BYU Studies and the State of Mormon Film

Submitted by BCC Guest Gideon Burton

Latter-day Saints have noticed over the last few years a variety of independent Mormon films coming to theaters and on DVD, starting with God’s Army in 2000. But that’s just the tip of the ice berg! For the last few years, Randy Astle and I have been researching Mormons and film, and together with several film scholars we have assembled a special double issue of BYU Studies devoted to Mormons and film.

Randy Astle’s history divides Mormon cinema into five “waves” or periods (God’s Army began not the first but the fifth wave of Mormon cinema, one characterized by a new commercial and cultural viability for theatrical Mormon-themed films). The story of Mormon cinema is an epic one with a cast of thousands going way back to the origins of film. It includes anti-Mormon films (such as Trapped by the Mormons, discussed by James D’Arc and placed within the vampire tradition); church films (such as Legacy, analyzed by Thomas Lefler and me as we also evaluate what sorts of film styles are appropriate for Mormon cinema); and many independent efforts (such as Richard Dutcher’s work or the recent “rockumentary” New York Doll, discussed by Terryl Givens as he examines paradoxes at work in Mormon culture and manifest in Mormon films).

The issue also includes articles that look at how Mormons experience film (Travis Anderson of BYU’s International Cinema program talks about seeking the good rather than monitoring the bad when Mormons watch film; Sharon Swenson talks about the role movies play in her spiritual life and how reflecting on film can be a profound personal and social experience), and on the business models for emerging Mormon cinema (discussed by Eric Samuelsen). Film reviews look critically at Helen Whitney’s recent PBS documentary, The Mormons; at one of the “Fit for the Kingdom” documentaries about everyday Mormons called Angie; at Whiteley’s New York Doll; and at the films that showed at the recent LDS Film Festival.

Randy Astle and I have entered over 3000 films made by or about Mormons into the Mormon Literature & Creative Arts database and we encourage the public to alert us to films or details we’ve overlooked (RandyAstle at-yahoo dotcom, Gideon_Burton at-byu dotedu). The more we talk about Mormon film, the more we continue to discover its breadth. Our hope is to give an “establishing shot” that opens many constructive conversations about a medium that has in many ways defined Mormonism (for better and for worse) during the last century and which promises to be an ongoing part of missionary work, public relations, church curriculum, Mormon popular culture, and personal LDS artistic expression for a long time to come.

Those subscribing to BYU Studies by August 25 will receive the film issue as their first issue (annual subscriptions are $25, see here, or stand alone copies of the issue will be on sale for about $18 starting in September).

I’d love to open the conversation to readers, so fire off your comments. A lot of our issue got “left on the cutting room floor” as it were, and it would be fun to bring to light some of the films and topics that we couldn’t squeeze into our 342 pages.

One of those topics is church films. Randy Astle covers these quite a bit in his history, and Tom Lefler and I spend a lot of time on Legacy, but the issue didn’t have room for a long analysis we’d done of church films and of three distinct genres of Mormon film (both institutional and independent) that have emerged: the missionary film, the church history film, and the Book of Mormon film. If there’s interest, I’ll post some of these “outtakes” for readers here (though they are not in the vein of comical bloopers; I think it’s really good stuff but we just didn’t have room for it in print).

Gideon Burton
Film issue co-editor


  1. As one of your former students, I’m excited to read the issue.

    Do you also look at the “sacramental” element of church films in your analysis? I remember talking about this in class. I think that was your term for the increasingly common practice in church films over the last few yeras to “stage” famous paintings in a live action tableau of sorts. Is that a T.C. Christiansen invention, does anyone know?

  2. My husband is currently in the film (or media arts, actually) program at BYU. It has been very interesting to learn all about the Mormon and BYU film culture through him. I think there is a lot (a LOT) of room for Mormon cinema to grow, and I hope it does. This will be a very interesting issue of BYU studies, and I’m sure my husband, as well as I, will be very interested in reading it.
    I think a huge thing to consider of Mormon cinema is the audience. While movies like Singles Ward and the RM are obviously for a Mormon audience, there is also a lot of room for Mormon cinema to reach a broader, more national audience. My husband just produced a film that we hope (hope!) will reach that bigger audience. I think there are a lot more Mormon movie makers out there who we don’t realize are really influencing the Hollywood scene.

  3. When I got the notice about this through the AML List news email, I immediately subscribed to BYU Studies so I could get this issue. I am a graduate of BYU’s media arts program and an old classmate of Randy Astle’s. I always like to find out about and support the work of my past classmates (no longer colleagues because I am now a librarian, and not a filmmaker). Randy is an excellent person and I have been coveting from a far his job in the Library working on the Mormon Literature Database. Can’t wait to read this issue!

  4. I missed the film session at MHA this year, but as they recently made the sessions available digitally, I was able to listen to it, and enjoyed it quite a bit. It seems like you already had much to work with, but that MHA session is worth checking out as well.

    Trapped by the Mormons is related to the vampire genre…I wonder what The god Makers fits into (besides schlock).

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    As a bit of a film buff myself, I am greatly looking forward to the special issue. And I would be very interested in the stuff that didn’t make the print edition; please post away.

  6. Baurak Ale says:

    I think the following link below illustrates the current state of affairs regarding Mormon Cinema.