Richard Dutcher: An army of one

Most theaters won’t screen his movie, most audiences won’t watch it, the LDS church won’t support it-or even comment, for that matter-and most other independent filmmakers barely recognize him as an artist.

Utah’s independent director Richard Dutcher remains outside the proverbial box.

His film, “God’s Army 2: States of Grace,” which was re-released Jan. 20 with little fanfare, is argued by some to be not only Dutcher’s best film, but also a film that transcends its director’s faith and dares to ask challenging questions.

“I’m interested in films that explore rather than teach,” Dutcher said. “I’m interested in things that are concerns to me, contemporary issues in Mormon life?two things I take seriously are cinema and religion, not just Mormonism.”

Much like the first “God’s Army,” which was released in 2000, the film demonstrates the hardships of LDS missionaries serving in modern-day Los Angeles.

With “States of Grace,” Dutcher said, “I wanted to show that, regardless of race or creed or sex or age, all of these characters are extremely flawed and look to Jesus to help them.”

“States of Grace” is also about a gangster caught between lives, an aspiring actress reduced to pornography and a street preacher who fell from grace and is seeking redemption-a recurring theme in the movie.

But it’s not only the content of the film or the PG-13 rating that has kept audiences away.

Dutcher believes most people aren’t seeing “States of Grace” because it came on the heels of other bad films.

“When I came out with ‘God’s Army,'” Dutcher said in an interview, “I was so excited, I felt like really, for the first time, Mormon culture and Mormon doctrine was going to be able to express itself and reach a greater audience. Now you almost have to drag the audiences into the theater. Their expectations are really low.”

“It’s not the audience’s fault,” Dutcher said. “I feel like it’s the filmmakers’ because they’ve violated the audience’s trust.”

Dutcher released the first “God’s Army” to much critical acclaim and cinematic buzz. The film was the first movie ever to be made by and about Mormons.

Independently produced with only a $300,000 budget, “God’s Army” made millions and a gold rush of Mormon-themed films followed suit. Now, the loose-knit genre is more than two-dozen films strong.

But not all movies are created equal.

U film studies student Taylor Hellewell said he prefers Dutcher’s work to other Mormon films because “he’s not painting the Osmond twins’ portrait,” Hellewell said.

Hellewell, who was born LDS and served an LDS mission, said he respects Dutcher’s work because “he shows the foibles along with the strengths, which I think is a really beautiful thing.”

But, according to some, “States of Grace” isn’t just for LDS audiences.

“What Dutcher has put on screen,” Sharon Swenson, a BYU film theory professor, said, “is a spiritual journey couched in Mormon doctrine but is more universal than that. He’s done something really brave.”

At a free, and overflowing, interfaith post-screening panel at Regency Trolley Square Theaters on Jan. 11, Dutcher said, “It’s very difficult as a Mormon filmmaker not to make people think you’re trying to convert them. There’s nothing in this film that says you have to be LDS.”

After the interfaith panel, Dutcher said two former LDS lesbian women came up to him and said they loved his movie.

David Rowe, ordained in the Conservative Baptist Church, author of I Love Mormons and also on the panel, said, “(Dutcher) takes it further than I expected. The film transcends into that terrain of pluralism,” referring to Dutcher’s multi-religious perspective in the film.

But all the positive feedback hasn’t yet changed the fact that hardly anybody is seeing the film.

According to LDSFilm.com, the first “God’s Army” grossed $2,628,829 in theaters alone and probably more than doubled that in DVD and VHS sales.

Meanwhile, “States of Grace” only picked up $59,711 during the film’s one-week Thanksgiving holiday release last November, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. But Christopher Pratte, the public relations coordinator for Dutcher’s Main Street Movie Co., said that the figure was closer to double that estimate.

“I don’t want to go spend eight bucks on a bad movie any more than anyone else,” Dutcher said. “What’s tough is to distinguish myself from the (other filmmakers). The sad realization was that others don’t make that distinction.”

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