SALT LAKE CITY — When Christian Vuissa organized the first Mormon-related film festival, he wasn't sure anyone would come. Now in its eighth year, Vuissa said that feeling hasn't changed.
"We never know how it's going to go. We don't really advertise. We hang up posters, and that's about it," Vuissa, the festival founder and filmmaker, said during Wednesday's opening. "I don't know if anyone is going to show up."
Vuissa may not need to worry. Ticket sales show the LDS Film Festival has enjoyed an average attendance growth of more than 40 percent over the past few years. Last year, some 6,500 attended screenings of feature films, short films and documentaries at the SCERA Center for the Arts in Orem.
The 2009 event will screen more than 100 films over four days, including some 40 films from the festival's 24-hour Filmmmaking Marathon contest held last week.
And that's despite what appears to be a lagging commercial interest in films targeted at members of Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The festival is not sanctioned by or connected to the church, but filmmakers take their cue from the faith's conservative mores, which include counseling members against watching racy, R-rated movies.
In the early part of the decade, several small-budget LDS-theme films surged to some critical and commercial success. Movies like Richard Dutcher's tale about church missionaries in Los Angeles _ "God's Army" _ and Halestorm Entertainment's comedic turn on the singles scene inside a Mormon congregation _ "The Singles Ward" _ brought new attention to Mormons and fueled an emerging genre of film that caught the interest of non-Mormon viewers.
But that momentum has waned, said Halestorm co-founder Kurt Hale.
"I think there was a time when our genre was really fresh and new and there was a novelty there. That's diminished," he said.
Film genres seem naturally cyclical. Big movie studios may have a run on comedies or action-driven superhero films, but each typically runs its course and the cycle begins again, Hale said.
"I would argue it's the same in this market," he said. "It might just take a while for our audiences to get hungry and support an LDS-themed film in the cineplex."
What's grown in the aftermath of Mormon novelty films are smaller, quieter films driven by characters and intimate stories rather than "spectacles," that trade on Mormon stereotypes, Hale said.
Some may argue that the squeaky-clean, family friendly Mormon values may present filmmakers with too many artistic limitations.
Vuissa, however, sees opportunities there and says the argument applies beyond just films for Latter-day Saints.
"There are certain sensibilities that belong to any community. I think when you look at certain film movements that can be limiting or it can be defining," he said. It's the same with budgets. I'm in a situation where I am making films for $200,000 or less. That's not much, but sometimes, creativity comes out of that limitation."
While the festival carries an LDS theme, Vuissa said religious affiliation with the Mormon church isn't required for anyone submitting a film, nor must films be only about Mormons.
The 2009 lineup appears to have more non-Mormon films, said filmmaker Alla Volkova. The 23-year-old Russian immigrant who has two films in the festival, says that's good.
"I'm a firm believer that LDS cinema should not be about Mormon culture, but about bringing out values into larger stories," said Volkova, who joined the church last year. "Good stories, that is the most important thing."
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