"If you ask John Bell about his decision last spring to abandon his pursuit of the Catholic priesthood, load everything he owned into a maroon Jeep Wrangler, and light out for L.A. to become a Hollywood executive, he'll offer a spiel on truth and beauty. He'll lecture you about our country's spiritual poverty and the cultural war that's raging "between good and evil."
He'll also lecture you on Pinocchio's thong.
"Look at Shrek 2," says Bell, 33. "It's a great movie, but why in the world did you have to have Pinocchio wearing a thong? And why does the fairy godmother have to pour lust in the potion?"
If Bell has anything to do with it, the chemistry at your local cinema is about to get a whole lot cleaner. This June, the barrel-chested Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native signed on for the new executive program at Act One—a Christian organization run by a former nun that's training both Catholics and Protestants to be Hollywood executives. In a tiny white office building nestled among the mansions and bungalows of the Hollywood Hills, 15 students—all M.B.A. types in their twenties and thirties—learn movie-biz play-calling from faculty members such as Stephen McEvetty, who produced The Passion of the Christ; Ralph Winter, the executive producer of Fantastic Four and X-Men; and Dean Batali, a show runner, writer, and executive producer of That '70s Show. The organization's screenwriting class has already placed a third of its 300 alumni in Hollywood jobs (some disciples are even pitching ideas to industry chieftains like Jeffrey Katzenberg). So it made perfect sense for Act One to try to place some Christian soldiers on the -decision-making side of the pitch meeting.
"I figured, why should we have to be begging for a hearing?" says Act One's executive director, Barbara Nicolosi, the former nun. "Why don't we put people in place who would give us a hearing?"
Act One, in other words, is training cultural ambassadors for Christ, and if they can forge the same sort of associations between their faith and Hollywood that Scientology and Kabbalah so effectively have in the popular imagination, all the better.
"We should go out of our way to say, 'It's important to build our community,'" explains Act One faculty member Karen Covell. "Jewish people are wonderful at that. We have so much to learn from them."
The timing is certainly right for an offensive. After the $600 million success of The Passion, and with Disney's upcoming Chronicles of Narnia (which has picked up the nickname "The Passion for Kids"), Christians are suddenly persona very grata in Hollywood. This year the American Family Association and the U.S. Southern Baptist Convention finally lifted their eight-year-long boycott of gay-friendly Disney—just in time for the big Narnia push. Both Disney and Sony, which will release The Da Vinci Code next year, are turning to Christian companies to coax the faith-and-family set into forgiving the biblical thriller its controversies.