary Mormon fiction, and each time it has not lasted. I am interested to see if such a small, unknown house can continue to produce and effectively promote quality work that can make it to the shelves of LDS bookstores. [2013 note-Sure enough, Palmyra Press only lasted a year.]
Historical fiction, romance, and mystery thrillers continued to play a large part of the Mormon market, and comic novels have also begun to appear with greater frequency. Historical fiction titles that have received good reviews include Marcie Gallacher and Kerri Robinson’s Joseph Smith-era A Banner is Unfurled (Covenant), the finale of Dean Hughes’ Hearts of the Children Series So Much of Life Ahead (Deseret), and Harold K. Moon’s tale of a frontier-era polygamous family The Leah Shadow (Cedar Fort). Among the mystery/thrillers, there was significant praise for five works published by Covenant: Kerry Blair’s comic mystery Mummy’s The Word, Betsy Brannon Green’s Southern mystery Copycat, Christine Kersey’s thriller No Way Out, Jeffrey Savage’s Grafton-like mystery House of Secrets, and Stephanie Black’s surprisingly bleak, dystopian thriller about a future repressive society, The Believer. Covenant was also the prime producer of quality comic Mormon novels in 2005, including Matthew Buckley’s tale of family disaster Chickens in the Headlights, and Robison Wells comic-romance/adventure, Wake Me When it’s Over.
I will end this review noting some AML-award winning works not mentioned above. Patricia Wiles Funeral Home Evenings (Covenant) was honored with an AML award for Young Adult fiction. This was the second year in a row a volume of Wiles’ comic/adventure series The Kevin Kirk Chronicles won the award. The citation read, “Wiles’s depiction of small-town life is witty at times, heartbreaking at others, and her characters are charming without being caricatures. Underlying it all is a story about faith-about having it, keeping it, and gaining it-that is a far better testimony of the gospel than overt preaching could be.” Roger Terry received a Novel Honorable Mention for God’s Executioner (Cedar Fort) a story about a Utah public defender who is asked to defend a man in a murder case who claims that he is God. This is the second year in a row an unheralded novel from Cedar Fort has received an honorable mention from the AML.
In Short Stories, Kristin Carson’s “Atta Boy” (Dialogue, Summer 2005) won an AML award. It is a funny tale of a man who is humbled into learning a lesson when he seeks reward from God for his service. Aaron Orullian’s “Judgement Day” won first place in an Irreantum fiction contest and an AML Short Story Honorable Mention. Eric James Stone’s “Betrayer of Trees” won second prize in the Writers of the Future contest, and appeared in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, vol. 21. Stone also had stories appear in Analog and Orson Scott Card’s Medicine Show.
BYU professor Lance Larson’s In All their Animal Brilliance (University of Tampa Press) won the AML Poetry Award, and was a Utah Book Award Finalist. Richard Cracroft commented, “50 poems that crackle with intense, rich images and startling invention and uncover a range of emotion and insight into human life that would take a novelist 200 pages to spin. . . . savors earth life and enables the reader to relish it too by translating common experience into uncommon insight through rich poetic language.” Performance poet Alex Caldiero’s Body/Dreams/Organs, and Laura Hamblin’s The Eyes of a Flounder also appeared in 2oo5.
[I did not do a separate theatre review for 2005. The 2006 review covered theatre in both 2005 and 2006.]
2005 was by far the strongest year ever in LDS cinema in terms of overall quality of the feature films released. Two very serious movies, States of Grace and New York Doll, received the best reviews ever in LDS cinema history. Two comedies, Sons of Provo and Mobsters and Mormons, were, I believe, the funniest Mormon movies yet created. And The Work and the Story: American Zion was the best Mormon historical epic yet to appear. And yet, except for New York Doll, none of these films were able to turn a profit during their cinematic releases. It appears that the many mediocre to bad Mormon films that were released in 2003 and 2004 has put a damper on the market. Although there are as many films in the pipeline by LDS artists as ever, it appears that the filmmakers are turning towards general audience family films, rather than relying on the Mormon market.
States of Grace, also known as God’s Army II, was Richard Dutcher’s long-awaited return to the director’s chair. A gritty tale of a pair of missionaries and their interaction with three deeply troubled Angelinos, its exploration of spiritual issues of faith and the atonement gives the film a depth that had never been seen previously in LDS dramas. Critics have done little but rave about the film. For example, Eric Snider wrote, “It’s a veritable epic of spiritual drama in which every character is well-drawn and well-played, multiple storylines are juggled, and things like camera movement and editing are used as tools of art, not just tools of mechanics.” The film faltered at the box office in its initial release, however. While the film had Dutcher’s reputation of quality going for it, its stark adult story line certainly kept many LDS families away. Dutcher also insisted on distributing the film himself, and failed to do any serious publicity for the film before it opened. It was re-released in February 2006 with a better build-up, but it may never be profitable.
