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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will release its first-ever feature-length documentary “Meet the Mormons” in select commercial theaters Oct. 10.
“I think it is very significant that (“Meet the Mormons”) is the first movie the Church is opening on a national stage,” said Reid Neilson, director of the Church History Department. “We want to tell our own story in a non-traditional way.”
The documentary challenges stereotypes about the LDS faith by examining six members of the Church and their families. Filmed on location in the United States, Nepal and Costa Rica, the film is diverse in its cinematography and in the families it features.
Initially designed for Salt Lake’s Legacy Theater, the film was so well received by nonmember test audiences that the Church decided to release it to a broader audience. The film will be translated into 10 languages.
All net proceeds will be donated to the American Red Cross.
Director Blair Treu, a California native, had to create a new film for the Legacy Theater. He began to reflect on his experience as a youth, constantly answering questions and false perceptions about “the Mormons.”
“I thought, ‘Why don’t we do something that’s geared toward nonmembers that will answer basic questions about who we are? Something that members would very much enjoy but that nonmembers could identify with as well,'” Treu said. “The idea was to create something that would show that traditional stereotypes are unfounded and help people think, ‘Mormons are pretty much just like me.'”
Church leadership liked the idea and assigned Elder David A. Bednar and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve to the project. Treu said they were given plenty of freedom with filming and were encouraged to tell the true stories.
The process began in 2010, with filming and editing done concurrently beginning late-2011.
“It was a daunting task to find stories that would represent 15 million of us,” Treu said. “There was a lot of prayer involved.”
Treu, along with producer Jeff Roberts, reached out to priesthood leadership across the world, asking for leaders to submit names for stories.
“First, they (the featured families) needed to represent, where feasible, the ethnic diversity of the Church. Second, the gospel had to be evident in the way they led their daily lives. Third, they had to be willing to open their lives to us,” Treu said.
In the end, it became a challenge to decide what to cut out.
Featured in the film are retired Col. Gail Halvorsen, “The Candy Bomber” from the 1940s Berlin Airlift; Ken Niumatalolo, head football coach of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland; Bishnu Adhikari, a humanitarian and engineer in Nepal; Carolina Muñoz Marin, an amateur kickboxer in Costa Rica; Jermaine Sullivan, an LDS bishop in Atlanta, Georgia; and Dawn Armstrong, a mother living in Salt Lake Valley.
“Because it’s segmented into different stories, people identify with their own stories based on life experiences,” Treu said. “There’s a common, very human element that whether you’re Catholic, Baptist, Protestant, Jewish or Mormon, we identify on universal themes. That’s why people laugh, they cry, they feel enlightened. We all share that common thread of human goodness and are capable of responding to it regardless of our faith.”
The movie is designed to entertain as well as to inform, to open hearts and break boundaries.
“Seventy-five percent of nonmembers who saw this film say they would recommend it to a friend,” Treu said. “That’s significant. That means something.”
Treu said the film features religious themes but is not preachy.
“My first objective as a storyteller is always to entertain,” Treu said. “Before we can reach hearts and minds you have to open them and have them be receptive. The only way you can do that is to hold their attention … people don’t go to the movies to be preached to. If you entertain them first, they’ll often then take what comes with it.”
Humor, storytelling and captivating landscapes are just some of the film’s features that hold audience interest. The movie starts by highlighting Mormon media stereotypes with clips from South Park, The Simpsons and 30 Rock.
Devin Shelley, a member of the promotional team for “Meet the Mormons,” promises humor, emotion and a captivating visual experience.
“If you’re a National Geographic or Discovery Channel junkie … you’ll get caught up in the amazing cinematography,” Shelley said. “It’s just a good film.”
The documentary does not have a large marketing budget. It uses word-of-mouth advertising, social media and special screenings, which have excited members as well as skeptics.
“People come up and talk to me before the film. They’ve come to see it because someone’s told them, but they’re skeptical. They come out a completely different person (after watching it). They get really excited … it’s so much fun to see that transformation,” Treu said.
Audiences are eager to share the film with friends and are not embarrassed by its presentation.
“This is not typical Mormon genre; cheesy, preachy, the typical markings of some of the Mormon-genre films. It’s real, it’s authentic, and it makes you feel all the typical human emotions,” Treu said.
Julia Watson Fellows summed up her reaction following a screening in one word: “Wow!”
“What a professional, entertaining and enlightening documentary that gave me the good fortune to experience a range of emotions from laughter, to sadness, to a swelling of the heart…Without hesitation, I can say that all will leave the theater uplifted…They will walk away edified,” Fellows said.
BYU advertised the movie on campus during Education Week with an informational booth in the Wilkinson Student Center and a special advance screening held in the Joseph Smith Building. The theater filled with standing room only.
People lined up early the next day for tickets to another screening, but there was no plan for a second screening.
Treu and a volunteer bought a date stamp from the BYU Store, cut up strips of paper and made 800 tickets. They disappeared within an hour. The surprise second screening filled to capacity, and some even had to be turned away.
Bob Wily posted his reaction to the Education Week screening on the “Meet the Mormons” website. “Just saw the sneak preview at BYU Education Week in Provo, UT. The movie was beautiful, touching, and authentic. Really, just stunning.”
In addition to meetthemormons.com and word-of-mouth screenings, the campaign also utilizes Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube to spread the word.
The success of the opening weekend will determine how long it is in theaters. Documentaries typically don’t compete well with other releases because they are not perceived as being entertaining.
“Church critics want this to flop,” Treu said. “They do not want this to come out. They do not want others to see it.”
Treu encourages students to be part of history and see “Meet the Mormons” on the big screen Oct. 10.
“It’s the difference of ‘I saw it opening weekend,’ or ‘I saw it on my laptop six months later.’ It’s a win-win; good, uplifting entertainment and a donation to the American Red Cross,” Treu said.
Several theaters, including Cinemark and AMC, will host the film at locations across the country. Hosting cities may be viewed on the “Meet the Mormons” website, meetthemormons.com. If a desired location is not listed, members may also request a showing through the same site.
Locations hosting the film in the BYU area include Provo’s Cinemark 16 and Orem’s Cinemark University Mall.
Post box-office, “Meet the Mormons” is expected to follow the traditional post-theater path: showings on TV and streaming sites, viewings in LDS visitor centers and release on DVD.