The unprofitable “Work and the Glory”

It does get so tiring being right all the time, but here I am again.

When Utah millionaire Larry H. Miller announced last year that he would put $7 million into the production of a movie based on the first volume in the “Work and the Glory” historical-fiction series, I thought, “He’s insane. There is no way he will ever get that money back.”

If you’re not familiar with it, “The Work and the Glory” is a nine-part series of novels set in the early days of the LDS Church. It follows the fictional Steed family as they interact with various real-life people connected with early church history — Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, folks like that. The books are enormously popular among the LDS faithful and have sold more than 2 million copies all together (many of those were bought by the same people, of course, since there are nine books in the series, but still).

Turning the books into films was a no-brainer, but apparently deciding how much to spend on the movie was a no-brainer, too. Look at the facts: The highest-grossing Mormon-themed film so far was “The Other Side of Heaven,” which topped out at $4.7 million and which contained very little LDS-specific doctrine or cultural material, which means it stood a chance of being watched by non-Mormons, too.

For “The Work and the Glory” to turn a profit, it would need to make almost twice as much money as “The Other Side of Heaven” did. Is such a thing possible? Sure. It may happen someday that a movie from the LDS Cinema movement is good enough, non-inclusive enough and marketed well enough to gain an audience wider than just Mormons. But there was NO WAY “The Work and the Glory” was going to be it. The story is too specifically Mormon, dealing with Joseph Smith and his heavenly visions, and with the other characters’ crises of faith. We like to pretend that regular people have at least a passing interest in early American history and might be curious to see a film in which Joseph Smith is a character, but we’re kidding ourselves. The only people who want to see a movie about early-19th-century Mormons — if indeed anyone does — are Mormons.

So by and large, only Mormons will see “The Work and the Glory.” Fair enough. Are there enough Mormons in the potential viewing audience, then, for it to make $7 million at the box office? No. They would need to be Mormons a) of movie-going age (no very young children, no absurdly old adults); b) who ever, ever go to the movies anyway; c) who live in an area where the film is playing; and d) who have any interest whatsoever in seeing “The Work and the Glory” when they could be seeing “The Incredibles” or “National Treasure” or whatever.

To make $7 million, the movie would have to be seen by 1,000,000 people. I don’t think there ARE a million people who fit the criteria I just mentioned. Only about 670,000 people saw “The Other Side of Heaven”; why would 50 percent MORE people watch this movie? About 350,000 people saw “God’s Army,” which was well-reviewed and had the benefit of being the first film in the modern LDS Cinema movement. Why would three times as many people watch “The Work and the Glory”? Why would so many people who DIDN’T watch those other films come watch this one?

Because it was a popular book? Maybe. A source tells me the FIRST volume in the series (which is the basis for this movie) has sold 338,000 copies. Even if every single one of those people sees the movie — heck, even if they each bring a friend, too — we’re still only in “Other Side of Heaven” territory, financially speaking.

I’m harping on this because I don’t understand why no one harped on it to Larry H. Miller before he embarked on his noble but foolhardy endeavor. It’s not like I have any inside information or magic knowledge of the workings of LDS movies. It’s all pretty obvious.

The problem is that everyone keeps thinking THEIR movie will finally be the one to have major cross-over appeal, to get non-Mormons as well as Mormons into the theater. But the only ones that have done it — “The Other Side of Heaven” and “Saints and Soldiers” — have been the ones that have downplayed the Mormon content. A film that is obviously, undeniably, inherently saturated with Mormonism — a film like, say, “The Work and the Glory” — will only be of interest to Mormons. To overcome that, it would have to be SUCH a good movie that EVERY critic who saw it raved and raved about it in the newspapers, urging everyone, regardless of religion, to run out and see it. And while I admire each filmmakers’ optimism in thinking their film might be the one to get such a reception, again, let’s not kid ourselves.

After three weekends in theaters, “The Work and the Glory” has grossed $765,381 — highly respectable for its genre, but not even close to indicating it will go on to gross $7 million. Each weekend its box office has dropped off precipitously: $251,145 the first weekend, then $106,702, then $68,956 — and that’s despite adding two or three more theaters every week. I suspect that within a few weeks, all the people who want to see it will have done so, and it will max out at maybe $1.5 million. Larry H. Miller will have lost $5.5 million. I’m not crying for him; the guy can afford it. But it’s sad to think such a tragedy could have been averted. Larry, the next time you want to throw $5.5 million away, CALL ME. I have so many ideas.