Cover Story

Salting Hollywood

"Salting Hollywood" Continued...

Issue: "Salting Hollywood," Sept. 3, 2005

Act One has come out with a book, Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture (Baker Books), edited by Barbara Nicolosi and Spencer Lewerenz, with contributions from the industry professionals who teach in the programs and serve as mentors.

Act One receives 150-250 applicants for each four-week summer class, Mr. Lewerenz, associate director of the screenwriting program, told WORLD. Only 30 are chosen in a highly competitive process.

The program begins with a four-day retreat, held at Mt. St. Mary's College, a tiny Victorian campus with a quiet, contemplative atmosphere that, ironically and symbolically, is in the middle of downtown Los Angeles. The time is devoted to prayer, counseling from ministers of different denominations, and classes on discerning whether a Hollywood career is truly the students' calling. "Since our faculty members have been working in the industry and have faced the spiritual challenges, they can be good guides," Mr. Lewerenz said.

After the retreat, Act One participants take classes from experienced Christian professionals in dealing with the spiritual issues and in learning how to perfect their craft. The classes meet not in a glitzy studio but in a spartan pre-fab building. In the TV track, eight to 10 would-be writers sit around a table in a small room in a real-life simulation of how television writers work. Writers looking for work in TV circulate with their resumé a "spec"-a script written on speculation-for an existing show. Instead of peddling their own program ideas, writers have to show that they can work with existing characters and storylines. So in Act One, students "break out a story" for an episode of Lost, debate plot twists, call out lines, and learn how to write as a team.

But why would a Christian want to work in the film industry? The people WORLD talked to and the contributors to Behind the Screen exhibit particular talents that they see as gifts of God. They see their work as a Christian vocation.

That Christians are needed in Hollywood should be self-evident. The media world is at the heart of contemporary culture, shaping the imagination and the moral sensibilities not only of America but the whole world.

But in Hollywood overnight success is the exception, not the rule. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ set box-office records yet came about, as Ms. Nicolosi points out, after 30 years of experience in the movie industry for Mr. Gibson, a decade after winning an Oscar for Braveheart, 15 years after his conversion, and after 10 years of creative struggle. "There will be no other Passions," she said, "without other Mel Gibsons to bring them along."

This is why Act One is dedicated to helping Christians first master the craft. Ms. Nicolosi calls for more "happy, well-catechized believers in the entertainment industry." But she emphasized that "Christians in entertainment don't have to be always talking about God. They should be talking about everything in a godly way."

But doesn't Hollywood discriminate against Christians? According to director Scott Derrickson, "The marketplace these days is certainly not resistant to movies with Christian content as long as that content is organic to a well-told story."

Ms. Covell said that the movie industry does tend to present negative stereotypes of Christians as harsh, legalistic, and judgmental. These stereotypes keep getting reinforced when Christians relate to Hollywood primarily with denunciations and boycotts. But Ms. Covel sees no real discrimination anymore. "Most non-Christians in Hollywood have never met a real-life 'normal' Christian," she said. When they do, they "see us as confusing, sometimes annoying, and definitely odd, but mostly they find us fascinating."

Nickelodeon animator Kenji Ono, for instance, became a Christian in the animation studio-surrounded by drawing boards and animation equipment-while working on The Simpsons. A Christian colleague witnessed to him about Christ, and Mr. Ono came to faith. He credits that colleague as a true friend, in contrast to the phony friendships of the Hollywood social scene. "I became a Christian," he told WORLD, "because he became my friend. Now, it's my job to plant seeds in other people's hearts."

The denizens of Hollywood are often desperately confused and needy. In a dog-eat-dog social scene Mr. Ono doesn't like, genuine love can go a long way. And, as Mr. Winter said, "In my years in the industry, an offer to pray for a co-worker or employee has never been turned down."

In Behind the Screen, Mr. Derrickson-maker of the upcoming The Exorcism of Emily-describes his various efforts over the years to answer the question, "What is the duty of a Christian in Hollywood?" Finally, he said, "I realized that my primary duty as a Christian in Hollywood is the same as the primary duty of the Christian at Microsoft or UPS or the police department. My primary duty as a Christian in Hollywood is to do my job well."

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