Christians Setting Sights on Hollywood

Aiming to Influence the Media From the Inside

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LOS ANGELES, JAN. 7, 2006 ( Christians should work to change Hollywood from the inside, instead of spending so much time criticizing it from outside. This is one of the main ideas in the recently published «Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film and Culture» (Baker Books).

The collection of essays, edited by Spencer Lewerenz and Barbara Nicolosi, stems from the activity of Act One, a group set up in 1999 by Christian writers and producers active in Hollywood. Act One aims to train «artist-apostles» for the movie industry, and to transform it from within. The essays are written by Act One staff and stem from the curriculum prepared for the students.

In her essay on the theme of a Christian cinema, co-editor Nicolosi, the executive director of Act One, observes that producing more films like Mel Gibson’s «The Passion of the Christ» is no easy task. In fact, Gibson is somewhat of an anomaly, as artists of that level rarely believe in Christ, and Christians who have a mature faith rarely succeed in the entertainment business.

The community of the faithful, Nicolosi contends, also needs to rid itself of the idea of creating a «Christian cinema» in the sense of making products all by itself for a separate audience of believers.

Instead, Christians need to work with Hollywood insiders, and to learn from them professionally so as to ensure they are capable of producing well-made films, Nicolosi insists. Moreover, Christians cannot limit themselves to producing material based on the Bible and the lives of saints. «Christians in entertainment don’t have to be always talking about God,» writes Nicolosi. «They should be talking about everything in a godly way.»

Christians also need to be more sensitive to the artistic demands of cinema, notes Nicolosi. Many Christian projects fail because they force the medium by insisting on an overly theological content. But entertainment works best when it engages in a dialogue with the viewer, rather than just being an academic lesson. Thus, rather than «delivering the Truth» Christians should imitate the trust of the sower who casts seeds on the ground and moves on.

So, what is a Christian movie? asks Nicolosi. For a start it is something more than just avoiding bad language and sexual immorality. A Christian movie should affirm spiritual realities and show viewers that there is more than the immediate material world. Then, it should also be imbued with the certainty that we are not alone, but are connected both to one another and to God.

A Christian movie should also make clear that good and evil are not equal and should lead viewers away from cynicism toward hope in redemption. Portraying the values of a culture of life is another important characteristic. This means conveying a reverence toward the human person and making clear the uniqueness of each human being.

Knowing how to balance both joy and suffering is also essential, notes Nicolosi. This enables us to avoid a grief that leads to despair, she states. And, of course, the product must sell, which means being attentive to what will appeal to the needs of the audience.

Making a good film

Why is it that heathens tend to make the best Christian films? This is the question put by Thom Parham in his essay. According to Parham, scriptwriter and associate professor at Azusa Pacific University, many of the better films with Christian messages, with a few notable exceptions, have been made by non-religious people.

The reason that they do better than the Christian producers, whose films are often unwatchable, is that secular filmmakers are making their product for mainstream audiences. Christians, he noted, mostly go out to see the same films as everyone else, so producing films specifically targeted at them is a mistake.

The film industry is different from the music and book sectors, where there is an extensive Christian distribution and commercial infrastructure. But there are no Christian movie theaters or distribution chains, so films targeting Christians have to compete with the mainstream products.

Often, Christian filmmakers ignore this reality, and the storytelling and production aspects are subordinated to the message. «The films are merely bait to lure viewers to a homily or altar call, and this only ensures their failure,» notes Parham.

«Show, don’t tell, is the rule of the cinema,» he explains, and it is important not to confuse art with propaganda. This is well understood by non-Christian producers, who instead of an overt message often rely on symbol and metaphor. In this, explained Parham, they are following the example of Jesus, who often taught in parables instead of responding directly to questions.

Christians would also do well to remember the dimension of mystery inherent in the Christian message, and leave space for the imagination of their audience. Another failure of Christian producers is to ignore life’s complexities, instead of seeing the world the way it is, with its contradictions and failures.

Of course, notes Parham, there have been some successful religious filmmakers. Interestingly, most of them come from Catholic backgrounds. Even though some of them had lapsed from the practice of their faith, their Catholicity gave them three key elements: an intuitive grasp of iconography for crafting visual images; a realization of the incarnational function of art; and an awareness of the sacramental nature of life.

Changing channels

Christian consumers also have an important role to play, explained television writer and producer Dean Batali. Instead of urging people to turn off their televisions, he encourages them to watch TV, and to make sure they let Hollywood know what they like, and dislike.

Television programs, he notes, can be considered as a delivery system for ads. The success or failure of a show depends on reaching an audience that will pay for the products promoted during the ad breaks.

Because Hollywood producers think that Christians either aren’t watching or aren’t offended by the programs, they rarely take their views into account. Batali sympathizes with the viewers who are disgusted with the foul language or immoral content on many television programs. But he also encourages them to inform themselves and find out which shows are good. Some decent programs, in fact, have folded because they failed to attract sufficient viewers.

Part of the problem also lies in the chasm between Hollywood and Christianity, Batali observes. He notes that out of 55 writers he has worked with in his career, only three attended church regularly. And in many cases TV programs reflect the views of the people who write them.

Ron Austin, a veteran writer and producer, also comments on the divide between Christianity and Hollywood. Many Christians trying to work in the entertainment industry encounter some degree of prejudice, he states.

The typical Hollywood secularist, who might be part of the countercultural generation of the 1960s and 1970s, will often not have a fully coherent personal philosophy, but will have rejected religion. And only too often the secularist has formed a stereotype of Christians as repressed, provincial and inhibited.

At the same time, many in Hollywood have no credible alternatives to propose to religion. Austin explains that when he arrived in Hollywood some 50 years ago, Marxism, or the hope in a world driven by science and technology, provided a source of ideals. Today, however, these rival pseudo-religions have failed and the secularist «is needled by an ongoing crisis of disbelief.» What’s left, some are hoping, is a field ripe for evangelization.

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