Karen Covell, director of the Hollywood Prayer Network-which consists of some 3,500 Christians in the industry who pray for each other and for their non-Christian colleagues-finally got her big break in Hollywood: a job as associate producer on Headliners and Legends with Matt Lauer. She was thrilled. But then came her first assignment: a one-hour profile of Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner.
As a Christian who opposed everything Mr. Hefner stood for, Ms. Covell was appalled. "When I complained to Jim [her husband] about the assignment, he reminded me that working with Hugh Hefner is exactly why we are here. He suggested that we start praying and that I talk to my producer, Rick, to see if we could approach the project from a different perspective."
To her surprise, she discovered that Rick too was a Christian who did not want to do this story and had talked to his pastor about it. "His pastor told him he couldn't turn down this assignment," Ms. Covell said. "Someone was going to do the story, the pastor had said, and if Rick turned it down, it would likely be done as a standard puff piece. This was an opportunity to really dig deeper into why Hugh Hefner became the man he is."
The story delved into Mr. Hefner's early life and spiritual background. It culminated with an interview in which the icon of sexual promiscuity told about being raised by harsh, distant parents who never told him they loved him. "His mother never hugged or kissed him, he said, because of her fear of germs." In the opulent Playboy Mansion, surrounded by Playboy bunnies, the interviewers brought Mr. Hefner, clad in his black pajamas, to confess that "he's still just a little boy trying to find love." They exposed his futile attempt to substitute sex for love and the pain behind the Playboy façade, the God-shaped vacuum in Mr. Hefner's heart.
The biblical doctrine of vocation teaches that God equips Christians with specific talents and gifts and calls them to serve as salt and light in the world. But Hollywood? With its star-studded temptations, zero job security, minus-zero family values, and vicious social scene, who can work in Hollywood successfully and be a successful Christian?
I will never be home for dinner at 5:30 p.m.," says one of the most successful Christians in Hollywood, Ralph Winter. "In Hollywood, 5:30 is when things are just getting started."
Mr. Winter produced X-Men, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek IV, and this summer's hit, Fantastic Four. But behind the blockbusters are family separation and heartaches. A shoot in Puerto Rico meant being away from his teenage sons for six months. A filming in London coincided with news that his wife's father had died, tragically. He did not go home. "I cannot believe how selfish I was," he said, "how unfeeling I was about her ongoing grief and depression. I was caught up in the excitement of Hollywood and the possibilities of my own career."
Soon after, Mr. Winter was offered a career plum: the chance to direct a new James Bond movie. But production was going to be in England. He realized what his career was doing to his family. He turned down what seemed like the career opportunity of a lifetime-the chance to play with Mr. Bond's weaponized sportscar, exotic locales, and special-effects-driven chase scenes-to devote his time to his wife and kids.
That decision meant he was out of work for six months. Mr. Winter learned that doing the right thing doesn't mean you won't suffer for it. But he was angry at God. Today he sees that God was at work all along. He finally got a chance to work close to home-and with Steven Spielberg, an opportunity he never would have had if he had been filming James Bond in London.
Today, Mr. Winter zealously sets aside time for his family. He also stresses the importance of his church, Bible study, and accountability partners. Without them, he could not remain spiritually and mentally grounded.
Mr. Winter also takes time to mentor other Christians trying to succeed in Hollywood by teaching in a program called Act One. Founded in 1999 by a small group of Christians in the movie industry, Act One goes beyond offering spiritual support and fellowship. Act One puts on intensive, multi-week courses to train Christians in the craft of screenwriting and the work of studio executives. Programs to teach Christians how to be producers and directors are in the works. Act One is also a mentoring network, offering critiques and guidance for would-be screenwriters and helping novice filmmakers break into entry-level jobs.
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."
Screenwriter Brian Godawa, who wrote To End All Wars, told WORLD the power of movies drove him into filmmaking. "I can remember going to movies in college and crying through them because I saw them as very powerful human expressions of worldviews," he said. "Too often, Hollywood movies express lies and ugliness with great detriment. And I would weep, just desiring that God would be glorified in big silver screen stories in the way that lies and falsehoods were too often glorified. So, some of my interest was just simply the desire to see God glorified in a powerful medium of beauty. . . . I want to create beauty that honors God and glorifies Him because when I do, I feel His pleasure. And that is enough for me."