Reel to Real

I was in Salt Lake City a week ago and saw some unsurprising things, such as the 2002 Winter Olympics Cauldron, the Mormon Temple and more men wearing long-sleeved white dress shirts and ties than I’d ever seen in my lifetime.

But the greatest eye-opener was that, while Salt Lake City has a population of about one million people, they only have seventeen movie theaters. This equates to one theater for every 59,000 people. Compare this to Portland: 529,000 people and about 60 theaters, or 1 theater for every 8,800 people.

What’s going on here?

Salt Lake City’s lack of film venues seems lopsided and, without a doubt, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — LDS or “Mormon” — plays a key role in this theatrical disparity. The church is known for its emphasis on the family unit and, because of this, Mormon families typically spend evenings and weekends involved in church-related activities.

The Mormon church is also known for having what can gently be called a “proscribed” view of morality. Most current films contain content that is unacceptable to observant Mormon families. This undoubtedly keeps them away from mainstream cinema and may explain why a city of one million people has so few film venues.

I picked up a copy of the Salt Lake Tribune and took a look at the weekly Stage and Screen section. Featured on the front page of the section was a piece called “Parent’s Guide to the Movies,” a large chart in which numerical ratings (1 being mildest, 5 being most adult-oriented) were assigned to films for categories of sex (including nudity), violence and language (including crude dialog, profanity and drug references). A summed score of the 3 ratings gave an indication of the film’s family appropriateness. For instance, you could safely take your four year old to a film with a rating of 3-4, while anything over 12 would be suitable for someone recently released from a Turkish prison. What was really striking about the rating system was its size and formidable presence, occupying the entire first page of the section (above the fold) and using eye-catching colors in addition to the numerical ratings. Blue and green were “good” colors, while red, yellow and orange screamed a warning.

Below the rating chart were short film reviews, a few lines of commentary accompanied by the familiar system of rating stars. I skimmed through them: “Alien Vs. Predator,” “Baptists at Our Barbecue,” “The Bourne Supremacy,” “Cellular”…. Whoa! Back up the pony! “Baptists at our Barbecue”?

A little more digging unveiled a surprising discovery: a genre I’ve never before heard of — the genre of Mormon film. This genre includes films that were written, acted, directed or produced by members of the Mormon church. It also includes films that feature Mormon-friendly content or content directly related to the Mormon church and its teachings.

“Baptists at our Barbecue” is the latest hot offering from the Mormon genre. Its tagline: “262 Baptists. 262 Mormons. One hilarious movie!” OK, yeah. Sure. The plot: An unmarried 29-year-old Mormon man (this itself is something of an oxymoron, but keep reading) moves into a town and finds Baptists and Mormons engaged in a decades-old feud. Of course, he also meets a pretty — and marriageable — Baptist girl. What could the outcome be?

There were more:

“Hoops”: Two brothers, a basketball court, a returned missionary and life-altering decisions.

“Sons of Provo”: A comedy mockumentary (or is it?) about a boy-band called “Everclean,” composed of three returned Mormon missionaries (a Mormon version of “This is Spinal Tap”).

“Suits on the Loose”: Two rebellious teenage boys escape from a military school and run afoul of two Mormon missionaries. Hilarious antics ensue.

“God’s Army 2: States of Grace”: (the sequel to “God’s Army”) A Mormon missionary’s checkered past catches up with him as he and his companion are drawn into a Los Angeles gang war (guess they shouldn’t have knocked on that last door).