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."
Much of what gets taught in Act One is secular, essentially the same as any screenwriting class: lessons in what a script should look like, or how to put together a plot for a comedy or a drama, for example. "The first job we have is to try to make competent craftsmen," said Michael Warren, who co-created "Family Matters" and "Step by Step."
He's one of a number of 75 faculty members and mentors for Act One with impressive credentials. Others have worked for well-known shows and movies, including "Batman Forever," "Judging Amy" and "JAG." The guest speakers generally receive a stipend for their participation. Out-of-towners were flown into Chicago by the program.
Most of the Chicago classes were held at Loyola University and lasted about six to eight hours a day. Before getting started with one recent class, the students bowed their heads and clasped hands. Nicolosi, standing in front of a lectern led them in prayer. "Thank you for calling us to this great vocation of writer," she said. "We offer you our lives."
Then speaker Dean Batali took over. Batali, who looks younger than his 38 years and bears some resemblance to the actor Christopher Reeve, wrote for the first two seasons of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and is supervising producer for "That `70s Show."
A lot of what he tells the students falls under practical advice. If you want to be a television writer, he said, learn to type as quickly as you can. At the end of each segment, place something to encourage the viewer to come back. And if you want to break the rules, remember that rules were made to be broken.
But he also said that of the 50 other Hollywood writers he has worked with, only three go to church. He mentioned that, at one point on the WB, there were more witches depicted than Christians. And he recalled how he shocked his fellow writers in a story meeting by revealing he lost his virginity only after getting married.
He described Hollywood as "junior high school with rich, angry people" and added, "I don't think a day goes by when I'm not chided or attacked for my Christianity."
At times during his talk, Batali seemed ambivalent toward his vocation. After screening a scene from "Buffy" in which a student comes out of the closet, Batali said it was one of the hardest things he had to write. And he said when he was asked to write a show centered around a demon as a fantasy villain, he found another conflict between his work and his faith. "I think demons are real and you can invite them into yourself," Batali said. "That was my toughest week in Hollywood."
It's the insights of speakers such as Batali that students said they found most valuable. "They give you so much nitty-gritty information about the writing of screenplays and the marketing of them," said Maureen O'Grady, a 45-year-old from Evanston, Ill. "There's nothing like learning from people who have done it."
"They really do promote the excellence and the spirituality," Cox said. "Without both, it's a recipe for failure."