Sean P. Means: VidAngel’s new world: Making movies, not filtering them

First Published      Last Updated Apr 11 2017 09:27 pm

Neal Harmon is not one for understatement.

"I think we're going to have the biggest premiere in Utah history," Harmon, the CEO of the Provo-based entertainment company VidAngel, told me this week.

The movie in question is a teen comedy filmed in Utah, "Tim Timmerman: Hope of America," which hits screens in Utah on Friday before a wider rollout to other states. It's the first movie Harmon's company is releasing theatrically under its VidAngel Studios banner.

Harmon is becoming a movie mogul, rather than a guy fighting moguls in court — a fight that, at the moment, VidAngel is losing.

VidAngel — which launched in August 2015 with a business model to stream filtered versions of Hollywood movies online to customers seeking to avoid sexual content, violence and profanity — kicked off this new phase, to distribute original content, in December. Dozens of companies, Harmon said, pitched their work, including the folks behind "Tim Timmerman."

The movie, filmed in Orem and Salt Lake City, follows Tim (played by Eddie Perino), the worst student-body president ever. Tim is a glad-handing, charisma-oozing slacker who spends more time hanging out with the stoner kids and plotting pranks against his rival school than he does with the actual mechanics of student government.

On the verge of being kicked out of student government, and with grades that won't let him into his preferred college, he embarks on a desperate plan to win a scholarship by teaming up with Sydney (Chelsea Maidhof), the selfless, hard-working student-body president of his school's biggest rival, to stage a charity formal dance.

Cameron Sawyer, the movie's writer-director, based Tim on his own experiences as student-body president at Orem High School, class of 1995.

"I only did it to pad my résumé. I didn't think there would be actual work involved," Sawyer said of his student government days. "They wanted to impeach me the entire time I was there."

Harmon thought the movie, which harks back to John Hughes' high-school movies of the 1980s, was a good fit for VidAngel.

"Our audience is very used to VidAngel's cheeky, funny culture and voice," Harmon said.

Travis Morgan, a producer on the film, was impressed with VidAngel's database of 1 million customers — about half of whom live in Utah, with the rest scattered through the Intermountain West, the South and elsewhere around the country.

"We would love for this to have a big splash in Utah and then go nationwide," Morgan said. "We're hoping to use [VidAngel's user base] as a springboard to drive enthusiasm."

Purdie Distribution, the Utah-based company that released such LDS-themed films as "The Saratov Approach," is also on the team releasing "Tim Timmerman." The company's president, Brandon Purdie, said he is impressed with VidAngel and the producers' collaboration.

"I've never witnessed a better partnership than VidAngel Studios and the 'Tim Timmerman' production team," Purdie said in a statement. "They are perfectly aligned in so many ways."

That partnership seems to be working. Harmon's prediction of a record turnout for a Utah-made movie is based on presale tickets from his customers, who "showed up and doubled the numbers we expected."

The good news comes as VidAngel is enjoined, by a court order, from practicing its original business of streaming filtered Hollywood movies. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by four major movie studios claiming VidAngel's service violates the studios' copyrights on films.

Harmon has appealed the ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. He vows to take it to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

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