Early in my book publishing career, I worked for an innovative publisher of high-quality childrens picture books. One day, in conversation with my boss, the publisher, I criticized the Little Golden Books, a long-running line of cheaply produced picture books with very simple (and, I thought then, not very notable) stories. To my surprise, my boss leapt to their defense. Without the Little Golden Books, he explained, millions of kids wouldn’t have been read to as children, and my not have learned to read. In my focus on issues of quality, I had not realized that purpose is more important than quality, and, in a sense, actually defines what is quality.
That lesson has stayed with me for about 20 years now. And one of the places I’ve been able to use this idea is in reading reviews. A reviewer’s job is to judge the quality of the film or book or music or product being reviewed. But in doing so the reviewer makes assumptions about what is important for his or her audience. He constructs the criteria used to judge quality. But often those criteria don’t match what many, if not most, of the audience use.
Take McDonalds, for example. Last night I came very close to going to McDonalds—but not because I like the food. I doubt many restaurant reviewers would give McDonalds high marks. And despite criticisms of its quality by reviews like the documentary film Supersize Me, McDonalds is still going strong. I saw that film, and I don’t have a strong opinion of McDonalds. I don’t think I get food from McDonalds more than once in a blue moon. So why did I consider getting McDonalds last night? Convenience. I was driving my daughter to an after school event, and McDonalds was the drive-through restaurant on our way. Simply put, it fit my criteria of the moment. Fortunately, we found another place to get quick, better, convenient food.
I know this is all rather obvious, but sometimes we don’t remember. We see a film, read a book or listen to music that we think is bad, and we say “What were they thinking?” Or “I don’t get it.” Or, worse, we assume some nefarious motivation or attempt at deception. We are judging the work or product based on our own criteria and understanding of what the audience wants. Who hasn’t looked down the list of current films at their favorite review site and wondered why anyone would go to all those films with just one or two stars? Or looked at all the one or two star videos on Netflix and wondered who would watch them and why they were even made! Believe it or not, the makers of Sharknado didn’t expect it to gain any notoriety or attention—they made it with low expectations.
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I was one of those invited to preview the LDS Church-produced film Meet the Mormons last week in one of the major theaters here in New York City, and I thought it was really quite good. For those who don’t know, the film profiles the lives of six Church members from around the world. Some of them are notable, like Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo, while others are simply successful local church members, chosen because their stories would be interesting. And their stories are entertaining—there isn’t one of them who I wouldn’t enjoy talking with for several hours, hearing the details of their lives and understanding how their thinking got them to where they are today.
But, of course, no film can do that. Such a film would be too long. Nor can a film be strictly representative of members of the Church. I suspect most members’ lives are simply not interesting enough for a film—I know my life likely is not.
But the mix of those in the film is, I think, representative, at least in what we aspire to. Racially it includes an African-American (and a second African-American who appears in his mother’s story), a Hispanic woman, an Asian man, a man of Pacific-Islander origins and two Caucasians. A disabled man appears in one of the profiles. There are four men and two women profiled. Two of those profiled live outside of the U.S., in Costa Rica and in Nepal. This may be a kind of aspirational diversity, but I don’t think its that far off—last I checked more than 50% of Church members lived outside the U.S., but in terms of active members its probably less than half. Racially Mormons are probably much more white than this mix (but would you really want to see a film with just white Mormons?) I’d rather have this indication that the Church aspires to a diversity that we don’t yet have than not.
The film does not discuss much Mormon history or doctrine, and it is light on Mormon practice. There is no attempt to defend Mormonism really, because it isn’t telling viewers much about Mormonism, other than what a handful of Mormons are like. It is simply an introduction to a group of individuals who are Mormon. But you come away from the film with a positive feeling about these individuals. Its like a teaser—you want to know more about what makes these people tick.
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So if this film is just a teaser, a PR puff piece (as I’ve heard it called), why is it in theaters? And why is the Church trying to get it into theaters? What are the factors that reviewers and outsiders might be missing?
Similar PR pieces have appeared in theaters before. When my children were little we had to go to The Pokemon Movie, for example. Occasionally such movies are even fairly popular (as I understand it, The Lego Movie has been quite popular). I’ll bet you can come up with many others that fit.
At the preview showing, I learned something of the story behind the film. Director Blair Treu was tasked with making Meet the Mormons as a film for the Legacy Theater in the Church’s conference center in Salt Lake City. It is exactly what you would expect for that purpose. And if you use the criteria you would expect for a Legacy Theater film, I think you have to call this a high quality film. It piques the interest for further investigation, be it through missionaries or exploration on the Internet.
But when the film was shown to test audiences in California, the feedback was stronger than expected—so much so that it seemed like it might work in theaters. Apparently, at least among the test audiences, the film met some criteria that made it worth seeing in theaters.
