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Originally published Sunday, November 6, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Movies

Mormon filmmakers hoping Utah can be a wholesome Hollywood

After almost five years of making movies for Mormons, the group of filmmakers who were part of the genre's most prolific production studio...

The Associated Press

OREM, Utah — After almost five years of making movies for Mormons, the group of filmmakers who were part of the genre's most prolific production studio are branching out with projects that leave the church jokes behind with the hopes of engaging a broader audience.

And they want to do it in their own backyard. Could Utah become a "Mollywood" of sorts — a family focused, film-making Mecca that still caters to Molly Mormons, the nickname given to those who embrace the faith's clean-cut morality?

If filmmaker Richard Dutcher started it all with "God's Army," his 2000 film about missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Los Angeles, Dave Hunter and Kurt Hale perfected it. The two formed Halestorm Entertainment in 2001 and went on to release a string of movies over the last four years, mostly comedies, aimed exclusively at a Mormon audience.

Members of the LDS church are discouraged from watching R-rated films.

Halestorm's films are made with small budgets that are easily reclaimed by screening in states such as Utah, Arizona and Idaho, where a significant number of the population belongs to the Mormon church. DVD sales of the movies are where they make their money, they said.

While Hale says the niche possibilities are endless — "there are three or four great stories on my desk right now ... a Mormon horror comedy, a Mormon musical" — Hunter and Hale are ready to develop a broader, commercial base and maybe turn Utah into a wholesome Hollywood along the way.

Their company has captured the attention of motion-picture industry insiders by shooting films for $400,000 to $500,000 and making double or triple that back. But that seems to be the ceiling.

The company also has been an incubator for other filmmakers, including Jared Hess, who had a breakaway hit in "Napoleon Dynamite" last year.

"We're done engaging the Mormon audience," Hunter said. Added Hale: "There's just not enough Mormons."

Big move is near

Early next year, Halestorm plans to move into a $5 million production studio with 46,000 square feet of space that will house all of its offices, production and distribution, as well as two large sound stages.

"We'll be able to do a film from beginning to end in the studio," Hunter said.

They hope the studio, combined with Utah's unique geography, will draw one big outside production each year. Within an hour of the studio, a crew could be filming on desolate salt flats, sand dunes, mountains or dense forests, and just a three-hour drive away is Utah's red rock country.

While Halestorm will remain true to its family friendly ethic, it won't monitor what other film producers want to do.

"To have a censor board to read scripts and approve productions, that would not only be damaging to us, it would be damaging to the state of Utah," Hunter said.

Marketing to the Mormon niche has boomed recently, providing the devout with ample entertainment focused on their faith, including "The Work and the Glory" trilogy bankrolled in part by Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller. Its second installment had a nationwide release last weekend.

A sampling of plots from Halestorm movies include a romantic comedy set in a singles' congregation of the church, the trials and tribulations of a young man back from his two-year proselytizing mission and a spoof about a fictional Mormon boy band.

Halestorm begins its foray into the mainstream with the upcoming release "Church Ball," a farce about how viciously competitive Mormon church basketball leagues can be. It has a more recognizable cast, including Fred Willard and Gary Coleman, and the religious denomination of the church players is obscured.

Halestorm deserves a lot of credit for finding and developing a niche market, said Jason E. Squire, an instructor of cinema practice at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television.

He said such films as "Napoleon Dynamite" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" are examples of how to break out of that niche while trying to maintain a certain ethic. "It doesn't matter what kind of movie it is. What matters is capturing the audience's imagination," he said.

Filmmakers' launch pad

Other filmmakers who have ties to Halestorm, and like Hale and Hunter were in the film program at church-owned Brigham Young University, have gone on to their own successes outside of strictly Mormon plot lines.

Ryan Little was a director of photography for many of the Halestorm movies and struck out on his own to direct "Saints and Soldiers" in 2003. The film about a band of World War II soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge had some critical success, including awards at some small film festivals and a nomination for an Independent Spirit award.

Little is filming an adventure film called "The Outlaw Trail." The movie follows a young boy who has inherited a belt buckle that belonged to Butch Cassidy.

The director said his goals are to make movies families can enjoy together and help build the film community in the state.

While Utah has lured filmmakers to its scenic vistas since the days of the spaghetti western, it's never fully capitalized on its proximity to Los Angeles, less than two hours away by plane.

Utah lawmakers are considering increasing incentives to entice more production companies.

Mormon-genre films have made their mark on the Utah Film Commission's revenues, bringing in $500,000 in 2001 and more than $2 million last year, said commission director Aaron Syrett. But that's still a fraction of the more than $60 million the commission sees annually from filming in the state.

Mark DeCarlo, the host of the Travel Channel's "Taste of America" program and the star of Halestorm's current release "Mobsters and Mormons," said he enjoyed working in Utah and was charmed by the "good, honest people" he met on the set. But to lure more productions, local filmmakers need to have a more Hollywood-like professionalism, he said.

"They use a lot of friends and favors," DeCarlo said. "In order for it to really compete with Hollywood you need a professional class of person both in front of and behind the scenes."

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