Cover Story

Working from within

Several groups have sprung up in Tinseltown to support film-industry Christians in their callings

Issue: "Progress in Hollywood," March 23, 2002

in Hollywood-In 1990, a group of working Hollywood actors called the Actors Co-op staged a pair of mildly evangelistic plays at the Crossley, a tiny theater tucked away on the sprawling brick campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. The actors waited eagerly for Hollywood's drama critics to pen their make-or-break reviews. But when the reviews came, they stung: "Militant Christian propaganda," snapped the L.A. Weekly. "No matter how talented this group," sniffed the Los Angeles Times, "one would hope they would" keep their religious beliefs offstage. Actors Co-op founder David Schall and others in the company decided thereafter to take a subtler approach. Instead of mounting overtly Christian productions, the company decided to perform secular "plays of excellence that showcase Christian values," Mr. Schall said. Since then Actors Co-op has won six Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards, a prize nearly as prestigious to L.A. theater as this week's Oscars are to the motion picture industry. The phrase "influence through excellence" captures the ethos of a network of organizations like Actors Co-op that support Christians working in Hollywood's entertainment industry. As other groups seek to exert influence on Hollywood through studio boycotts or production of overtly Christian film and television, these organizations are working for change from within-both by helping members excel at their crafts and by supporting them spiritually. Founded by Mr. Schall, a former New York stage and film actor, Actors Co-op began in 1987 as a Christian prayer group for 12 working thespians. Around that grew up Inter-Mission, a broader entertainment outreach sponsored by First Pres.-Hollywood and headed by Mr. Schall. The goal: To prompt moral change in the popular culture. But when Actors Co-op staged those first two productions, the popular culture scoffed, and the group stood at a crossroads. In choosing to "go secular," did the company sell its soul to score points with Hollywood's literati? Critics certainly don't think so. The Times this month ran an article headlined, "They're believers first, then actors." The piece acknowledged both Actors Co-op's technical excellence and the firm commitment of its actors to plying their craft in concert with their Christian beliefs. "You can't ignore excellence," said Ralph Winter, producer of Academy Award-nominated films such as Mighty Joe Young, Star Trek IV, and Star Trek VI and co-chair of Biola University's Studio Task Force. "The entertainment industry is driven by money, and excellence sells." Mr. Winter, whose current projects include producing the sequel to X-Men (also his work), told WORLD he tries in his work "to demonstrate my values through the choices I make, by being honest, and by doing what I do well." That has translated into commercial success-at $54.4 million X-Men opened to the largest non-sequel box office in history-winning Mr. Winter the latitude to develop projects that have both mass-market appeal and an underlying Christian worldview. He is currently working with Christian author Frank Peretti to develop screenplays for Fox studios based on the Peretti books Hangman's Curse and The Oath. As co-chair of Biola University's Studio Task Force, Mr. Winter is one of about a hundred working entertainment professionals who form another group that supports Christians working in Hollywood. In advising Biola's radio, television, and film (RTF) program, the task force tailors the Christian university's RTF approach to Hollywood's rough employment road and mentors RTF students toward technical excellence in their particular crafts. The two-pronged strategy, as well as connections students form with task-force members, is making it easier for Biola graduates to land paying jobs, according to Josh White, who oversees the university's "Christians and Media" program. Technical excellence is also the goal of ActOne, an Inter-Mission program in which working Christian screenwriters help aspiring ones fine-tune their work for mainstream acceptance. Now in its third year, ActOne says it doesn't aim solely at "the next big sell." Instead the group trains screenwriters to write from a Christian worldview sharply crafted screenplays that also possess mass-market appeal. ActOne's faculty seems well equipped for the job. Among its instructors: Michael Warren, co-creator of Family Matters and Step by Step for ABC; and Roger Courts, head of Gregory Productions, a for-profit company founded to produce films embodying Judeo-Christian ideals. The company's first feature film: The Spitfire Grill, a Sundance Film Festival winner and 1996 Columbia Pictures release about a woman convict who finds redemption in a small Northeastern town. While they've already found redemption, many Christians working in Hollywood are looking for Bible-based professional support in a city that may be the global temple for the idols Power, Pleasure, and Fabulous Wealth. Such connections are working for actress Amy Landers. Ms. Landers, whose credits include a two-season stint on the top-rated NBC sitcom Frasier, spoke with WORLD after a performance of Actors Co-op's current production, Fools. Still costumed as the beautiful but ditzy Russian villager who wins a schoolmaster's heart in the Neil Simon comedy, she said she has sometimes brought film and TV scripts to fellow Actors Co-op members when she wondered whether some element might be out of moral bounds. "It's hard sometimes when you really need work," she said. "You might think a script could be the next Steven Spielberg movie, and you'd really like to be part of that, but you have to draw the line and say, 'I can't because that goes against my faith.'"

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