The other critically lauded film of 2005 was first-time filmmaker Greg Whitley’s documentary New York Doll. Whitley told the story of Arthur “Killer” Kane, the former bassist of the seminal pre-punk band the New York Dolls. After the band broke up in 1975, Kane battled drugs, alcohol, depression and poverty before finding peace and stability in the refuge of the LDS Church. Whitley tells the sweet story the change membership brought Kane, as well as his cautious participation in a Dolls reunion in 2004, only months before his death. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2005, and became an immediate hit. It was released to art house movie theaters around the country, as well as mainstream theaters in Utah, getting positive reviews nearly everywhere it went. New York Doll is the first piece of explicitly LDS cinema to be accepted critically and commercially by non-Mormon audiences throughout the country. Many critics noted with surprise that a film could appeal equally to both Mormons and punk rockers. For example Chris Vognar of The Dallas Morning News wrote, “It’s a respectful and subtle look at the difference faith can make in one’s life. With good humor, and without preaching or proselytizing, the documentary suggests that sometimes you just have to believe in something, anything that gives you a little hope.”
Halestorm has made a reputation for itself as a profitable creator and distributor of Mormon comedies. I rarely have found their films to be funny in the past, but that changed in 2005. They produced the two funniest, most inventive Mormon comedies to date. The year began with their release of Sons of Provo, directed by and starring Halestorm regular Will Swenson. Swenson clearly modeled his semi-improvised musical mockumentary on the nearly perfect Christopher Guest-centered comedies This is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind. Although most Utah critics thought the tale of a Mormon boy band was unable to sustain 90 minutes of comedy, the hilarious songs and bitingly satirical look at the self-righteous side of the worst of Mormon culture tickled my funny bone, and made it my favorite Mormon comedy to date. I have spoken to several Mormons, on the other hand, who were seriously offended by that very satirical bent, and that may have been a cause for the film’s poor box office and quick exit from the theaters.
John Moyer, the screenwriter of Halestorm’s first three comedies (The Singles Ward, The R. M., The Home Teachers), apparently saved his best work for his directorial debut, Mobsters and Mormons. While Mobsters has none of the uproariously funny scenes found in Sons of Provo, and its attempts at satirizing Mormon culture are not as pointed or well-placed, it is a well-made, pleasant, and consistently humorous fish-out-of-water comedy, blessed with a strong leading cast. Its consistency is a huge improvement over the wildly erratic earlier Halestorm films, which usually featured one funny bit followed by two terrible ones. Mobsters and Mormons did only mediocre business at the box office, clearly showing the decline in interest in even well-made Mormon comedies.
There was one big-budget epic in 2005, The Work and the Glory: American Zion, the second film in the series. While the first film did fairly well at the box office and among critics, it did not recoup its huge 7 million dollar budget. The producers made two key decisions after the first film: to hire respected veteran filmmaker Sterling Van Wagenen as the new director, and shoot American Zion and the upcoming third episode together, so that the total cost of the two films did not exceed the cost of the first. Van Wagenen was clearly a wise choice, as he produced a handsome, engaging, and energetic work, driven by an excellent portrayal of Joseph Smith by Jonathan Scarfe. Sean Means at the Salt Lake Tribune wrote, “Van Wagenen and screenwriter Matt Whitaker . . . manage to turn musty dates and place names into wrenching moments, such as the forced march of Mormon women through the snows of Missouri.” Again, however, the film was disappointment at the box office, making only 2/3 of the receipts of the first film.
The success of Napoleon Dynamite was a great surprise to all, and opened doors in the industry to nearly everyone involved. A bevy of comic films from the director, assistant directors, producers, and an actor from that film (most of whom are Mormons) have appeared in 2005 or are scheduled to appear in 2006. Jared Hess, the director and co-writer, tries to avoid a sophomore slump with Nacho Libre, staring Jack Black, which will be released nationally in June 2006. Tim Skousen (Napoleon Dynamite’s first assistant director) and Jeremy Coon (one of ND’s producers) have created The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang, which premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in January 2006, winning awards and a strong review from Variety [I later started to watch it and hated it]. Brian Peterson (ND’s second assistant director) and the production team of Chris Wyatt and Sean Covel (two of ND’s producers) made the comedy Think Tank, which also includes two of the leading cast members from Napoleon Dynamite. It played at a couple of film festivals, and will be released on DVD in 2006 [I later saw it, and enjoyed it]. The team of Wyatt and Covel (Covel is one of the few non-Mormons involved) also shepherded two projects from the Merrill family in 2005, producing Keith Merrill’s family film The Twelve Dogs of Christmas and Dagen Merrill’s upcoming psychological thriller Beneath, which is being funded by MTV Films. Finally Aaron Ruell, who played Kip in ND, has shown that he is a skilled filmmaker in his own right. He was able to place two short films, Everything’s Gone Green and Mary, in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, the only director to achieve that feat. Both films received strong reviews, and appeared at several other film festivals. Ruell is currently working on his first feature film, Warm Blue Day, and has directed several commercials.
