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Larry Miller finds work, glory in new LDS movie|
$7.4M labor of love: The movie's executive producer hopes it will make money
By Sean P. Means
The Salt Lake Tribune
Nov 24, 2004
It's a Saturday night, and the Delta Center is rocking.
The crowd is cheering the Utah Jazz to victory over the Detroit Pistons. Music is pumping, the Jazz dancers are shaking their pompoms and, in the middle of everything, Jazz owner Larry H. Miller is sitting courtside with a couple of actors.
The actors, Sam Hennings and Alexander Carroll, star in the newest product of Miller's business empire, "The Work and the Glory," a Mormon-themed historical drama opening today in Utah movie theaters. While they enjoy the game, the movie's trailer plays on the JumboTron and "The Work and the Glory" T-shirts are given away by remote-controlled blimps floating over the stands.
Miller is the movie's executive producer, having bankrolled its $7.4 million budget - the most ever spent on an LDS-related movie. For Miller, the movie has become not just a business deal but a labor of love.
"I'm way past being objective - it's like talking about your kids," Miller said to an early pre-screening audience. "As time's gone on, all of us associated with the film have been drawn into it emotionally."
When producer Scott Swofford first approached Miller about the project in early 2003, though, Miller was wary. "The first thing he asked was, 'Is this business or is this charity?' " Swofford recalled. "I said, 'I hope it's business.' "
Since Richard Dutcher's "God's Army" opened up the Mormon Cinema genre in 2000, Miller said many LDS filmmakers have sought him as an investor. "They're like bananas; they come in bunches," Miller said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Miller has supported Mormon Cinema in various ways. He provided finishing funds to Dutcher's second movie, "Brigham City," and has committed money to market and distribute Dutcher's "God's Army II" next spring. Work Glory - Miller's Jordan Commons is a popular place to premiere LDS films, and both Miller and Jordan Commons appeared in the comedy "The R.M."
Swofford, better known for making IMAX documentaries, such as "Amazon," produced movies for the LDS Church but stayed out of the Mormon Cinema genre before this. "Some stories should be told when they are ready to be told," Swofford said, adding that he didn't want to attempt "The Work and the Glory" without the money to make the period story look authentic.
The movie adapts Pillar of Light, the first of Gerald N. Lund's nine-book series that sets the fictional Steed family in the events of the LDS Church's early history. The books have sold more than 2 million copies and have a devoted fan base that includes Miller.
"I got really hooked, and by the time I got done with volume 4 or 5, I said to [my wife] Gail, 'I gotta go meet him,' " said Miller, who now counts Gerald and Lynn Lund among his best friends. Miller said Lund had tried for years to get a movie version made, but most producers would not give Lund editorial control. Eventually Lund formed a company with Swofford and director-screenwriter Russ Holt and asked Miller ("very sheepishly," Miller said) to talk to Swofford.
Miller found the movie business doesn't always work like his other businesses. "My general feeling in anything - I don't care if it's the Jazz or this film or anything else I do - is if we're going to do it, let's do it right," Miller said. "With a film, [the budget] can get away from you so far and so fast that if you just turn somebody loose, even somebody well-meaning and with some discipline, you wind up with double the budget really quick. . . . You kind of do it backwards: Adhere to the budget religiously and hope the product works out OK."
The $7.4 million helped pay for professional actors, like Brenda Strong (from ABC's hit show "Desperate Housewives") as the Steed matriarch and Jonathan Scarfe (who played Jesus in the ABC movie "Judas") as LDS Church founder Joseph Smith. The money also paid for quality costumes, set design and visual effects - touches most Mormon Cinema entries couldn't afford.
"It allows you to set the details that suspend disbelief," said Jeff Simpson, president of Excel Entertainment, the Salt Lake City company distributing the film.
Swofford said Holt stayed on budget and on schedule. Miller ponied up another $900,000 to market the film, Swofford said, adding, "Excel really did say, 'It's not going to be our fault that not every possible person didn't know about it.' "
Miller, over the objections of Swofford and Simpson, made one of the crucial marketing decisions: Setting the Utah opening date for Thanksgiving weekend. Hollywood studios roll out their big titles on holidays, and independent films usually steer clear of the stampede.
"That made 'em nervous," Miller recalled. "Either it's as good as we think it is or it isn't. . . . If it's going to work, let's find out early. To me, if you walk away from something, whether it's this or something else - and I use this as a benchmark for myself and my people all the time - let's at least say we gave it our best shot."
"We all said let's take a more moderate approach," Swofford said. "Larry said, 'You want me to be moderately successful, and you're robbing me of the chance to be resoundingly successful.' "
"The Work and the Glory" will open nationwide January 21. Swofford said that in test screenings outside Utah, between 59 percent and 69 percent of the randomly selected audience members gave it "very good" or "excellent" ratings. Such reactions are key to getting the "crossover" audience that has so far eluded Mormon Cinema films.
Attracting non-Mormon audiences may take more people investing as Miller has, said Mitch Davis, who directed the missionary drama "The Other Side of Heaven."
"We need to be prepared to put our money where our mouth is," Davis said, adding that "it's a tremendously magnanimous and bold thing that Larry Miller has done . . . to get the movement on the map."
Davis noted that Mormon Cinema has not yet had a major actor in one of its films ("Princess Diaries" star Anne Hathaway was not yet famous when she appeared in "The Other Side of Heaven"). Mormon films will score with the general public, he said, "when somebody writes a movie and comes up with enough budget to get a major actor or two."
Miller hopes to make back his $7.4 million, "but if it lost some money, that's not a big deal to me," he said. "I think I can subjectively say there's value in the work itself."
Whether "The Work and the Glory" makes money will determine whether there are any sequels; Miller and Swofford envision five more movies to cover the saga, and a script for the second chapter is in the works. "If it were a big loss [on the first film], knowing there were likely going to be six films in total, plus or minus one, it would be tough to justify that six times," Miller said.
"I think the story deserves being told, and being told properly and right," Miller said. "It's kind of a flyer, just taking a roll of the dice. But I feel OK about it."
Production of the new Joseph Smith Movie by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints Work Glory