Some in the Christian religious community have accused the entertainment industry of putting profit before responsibility, of marketing sleaze, violence and drivel. And many in the industry have depicted some believers as zealots unfamiliar with artistic license, diversity and freedom of expression.
Now a group is aiming to straddle those two views by teaching budding screenwriters who think they have been called by God to write sitcoms, television dramas and feature-length films. "Act One: Writing for Hollywood" recently concluded a month-long session in Chicago with 30 participants. The faculty members, many of whom bear impressive resumes, also instruct students in what it's like for a person of faith in the City of Angels and its most glamorous field. "We try to give them the three things we feel are missing in Christians who come into the entertainment industry: professionalism, a sense of artistry and a network," said director Barbara Nicolosi.
But the program may not be the answer to participants' prayers. When practically everyone in Hollywood has a screenplay in progress, the chances of making it in the entertainment industry are slim. Only about half of the 9,000 members of the Writers Guild of America's West Coast chapter produce anything for Hollywood in a given year, said Charles Slocum, the guild's strategic planning director and an Act One faculty member. And those are people who already have professional experience; Slocum points out there are thousands more wannabes out there. Still, he said, Act One offers a condensed version of what's taught at film schools and represents a good start.
But others are skeptical that even the best seminar can bring novices up to speed in a month. "I don't think doing one of these programs is going to give you a leg up on getting into this business," said Mark Dickerman, chairman of the department of dramatic writing at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. "I think the most you can get is a sense of the demands of the profession. It won't make you a professional. ... To think that an amateur who has a short seminar under their belt could compete in that environment is nonsensical. Hollywood is tough. The level of professionalism has to be very high to knock on the door."
The program aims not so much to increase the number of explicitly Christian films and shows - there's only so much interest from studios and audiences in those, the organizers realize - but to have more scripts that center around Christian themes of sacrifice, redemption and love.
"The fact that life has meaning and you're not floating around alone, this is the heart of the Christian message, and that's what we want to see reflected on the big screen and the little screen," Nicolosi said. A 38-year-old Catholic, who had aspired to be a nun but left before taking her final vows, she became director of development for a production company founded by a priest. She created Act One in 1999 after getting fed up with the low quality of scripts she was receiving. "It was schlock, bad stuff from good people," she said. Some Christians, she said, were so driven by agendas that they forgot to entertain and respect their audience.
In order to change Hollywood, we're going to have to do it from the inside out, not from the outside in," said Coy Cox, a 22-year-old Dallas resident who participated in the Chicago seminar. The program draws participants from various denominations, ethnicities, regions of the country and walks of life who have heard about it from sources including word of mouth, the group's Web site and writers' conferences. The recent Chicago class included a former Catholic schoolteacher, a religious bookstore employee, a nun and a cop. All had to submit an application that included a personal statement and a writing sample, such as a portion of a screenplay or another narrative, Nicolosi said.
Act One has graduated 150 people, about 46 of whom are working in entry-level and second-level capacities in the entertainment industry in Hollywood and New York, Nicolosi said. A class of 30 more hopefuls based in Los Angeles is scheduled to start in August. Tuition is $895, but Nicolosi said the group sometimes subsidizes students. Act One is funded by Inter-Mission, an entertainment-industry ministry of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood.
Nicolosi said she hopes Act One cuts as many as three years off the five to seven it takes writers to become established. She also said that it may take five to 10 years before its influence becomes fully felt.
It doesn't take an Old Testament prophet to predict that the concept would be warmly embraced by Christian groups across the ideological spectrum. "I'm all for anybody doing anything like that," said Rev. Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association and a frequent Hollywood critic. "TV and movies need all the Christian influence they can get. But the group will have an uphill battle."