As the film’s promotion has highlighted, showing Meet the Mormons in theaters isn’t about making money. The net proceeds go to the Red Cross. As I understand it, the Church had budgeted and paid for the film’s production anyway, so it didn’t feel like it needed a share of the ticket prices. The theaters, on the other hand, won’t show the film without their share of the ticket price, so the film can’t be shown for free. Donating the share of the ticket price to the Red Cross is simply the easiest way to make everyone happy with the finances.
Of course, the benefit to the Church is in changing (usually unfounded) perceptions about Mormons. The long-term goal is not to have Meet the Mormons in theaters itself, but to get it available in places where the public might come across it or where they can easily access it—Netflix and similar services. And if you search Netflix, for example, for “Mormon”, you can see why. The only title that comes up directly is American Mormon, and the 21 titles that come up (at the moment) when you click on the suggested “Titles Related to Mormons” include things like Sons of Perdition (about boys rejected by the FLDS Church), I Escaped a Cult and Email Order Bride. And more than half these 21 titles don’t actually seem to be about Mormons or Mormonism.
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For me, the most important concern that Meet the Mormons raises isn’t exactly about the film itself. I don’t mind that a PR film exists—there is a place for films like those shown in the Legacy Theater. I want the Church to make and show such films; I want others to discover that Mormons are often interesting and have a generally positive perception.
But I also want other films about Mormons and Mormonism. I want films that meet the criteria and expectations of theater audiences (or at least a good sized portion thereof). I want good documentaries that not only show Mormons as good people, but also explain the details of Mormon doctrine and confront the difficult issues of Mormon history and beliefs. I’m sure many others want this also.
But you know what else I learned when my boss set me straight about Little Golden Books? You don’t get that kind of work — the non-PR pieces, the great films, the good documentaries that confront challenging issues — without films like Meet the Mormons first. Little Golden Books expanded the demand for childrens picture books. The series helped to make reading books to children part of the cultural norm. So too, Meet the Mormons may make it easier for other Mormon works to reach theaters and places like Netflix.
So, while I’m not sure that I would see a film like Meet the Mormons if it weren’t about Mormons, I do think that the film has an important role to play. We need more films that get this kind of attention.
Nor can I recomment Meet the Mormons for everyone. In particular those who are disaffected or annoyed with the Church should probably stay away—the PR nature of the film and its failure to get into difficult issues is likely to be frustrating and annoying. But for most others I recommend the film. You won’t necessarily learn anything new about Mormon doctrine and history, but I think you will enjoy meeting some interesting Mormons.
Excellent reframing, Kent.
I appreciate this viewpoint. I may be summarizing incorrectly, but you suggest that the movie should be judged for what it actually wants to be, which is something like PR to make people think more highly of the church. If that is the case, I am not sure there is any audience that really wants to consume that product. Well, I can think of one – the already converted, who get to think more highly of themselves by watching.
No, not for what it wants to be, but for what the audience wants it to be.
Reviewers often mistake who the audience is, and assume that the audience wants what they think. Reviewers might think that the audience expects good food from all restaurants. But in the case of McDonalds, its not about how the food tastes as much as how convenient, cheap and filling it is. That is what the audience for McDonalds is looking for.
*But you know what else I learned when my boss set me straight about Little Golden Books? You don’t get that kind of work — the non-PR pieces, the great films, the good documentaries that confront challenging issues — without films like Meet the Mormons first. Little Golden Books expanded the demand for childrens picture books. The series helped to make reading books to children part of the cultural norm. So too, Meet the Mormons may make it easier for other Mormon works to reach theaters and places like Netflix.*
Hear, hear. Sturgeon’s law is a law.
DCL – I already think highly of myself for being humble enough to join the church as an adult convert.
I don’t get this section:
I don’t get how The Pokemon Movie or the Lego Movie are “just a teaser, a PR puff piece.”
I mean…the only way I could interpret these as PR puff pieces is if you think they just point to other things (e.g., games, cards, lego sets).
But I don’t see them as that. At least, not purely as that. For example, the Pokemon movies are absolutely supposed to represent canonical entries into the storyline of the series. They are not just pushing other products…it is its own product.
Does “Meet the Mormons” fit that?
Andrew, you don’t think The Pokemon Movie is meant to sell pokemon cards & similar materials? You don’t think that those who made The Lego Movie thought that if it wasn’t successful it would at least have a positive influence on lego sales? And if they don’t fit, you don’t think there were ever any other movies that WERE produced at least partly to influence sales of the relevant products pushed in the movie?
Sorry, but I see these movies as at least partially trying to build those brands and sell more of those products — especially in the cases when the movies themselves are clearly not aimed at a larger audience than that of the associated products.
As for whether Meet the Mormons is itself a “products” (or whatever you would call a separate item when you are talking about promoting ideas), I don’t know why it wouldn’t fit. Its enjoyable in its own right. I won’t be surprised if, assuming a DVD version is distributed for sale through stores (I don’t know if it will be or not), thousands or tens of thousands of copies are sold. What exactly would keep it from being its own product?
FWIW, I think there are lots of items that show up in the odd neverland between an item that is generally sold for itself, and an item that is given away as a promotion. As far as I can tell, the only way to clearly distinguish between the two is whether it is given away as a promotion or sold.