Mormon directors produced two family-friendly films aimed at the national market. Eric Hendershot managed to raise four million dollars for his feature film debut Down and Derby. Hendershot, who has written, directed, and produced scores of family shows and documentaries for the television and video markets over the past twenty years, created a comedy about obsessive fathers of Cub Scouts who go to any lengths to win the Pinewood Derby. The film received terrible reviews, and did poorly at the box office. Mormon film veteran Kieth Merrill wrote and directed The Twelve Dogs of Christmas, an old-fashion Christmas tale based on the popular book, which was released directly on DVD.
Three direct-to-DVD short family features in 2005 were American Mormon, Junior’s Giants, and Jonah: A Great Fish Story. American Mormon, created by Darren Tufts and Greg Kiefer, is a pastiche of “Jaywalking”-type comic interviews, asking people what they know about Mormons. I found it mildly funny, worth a single viewing. It has apparently sold very well, and Tufts and Kiefer are working on a sequel. Junior’s Giants, written and directed by Mike Rasmussen, is a generic (nothing specifically Mormon) Christian children’s story, using South Park-style cutout animation. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Orson Scott Card has written, “The writing in the sections about domestic life is often hilarious (but) . . . the whole religious part of the video is the normal mind-numbing trivialization of religion. . . . within the expectations of the genre, I have to say that Junior’s Giants is extraordinarily good in the comedy and family-life portions.” Jonah: A Great Fish Story is a claymation short created by Chris and Nathan Smith, based on the art of James C. Christensen. It won Best Animation at the 2003 Eclipse Film Festival. Richard Dutcher, a judge at the competition, said, “There are few people who can create claymation films with the skills that Chris and Nathan have shown.”
Other films by Mormon filmmakers that premiered in 2005 were Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration, Everything You Want, and This Divided State. Joseph Smith, directed by veteran cinematographer T. C. Christensen, was commissioned by the Church to play in the Legacy Theater in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City. Everything You Want is a romantic comedy directed by Ryan Little (director of Out of Step and Saints and Soldiers), based on a play written by BYU student Natalie Prado. It appeared on the ABC Family cable channel in April 2005, and will be released by Disney on DVD in 2006. This Divided State is a documentary by Steven Greenstreet about the controversy at UVSC in 2003 over the appearances of Michael Moore and Sean Hannity. It appeared in art house theaters across the country, and received very positive reviews.
Three other independent films by Mormon filmmakers that appeared at film festivals were Believe, The Trumpeter, and Powerless. Believe, written and directed by Loki Mulholland, is a mockumentary about a multi-level marketing scheme. The cast and crew included several veterans of Halestorm comedies. It appeared at several festivals in 2005, winning awards as Audience favorite at the Flint Film Festival and the Gloria Film Festival. I have heard it is quite funny. It is scheduled to be released in Spring 2006. The Trumpeter, written and directed by David Waldram, is a short (24 minute) drama about two Mormon missionaries in Ireland helping an older man rediscover lost happiness through music. It won an audience choice award and 2nd Place prize for short films at the 2005 LDS Film Festival, and appeared at several other film festivals as well. Finally British filmmaker Matt Daniels has received praise for his creation of the film Powerless on less than $10,000. Using his extended family as cast and crew, he created a moody thriller about a family surviving a nation-wide black-out and panic caused by terrorists. Several viewers have commented that the film looks amazingly good for it budget.
Turning to the business of movie making, Halestorm has announced that it will begin phasing out its Halestorm brand and its focus on Mormon-centered films, and replace it with a new company called Stone Five Studies, which will produce family-friendly films with no specific references to Mormons. The company has announced a goal of creating a twenty million dollar fund which will be used to finance five family films in the coming years. Also, the company has begun building a new production studio in Provo.
There appears to be a realignment in film distribution Excel Entertainment, which with Halestorm dominated distribution of LDS films, was acquired by Deseret Book in 2004. The company may be shifting away from cinematic distribution, focusing instead on distributing direct-to-DVD family-friendly media. They distributed three such titles in 2005, American Mormon, Junior’s Giants, and the DVD release of Down and Derby. Three new companies, Vineyard Distribution, Main Street Movie Company, and Conservative Films entered the market in 2005. Vineyard was co-created by The Work and the Glory co-producers Larry H. Miller and Scott Swofford. They hired Dean Hale, formerly the vice president of motion picture distribution for Excel, as the company’s director. Besides the second and upcoming third Work and the Glory movies, it handled Utah distribution of New York Doll, and expects to release more films in the future. Richard Dutcher claims to have created Main Street Movie Company in order to control all aspects of his film States of Grace, from production to distribution, although it may be that he realized that Excel and other distribution companies would have reservations about releasing such a difficult film. It has released one other work, the claymation short Jonah: A Great Fish Story. Finally, Conservative Films & Entertainment, a Florida company created by David Stidham, has acquired two films by LDS directors for Direct-to-DVD release, Believe and Think Tank.