Filmmaker Mitch Davis has big plans for his new movie, a sequel to his 2001 film “The Other Side of Heaven” — one of the few movies about members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that received worldwide distribution.
Davis, in touting the upcoming “The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith” at a news conference Wednesday, said that when it comes to stories of faith, filmmakers have to go big or go home.
It took millions to make the new movie, Davis said, because “if we don’t spend that kind of money, no one cares what we have to say. … It’s not enough to make a movie that just 11 people in Provo see.”
The 2001 film was based on the young missionary adventures of John H. Groberg, now an emeritus general authority in the Latter-day Saint faith, who served in Tonga in the 1950s. The new movie shows Groberg (played, as in the original, by Christopher Gorham) as a family man, with his wife, Jean, and their children, returning to Tonga as a mission president.
The new movie is set to be released on between 200 and 300 screens nationwide on Friday, June 28. The date is sandwiched between two summer blockbusters: Pixar’s “Toy Story 4” opens the Friday before, and the Marvel superhero movie “Spider-Man: Far From Home” will dominate the Independence Day weekend the week after.
To help lay the groundwork for the new movie, the original will make a return engagement in three Utah theaters — the Megaplex Theatres at Vineyard (Provo), Thanksgiving Point (Lehi) and Legacy Crossing (Centerville) — for one week, starting May 17.
Also, BYUtv — the cable channel owned by the church — has signed on to screen “The Other Side of Heaven” on back-to-back nights, Sunday, June 23, and Monday, June 24.
Michael Dunn, managing director of BYUtv, said he was excited to screen the movie because “literally, an entire generation doesn’t know this story. … [This movie is] something the entire family can get their arms around.”
BYUtv also will get the exclusive TV and streaming rights to the sequel, to air sometime later this year or in early 2020, Dunn said. (BYUtv, like Excel Entertainment, the movie’s U.S. theatrical distributor, is owned by the church.)
The original “Other Side of Heaven” played on 334 screens nationally and made $4.7 million at the box office in 2001, equivalent to about $7.5 million in today’s dollars, Davis said. It then went on to sell 4 million DVDs, supported by Walt Disney’s home entertainment arm.
“The Disney brand didn’t hurt us, and Anne Hathaway’s face helped us,” Davis said.
Hathaway was 18 when she played Jean Groberg in the first film, which came out the same year as her star-making role in “The Princess Diaries.” “We didn’t ask her” to be in the sequel, Davis said, because “her fee would have been more than the budget of the film.” (Natalie Medlock, a British-born actor from New Zealand, plays Jean in the sequel.)
That success, Davis said, meant “The Other Side of Heaven” attracted international distribution, something most movies with Latter-day Saint themes don’t get. It played in nearly every majority-Muslim country in the world, he said, and was bootlegged in China.
For years, Davis resisted calls to make a sequel, in part because he didn’t think he could replicate the scope of the original. “I didn’t want to make a 10-cent movie, and besmirch or diminish Elder Groberg’s story by making it small,” Davis said.
Groberg kept at Davis, though, in part because Groberg was given a push from Thomas S. Monson, then the president of the church. (Monson, years earlier, was the one who nudged Groberg to write a book about his missionary experiences.)
A year or so ago, Davis said, Groberg renewed his pitch. “He said, ‘Mitch, I thought maybe when President Monson died, he’d be less insistent and less persistent,’” Davis said, recalling Groberg’s words. Groberg then added, “I’m not getting any younger, Mitch, and neither are you. It’s time.”
Davis would only say the budget is in the seven figures, but said filming in Fiji, with a generous 47% production incentive, stretched their dollars further. The production used local crews from New Zealand and nearby Pacific Islands, and reunited many of the local cast members from the first film.
Davis said he hopes the Latter-day Saint audience in the United States will be “the slingshot” to propel the sequel to a global audience. Groberg, now 84, is more sure of the movie’s success.
“I don’t just hope the message will get out, I know the message will get out,” Groberg said. “I felt the hand of the Lord in this.”