It took Arthur Van Wagenen a few minutes to realize the devastating effects President Russell M. Nelson’s call for a 10-day social media fast could have on the film he was furiously promoting, “Jane and Emma.”
When Van Wagenen, the movie’s executive producer for the Deseret Book project, heard the 94-year-old leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Saturday night invite women to stay away from online engagement, he didn’t disagree with the suggestion.
“We haven’t really learned to use those tools in moderation,” Van Wagenen wrote Tuesday in an email, “and we need practice.”
While Nelson set no dates for the fast, the producer moaned to himself: Why did so many women choose to do it this week?
The church-backed movie — which tells the story of the extraordinary friendship between Jane Manning James, a black convert in the 1840s, and Emma Smith, wife of church founder Joseph Smith — opens Friday in Utah.
Filling theaters this weekend is crucial to its success.
The church declined to comment on this unintentional consequence of Nelson’s challenge.
The movie’s marketing team had been working for months to raise awareness about the film among Latter-day Saint women, he said, “and had planned to spend a large portion of our marketing budget on social media advertising during this last week before the release.”
By Sunday, Van Wagenen began seeing dozens of Latter-day Saint women announcing online “they were going off social media for 10 days.” He realized they “wouldn’t be back until after the critical opening weekend.”
His “heart sank,” the producer said. “Independent films don’t last in the theaters and can’t expand to additional theaters unless opening weekend is strong. “
“Jane and Emma” is “the most important film to come out of our culture in over a decade for the way it addresses race, gender, history and faith,” Van Wagenen said, “and now our target audience, and the means to reach them, was slipping away before my eyes, in real time.”
This movie will help the church and its members “heal in meaningful ways,” he said, and open “new doors for women and minority voices in the church to contribute to the body of Christ in meaningful ways.”
His team just needs to be “much more determined and creative in how we reach audiences with this film.”
You know, just like Jane and Emma.
“Every time there was a setback or they were required to do something hard,” Van Wagenen said, “they leaned into the task with more determination and more conviction.”