WHEN LIVING SCRIPTURES was set up in 1974, the company sold audio cassettes which dramatised the Mormon texts. Jared Brown and Seldon Young, the co-founders, sent salesmen door-to-door in Ogden, Utah, and business was good: they soon expanded across the state and branched out into videotapes for children, animating the stories of the Old and New Testaments as well as the Book of Mormon.
By the beginning of the 21st century, things had changed. It was difficult to motivate an increasingly expensive sales force of 150 people to sell to the already converted. Videocassettes and DVDs were on their way out. Matt Brown, who would later take over the business from his father, decided in 2010 to change tack. “I could see the ship was going to burn down,” he says, echoing the Mormon founding legend in which the prophet Lehi sailed with his family to the Americas from Israel, at God’s urging, in 600BC. “We had to build a new one and hope it would get us to land.”
Now Living Scriptures is a Mormon streaming service. There are no more door-to-door sales, as targeted adverts on Facebook cost less and are more effective. (A shame, in a way, since “all our young people spend two years on missionary work overseas,” Mr Brown says, and “when they return they’re great salespeople, because they’re so comfortable talking to strangers.”) Yet the business’s ethos—combining “spiritual knowledge with fun stories”, according to its website—remains the same. Take out a subscription and for $9.99 a month a 3,000-strong library of movies, documentaries and animations is yours. A welcome email reads: “You are one of the brave ones helping us fight the bad media that is trying to invade our homes!” Living Scriptures has 200,000 regular users; many signed up during the lockdown.
At a time when trust in the mainstream media is low, America’s faith-oriented entertainment industry is thriving. FaithLife TV and Godify both offer “entertaining Christian content to a diverse following”. Among the throng of denominational streaming services are Pure Flix and Crossflix, designed for evangelical audiences, and The Saints, the “official” streaming service of the Mormon Church of Latter-day Saints.
Part of the appeal of these services is their safeness—the Living Scriptures website promises “Good Clean Fun”, “Wholesome Heroes” and “Stories that can be applied to life”. “I can leave the remote with the kids and I know they won’t see anything that offends them,” Mr Brown says. The films in the Living Scriptures library are the fruit of Utah’s lively Mormon movie industry, affectionately nicknamed “Mollywood”, which first began producing feature films a century ago. Many of the films have similar storylines, wherein a stranger comes into town with a mission, encounters bigotry, overcomes it and helps to heal the wounds of the community. The tone is comforting rather than challenging. Good always triumphs over evil; no character is beyond redemption.
These themes are adapted to fit different genres. In “Baptists at our Barbecue” (2004), a romantic-comedy, there are bust-ups, fires, broken engagements, sudden death, divine intervention, forgiveness and love. After many tests of faith and character, the hero, Tartan, finds a home in Longwinded, Arizona. He puts an end to the (fictional) town’s feud between the Baptists and the Mormons, and finds love with Charity, a charismatic blonde. “The Fighting Preacher” (2019, pictured), meanwhile, is a somewhat darker drama. In 1905 Willard Bean, a middle-weight boxing champion, and his family are sent on a mission by the Church’s founder to upstate New York, where they encounter suspicion and hatred. To overcome this Bean must step into the ring—both literally and figuratively—but it is through acts of kindness that he claims true victory.
Is Living Scriptures suitable for non-believers? Mr Brown says he welcomes sceptics: notwithstanding their religious themes, the films are meant to entertain. The service has attracted users outside Utah, the Mormon heartland, with 5,000 subscribers in Australia, the company’s biggest overseas market. The introduction of Spanish and Portuguese subtitles are making the films accessible to a non-English-speaking audience, too. Mr Brown acknowledges that the platform could include more secular content to appeal to a wider audience, but says pursuing the church’s core beliefs is the main priority. He points to a passage in the second book of Nephi: “We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ.”
Picture credit: Purdie Distribution / Courtesy Everett Collection