A war of words has erupted between TLA Releasing and Madstone Theatres after the exhibitor cancelled the upcoming Salt Lake City run of C Jay Cox's directorial debut Latter Days, which deals in part with the life of a gay Mormon missionary.

TLA Releasing lambasted the move at a Sundance press conference earlier this week, claiming that the theatre operator pulled the film after it received calls from conservative religious groups threatening to boycott the chain.

However in an interview with ScreenDaily.com yesterday (20) Madstone's co-founder and co-chief executive officer Chip Seelig denied the chain had received threats or that it had buckled under pressure from right-wing forces in the heavily Mormon region of Utah.

'We really care about first-time directors but frankly when my business partner, co-founder and co-chief executive officer Thomas Gruenberg looked at it he felt it lacked artistic merit,' Seelig said.

'The subject matter doesn't worry us. Our policy of dealing with the issues of homosexuality and religion has been evidenced by the fact that we carried Trembling Before God [Sandi Simcha Dubowski's 2001 documentary about the hidden lives of gay and lesbian Orthodox and Hasidic Jews] in our theatres and it was released through our sister company New Yorker Films.'

Seelig's response follows comments at the press conference by TLA president Raymond Murray, who said: 'We are extremely upset that Latter Days currently has no venue to in Salt Lake City.

'We picked up the film because of writer-director C Jay Cox's amazing ability to tell a story about a man's struggle in dealing with his sexuality and faith, a subject many gays and lesbians can certainly relate to.

'Very rarely is a story like this presented in such an entertaining, romantic, funny and poignant manner.'

TLA claims it received a phone call from an inside source at Madstone who said the company was cancelling the Jan 30 booking in Salt Lake City following private threats of boycotts, protests, and membership cancellations from religious groups.

Seelig denied receiving any threatening calls and said he knew of none taken by Gruenberg. He admitted Madstone had booked the film through a colleague before either he or Gruenberg had seen it, which he described as an unusual and unfortunate oversight.

'It was a miscommunication. We each thought the other one had seen a screener so when we found out we hadn't, Tom got hold of one and based on that felt it lacked merit.'

The cancellation has incensed gay and lesbian groups. Speaking in support of Cox at the press conference Stephen Macias, entertainment media director of The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said: 'The recent actions of Madstone Theatres is reflective of the current climate of intolerance that the gay and lesbian community is encountering.'

Cox, a former Mormon missionary who also wrote the screenplay to Sweet Home Alabama, told ScreenDaily.com: 'We are determined to find another theatre in Salt Lake in which to screen the movie because I believe there is an audience there that wants and deserves to see it and it speaks strongly to people in that situation.'

A spokesman for the Church of Latter Day Saints said the decision to pull the film was not prompted by the private or official bidding of the church.

Latter Days has received six Audience Awards from festivals that include Los Angeles' Outfest and Philadelphia. It is due to open simultaneously in New York and Los Angeles on Jan 30 through separate theatre operators.