Take t-shirts. They are often sold. Other times they are given away as a promotion. And still other times, even though they sport a commercial message promoting a brand, they are still sold! Where does a promotional item stop and a product begin??
I think that the Pokemon movies were/are meant to support other properties of the brand (such as cards, games, etc.,) I think we are in agreement there. My question, which, rereading my comment, i can see how the emphasis didn’t come out that strongly, was more asking if they are *just* doing that. And I don’t think they are *just* meant to do that. They are not *just* a teaser or PR puff piece. They are *also* standalone products that can and should be graded on their own merits.
Let me put it another way…if someone plays the pokemon games and doesn’t do the cards, the IP holders are OK with that. If people just watch the movies, shows, etc., and doesn’t play the game, doesn’t buy cards, the IP holders would be OK with that. If someone watches the Lego movie and it’s a bestseller, but people don’t buy legos, Lego is OK with that. In fact, Lego wants the Lego movie to be a success precisely because its ROI is on whether it alone recoups its costs, not on whether it causes people to buy other Lego stuff.
Because these are also standalone products meant to do well on their own, even if they may have a secondary effect of trying to get people into other brand properties. One reason this HAS to be the case is because there are different teams making their money from different places. Certainly, the IP holder is going to make money from wherever its license makes money, but the trading card division/company/licensee (it’s changed over the years) has to make money separately from the animation division/company/licensee, or the video game developer.
If you think that same thing applies to Meet the Mormons, then that’s all I was wondering. But my impression from your post was that you were saying that this doesn’t apply and we shouldn’t grade it on that level. But what confused me was that it seemed like you were arguing that the same thing would apply for Pokemon movies, Lego movies. That’s what confused me, because I definitely disagree for the latter two properties.
Like, I don’t have a problem if it is a promotional piece. I think the thesis of your post is interesting and I haven’t heard it before. But I don’t think it’s comparable to Pokemon or Lego.
I do think it applies to Meet the Mormons, Andrew. And in retrospect I don’t think I was saying that it doesn’t apply. I AM saying that in deciding what criteria to apply to our reviews of Meet the Mormons, we need to be aware of what the intended audience will want from it. And when there is an element of promotion in a film or other product (like there is with The Lego Movie), the intended audiences expectation is different.
It may be that the audience Meet the Mormon finds is just church members and a few friends, just like it is possible that the audience for the Pokemon movies were mainly those who were already into the cards and the TV series. If so, then lets decide whether the movie is well done according to their criteria and needs.
The LDS cinema phenomena started 14 years ago with God’s Army and has produced a few good films before succumbing to over-exploitation that produced a lot of cringe-worthy embarrassments. How can Meet the Mormons, then, be the pioneering film that paves the way for better material?
Travis, the major scholars of Mormon film call God’s Army the start of the Fifth Wave of Mormon cinema. There were, of course, four previous waves of cinema, going back to the start of film, and including hundreds of films. While God’s Army was certainly influential and pioneering, it certainly doesn’t preclude new pioneering films that pave the way for better material.
In fact, each of these waves contain many films that were pioneering in some way, or that made it easier for better material.
BUT, I don’t claim that Meet the Mormons is “pioneering” exactly (whatever that means), unless you mean that it seems to be growing the sphere where Mormon films can be shown (as other films have done). I think that any film that manages to grow that sphere where Mormon films can be shown is making things better for the films that follow (regardless of whether they are better or not).
Hi Kent. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but using an anecdote about “Little Golden Books” in a piece related to Mormonism seems quite appropriate given the origin of the church. It made me smile. I enjoyed your insights into why the movie was made. My family and I look forward to seeing it.
Comparison with the Lego movie brought to mind my family’s vacation in New York City, which included time in the Lego store on Rockefeller Plaza. Though we did spend a little money there, the main point of the shop seemed to be to generate happy Lego feelings that tourists would carry away for the next time we were picking which toy to buy for a child. Business at the cash registers didn’t look like enough to cover the lease, even though there were hundreds of people an hour passing through the doors.
The old Mormon chapel in Washington, D.C. at 16th and Columbia was like that from what I’ve read, an eyecatching missionary venue open to the curious passerby, a mini Temple Square. We try to do that now with temple visitors’ centers, but they are not positioned well to draw curiosity and casual unplanned visits. Maybe an 8 o’clock showing of Meet the Mormons will do the trick, especially if it shares a theater with something sold out.
Great thoughts, Kent, thanks for sharing this. For similar reasons I’ve really enjoyed the small Mormon (er, Utah?) film scene of the last decade and half. I’m excited for what I genuinely expect: great Mormon films in the next few decades.
Kent, your article is very interesting and thought provoking. I look forward to seeing Meet The Mormons. Our local discount theatre, owned by an LDS family, hopes to have the film soon. I think it will be the first showing in Canada.
‘But what were “you” thinking about McDonalds comments. It’s my go to place. Of course, that just proves your point. Hmmm, maybe McDonalds should make a movie……….