'Meet the Mormons' Proves the Box Office Power of Faith-Based Audiences

Purdie Distribution expects to expand the documentary beyond its initial 317 screens

Meet the Mormons opened on 317 screens on Friday and has already made its way onto the list of the Top 100 documentary films of all time, and its distributor, Purdie Distribution, expects it to climb much higher very soon.

The film — which is either a feel-good look at the diversity of Mormons or church-financed propaganda, depending on your news source — earned $2.5 million over the weekend even though its audience fell 95 percent from Saturday to Sunday as Mormons observed the Sabbath.

Brandon Purdie, who founded Purdie Distribution four years ago, says he expects Monday’s numbers to be as good as they were on Friday and Saturday, a pattern he saw with The Saratov Approach, a movie he distributed last year. That film, which tells the true story of Mormon missionaries kidnapped in Russia, earned $137,226 in its opening weekend on 23 screens, though it eventually expanded to 84 theaters and earned $2.1 million.

The Saratov Approach, though, had something going for it that has so far eluded Meet the Mormons: some positive reviews. At Rotten Tomatoes, zero percent of eight professional reviewers liked the movie as opposed to 91 percent of the audience. Such a score makes it noteworthy because the gap is larger than nearly all other movies at the widely-used website.

Read more 'Meet the Mormons' Film Review

One particularly harsh review from Roger Moore of McClatchy-Tribune News Service chastises the movie for not bringing up “the homophobia that stormed out of the closet when Mormon money and organizers pushed California’s anti-gay Proposition 8 — ‘Proposition Hate,’ it was nicknamed.” Moore also dismisses the movie as “nothing but propaganda” and accuses Mormons of a “long history” of racism.

“We kind of expected those reviews,” said producer Jeff Roberts. “Most reviewers wanted the movie to be controversial, but we wanted to tell stories about those who make up our base.”

Purdie acknowledges that the tremendous drop-off from Saturday to Sunday is a sign that non-Mormons aren’t seeing the movie yet, though he also says he is encouraged that the film is playing well in New York and other markets not known for their Mormon presence. Purdie, in fact, expects not only to have a big Monday but also to expand the number of screens this week. “We’re going to hold over aggressively across the board,” he said.

He also said he pursued normal distribution arrangements where theater owners get a portion of the ticket sales, as opposed to so-called “four-wall” deals where theaters are simply rented out to filmmakers.

Meet the Mormons was produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and church leaders have been asking Mormons to see the film and to use social media to encourage outsiders to see it, as well. All proceeds from the movie are going to the American Red Cross, and the church won’t even recoup its costs, Roberts said. Excel Entertainment Group, a unit of Deseret Book Co., owned by the church, will distribute the DVD.

Read more 'The Saratov Approach' Film Review

Meet the Mormons opens with a montage of pop culture references to the religion. In a scene from The Simpsons, for example, Homer confuses space aliens with Mormons while in South Park the only inhabitants of Heaven appear to be Mormons. The film then segues into stories about six different Mormons: an African-American bishop; a coach of the U.S. Naval Academy football team; a Nepal convert who is helping to build schools in his country; a female kickboxer in Costa Rica; and U.S. Air Force pilot Gail Halvorsen, known as the original “candy bomber” for distributing candy to children via parachutes during the Berlin Airlift.

The church is advertising the movie on TV and radio in Utah, Idaho and Arizona where many of the nation’s 6 million Mormons live, and then relying on the faithful to do much of the rest of the marketing.

“We’re looking to our members to share it with their friends who don’t share our faith, but they have to see it before they share it,” Roberts said.

Roberts has produced about 40 movies internally for the church, though this is the first — from either him or the church — to receive theatrical distribution. He said the movie was made under the assumption it would play for three to five years at the Legacy Theater at the Church’s Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah. Positive feedback from pre-screenings encouraged a theatrical release, but the Church still plans on the film becoming a staple at Legacy and at a few dozen other visitor centers around the nation for years to come.

While some observers wonder if the strong box office — a per screen average of $7,860 over this past weekend put Meet the Mormons in the same company as Gone Girl, which played on 3,284 screens — was artificially boosted somehow, Roberts says that that is not the case.

“These are legitimate box-office returns,” he said. “I know that some members bought out entire theaters, but that didn’t come from headquarters at all. And we haven’t rented theaters. These are traditional distribution deals.”

Email: Paul.Bond@THR.com