Let’s take a quick glance at box office figures for LDS films released since 2000: (films are arranged chronologically by release date — box office figures are in thousands)
- God’s Army 2,637k
- Brigham City 852k
- The Other Side of Heaven 4720k
- The Singles Ward 1250k
- Charly 814k
- The RM 1111k
- The Legend of Johnny Lingo 1690k
- Pride & Prejudice 377k
- The Book of Mormon Movie 1680k
- The Home Teachers 203k
- Work & Glory Part 1 3347k
- Baptists At Our Barbecue 173k
- The Best Two Years 1163k
- Saints & Soldiers 1310k
- States of Grace 203k
- Mobsters & Mormons 409k
- Work & Glory 2 2025k
- New York Doll 219k
- Sons of Provo 120k
- Work & Glory 3 1325k
- Church Ball 464k
- Suits on the Loose 80k
- Return With Honor 103k
- Passage to Zarahemla 292k
- Forever Strong 719k
- Emma Smith: My Story 881k
- The Errand of Angels 195k
Normally, you might expect that box office would increase over time as the modern LDS cinema industry progressed. More and more talented filmmakers would start getting involved, and later films could build on what worked previously and what didn’t.
Strangely, it has been the opposite. LDS films can’t actually be getting worse over time, can they?
Not necessarily… Perhaps there are other factors that lead to decreasing box office regardless of film quality?
Let’s look at some factors that may influence LDS film box office.
Throughout history, the primary metric for judging a film’s ‘success’ has been its box office take in theaters. That may not be fair or accurate in today’s industry, as many films now make a large share of their profits from DVD sales and rentals, and other forms of distribution.
The DVD element may be even more significant with LDS films because of demographics. Per capita, LDS families are far more likely to have children than other families, and having kids has a big influence on viewing choices.
Going to the theater means finding a babysitter for the kids at the minimum, whereas staying at home with a DVD allows parents to watch the same movie in their own home at their own convenience, with the ability to pause at any time to take care of any child-related emergencies.
With the emergence of fancy home theaters, the difference between sound and visual quality between home and theater has started to become smaller and smaller. Maybe it makes sense that many LDS families would be more naturally inclined to watch movies they are interested in on DVD, even if they have to wait an extra 4-6 months for the DVD release.
The price of going to movies in theaters is another important factor that favors DVD viewing. Since LDS families in general marry and have children at younger age than society at large, household budgets will generally be tighter, with more limited recreational spending.
Even those couples that have regular date nights every week will probably not be inclined to spend the $20 + travel + babysitter + concessions it would cost for a theater experience, compared to the $14.95 for a standard Netflix rental plan that provides movies for an entire month.
The movie system as a whole puts generally lower-budget LDS films at a severe disadvantage from the beginning. In the video game industry, for instance, there are large-budget games that take hundreds of developers and millions of dollars in costs to create, versus smaller game studios (or single individuals) that produce games on the cheap without the high production costs.
Those smaller studios have to compete for consumer attention with the big boys, but they have one advantage – they can offer their games at a lower cost. Instead of the usual $50-$70 for a big budget computer or console game, a smaller “independent” game can be priced at $20 or less, providing good value for the dollar even if they don’t have the resources or visuals of the bigger games.
That’s not an option in the movie industry under the current system. Buying a movie ticket to an LDS film like One Good Man costs exactly the same amount as a ticket to any summer blockbuster that cost $200 million to produce.
LDS filmmakers do not have the ability to offer their product at a lower cost in order to make up for any difference in entertainment “value”. If LDS families go to movies in theaters at a low rate to begin with, they will probably naturally tend to choose those higher budget “event” films, since (the price being the same) they seem to represent the greater value in the end.
(In 2005, for example, my wife and I – with two kids already – saw a total of three movies in the theater: Star Wars Episode III, Batman Begins, and King Kong. When Mobsters and Mormons or Sons of Provo came out in theaters in 2005, was either film really that likely to displace one of those three for us, for the same ticket price?)
Another inherent disadvantage of the theater system is the need to ‘gather together’ a large group of people at one place and time. In order to stay in theaters at all, movies require a ‘critical mass’ of viewers who are willing to buy tickets at scheduled screenings.
That means while the US has a fairly large LDS population country-wide, only the concentrated LDS population in Utah, Idaho, and Northern Arizona has the potential to have actual screenings of LDS films. Other areas will never provide the ‘critical mass’ of viewers to arrange screenings of LDS films, and viewers in those locations will never have the opportunity to contribute to LDS film box office even if they wanted to.
With DVDs or online streams, of course, the ‘critical mass’ of viewers required for an audience is exactly one. For LDS families who do not live in a highly-LDS areas that might support a handful of theater screenings, their options for viewing LDS films are DVD, online stream or nothing.
The general movie industry has changed significantly in the past couple of decades. The shift away from theaters being the primary focus of the movie experience has already begun, though DVD, Blu-ray and online distribution. Many consumers have found films can be enjoyed in private home theaters or on the computer without the trouble (and cost) of going to the theater.
All these factors imply that the criteria for “success” for an LDS film – if not the entire distribution model altogether — cannot depend on movie theaters and box office numbers. It’s arguable that the decreasing box office of LDS films is only tangential to actual film quality. Perhaps the LDS film industry needs to take more of a leading role in using alternate methods of distribution in order to find larger audiences – meeting the needs of both large LDS families with kids, and those who large LDS population centers.
Oh, and create good films, too. Let’s not forget that…
[Cross-posted at LDS Cinema Online]