Compared with the mega-attention another religious movie received, this was a decidedly low-key local premiere.
About 400 people gathered in the Torrance High School auditorium Tuesday night to see the new film based on the Book of Mormon and to hear its director, Gary Rogers, discuss the movie's creation and how he is showing it in one-night or weeklong stints around the country.
That, of course, is a far cry from the hoopla and huge box office grosses for Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." But Mormon audience members say Rogers' movie, "The Book of Mormon Movie, Volume 1: The Journey," has special significance to them, even if ticket sales are a tiny fraction of those of "The Passion."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not endorse the movie -- as a voice-over says before it starts. However, members of the Los Angeles Temple who went to the Torrance screening said it would be an educational experience for anyone unfamiliar with the Mormon Church.
"It's a good introduction to the Book of Mormon," said Carolyn Allen, who works for the Church's Southern California Public Affairs Council.
"I think it makes people think about their own beliefs," said her husband, Jack.
Rogers, who is Mormon, said his dream to create the film started when, as a boy, he saw Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments."
"So many people have produced stories from the Bible -- wonderful stories," said Rogers, who grew up in Salt Lake City. "The Book of Mormon is a similar book of Scripture ... and nobody had attempted to make a movie."
The two-hour film depicts the prophets Lehi and Nephi and their family's travels from Jerusalem to the Americas in what Mormons believe was the start of a new civilization, 600 years before Christ's birth. The movie ends in the book 2nd Nephi, Chapter 5. Rogers plans eight more installments.
He started writing the script on and off about three years ago. At that time he owned the Salt Lake-based company International Television Productions. He sold the business in 2001 to devote time to finishing the script and starting the film.
Private investors funded the $1.5-million movie and provided an additional $500,000 for marketing. The movie has sold about $1.5 million in tickets so far, and its revenues will be boosted by a DVD version due out at the end of April, Rogers said.
"It's a miracle that we ever did this in the first place," said Rogers, 61. "Most people spend more money making a 60-second commercial."
Rogers and the film crew spent their money on locations in Hawaii and Utah, and at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.
The movie opened in September in Salt Lake City, where the Mormon Church is headquartered. Since then, it has been shown in 12 states and Germany. In California, the movie is playing in theaters and special venues in Temecula, Riverside, Pasadena, Concord and other cities through April. The sites mainly are school auditoriums and small theaters. (The website www.book ofmormonmovie.com has screening schedules.)
The film is narrated by the lead character, Nephi, but also is told from the perspective of a teenage Joseph Smith, the 19th century prophet who founded the Mormon church. Mormons believe he received heavenly messengers when he was 17 years old, telling him to uncover the book where it was buried in upstate New York so he could restore the church to Earth.
With the exception of some creative liberties -- such as adding dialogue -- the movie correctly depicts the Scripture, audience members said.
"One of the things I liked most is how close to the text of the Book of Mormon it was," said Jared Casper, a Mormon who lives in San Pedro and attended the Torrance screening.
Rey Marvive, 36, and his wife arrived at Torrance High School 45 minutes early to find front row seats.
Marvive, who lives in Torrance and has read the book all his life, said, "I've been waiting for this. To actually see it on screen would be nice."
The Allens thought parts of the movie might be difficult to understand for those who don't follow the religion, but non-Mormons still could learn something.
Carolyn Allen said she hoped non-Mormons would perceive Nephi's "noble characteristics."
Noah Danby, who plays Nephi, is not a Mormon and knew little about the faith before the movie. He said Nephi's traits had attracted him to the role.
"He didn't win those battles with a sword or with his strength, but with his faith in God and his love for his family," said Danby, 29, a Toronto native.
About 15 Mormon-themed movies have been produced since 2000, according to ldsfilm.com, a website devoted to Mormon movies. The site says there are about 40 more coming to theaters or scheduled to start filming soon.
People involved in the movie said that they hadn't seen any other Mormon film solely about the Scripture and that they hoped the film helped clear up any misconceptions about Mormons.
"If you were to look back historically in movies, you'll find that they're portrayed as polygamists or Quakers. It really was a poor misunderstanding of the members of the church," said Conrad Denke, a Mormon and president of Victory Studios, which did the post-production work on the movie.
"What people hope is that it will bring out an awareness of what we believe as Mormons," he said.
Dr. Jan Shipps, an expert on the Mormon Church, hasn't seen it, but she suggested that the movie could help Mormons educate themselves.
A filmed Book of Mormon can be "important in a television age where lots of people know that the Scriptures are important but they haven't been reared in homes where the Scriptures were read," said Shipps, a non-Mormon who is professor of history and religion at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.
Some viewers said that the film was too long and that its small budget was evident and made it seem hokey.
"You can never please all the people, all the time, especially when you're re-creating a book that is so sacred and so loved by so many people all over the world," Rogers said.
Rogers has his own self-criticism. He wishes that he had had enough money to hire a professional screenwriter for the first movie, as he has done for the second. He also said that too much information had been included and not enough character development.
Still, Rogers said, he has been pleased with positive audience reaction: "We are finding that we are touching people. I am seeing people coming to us after the movie just in tears."