Mormons in Hollywood (The Blessings Of NON-Diversity)
May 23, 2013, 11:14 PM
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The Mormon sensibility in show biz is a long-term interest of mine. From my 2004 review in The American Conservative of Jared Hess's "Napoleon Dynamite:"

At the screening I attended, Hollywood's Bright Young Mormons were out in force as the theatre resounded with the lovely laughter of wholesome-looking starlets from the Great Basin. The twenty-something crowd found the small town misadventures and eventual triumph of an ornery high school geek (voted "Most Likely to Find Sasquatch") a cartoonish but redolent delight. This mild, PG-rated film is winning bellylaughs from gentiles under-25 too, so the studio is now rolling it out to 1,200 theatres. 
Personally, I didn't find the movie terribly funny, which made me feel downright wizened to realize that I'm too over-the-hill to get the jokes that are slaying all the Mormon hipsters. 
... One of the less remarked demographic trends is that the makers of "Napoleon Dynamite" represent the future. As coastal sophisticates fail to reproduce themselves, an ever-increasing percentage of young white people come from conservative, religious backgrounds. Mormon Utah has by far the highest birthrate, of course, but in the 2000 election, the 19 states with the highest white fertility all voted for Bush, while nine of the ten states at the bottom of the white birthrate list voted for Gore.

 

From this week's NYT Magazine:
When Hollywood Wants Good, Clean Fun, It Goes to Mormon Country 
Out of nowhere, B.Y.U. — a Mormon university owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — has become a farm team for the country’s top animation studios and effects companies. Unlikely as it sounds, young Mormons are being sucked out of the middle of Utah and into the very centers of American pop-culture manufacturing. 
Praising the program in a speech on campus in 2008, the president of Pixar, Edwin Catmull, noted: “It’s the perception not just of Pixar, but also at the other studios, that something pretty remarkable is happening here.” ... 


One thing to keep in mind about BYU is that it's less stratified by SAT scores than almost all private colleges these days. The range from the 25th percentile to the 75th percentile of incoming freshmen's test scores is very wide. It draws both very smart Mormons and not so smart Mormons. Also, it has quite low tuition for a private college (no real secret — it just has big average class sizes). In various ways, BYU is kind of like how American colleges are described in Heinlein novels.

The typical B.Y.U. student doesn’t seem like a natural fit for Hollywood. Mormon culture tends to see the entertainment industry as both a reflection of and contributor to our “morally bereft society,” as one alumnus put it. ... 
The B.Y.U. program is designed to be a similar kind of ethical counterweight: it’s trying to unleash values-oriented filmmakers into the industry who can inflect its sensibility.  
At first, I struggled to understand the specifics of that mission. Everyone talked about wanting to make “clean movies” or “movies I wouldn’t be afraid to take my mother to,” but these phrases were shibboleths, loaded and tough to pin down. It wasn’t simply a matter of avoiding sex and violence. (A few times, I heard even “Shrek” described disapprovingly: too many fart jokes, too much cynicism.)

 

In retrospect, Shrek 2 was one of the most loathsome movies I've ever seen. Not surprisingly, it made the most money of the four Shrek films. In contrast, the studios treated Shrek 4 as a throwaway and let the animators do what they wanted on a tight budget. The result was a sweet little film that the people who worked on it wouldn't be ashamed to show their grandchildren someday. Of course, it didn't make as much money as its predecessors.
In general, animated feature films have been the most gentile of genres. The two major names, artistically, have been Disney and Pixar. You can read endless debates on the Internet over whether Walt Disney was anti-Semitic or not. Like most Hollywood moguls of his time, Disney hired his relatives and in-laws as studio executives. Theoretically, the Internet could also be filled with debates over whether the other moguls, who had the same nepotistic hiring practices as Disney, were anti-gentilic, but that word doesn't exist, so the thought never occurs to anybody. I would hardly be surprised if, someday after Pixar's John Lassetter (creator of Toy Story) is out of power, the sub-quarkian post-Internet isn't roiled by endless debates over whether Lassetter was anti-Semitic.

History is written less by the victors (there weren't many bigger victors in American culture than Walt Disney) than by the writers of history.