But Act One isn't necessarily looking to its graduates to greenlight $200 million remakes of The Greatest Story Ever Told. Rather, the group sees its mission as more under the radar—to correct the frequent Hollywood portrayals of Christians as fanatics and freaks. Ralph Winter cites the character Nightcrawler in X2, a film he produced. "He prays if he's in trouble, but his X-Men buddies don't make fun of him," says Winter, lounging in a banana-yellow Acapulco shirt at his offices on the Fox studio lot. "He's a credible character. And to me, that's a step forward in terms of how Christians get perceived. I didn't put that in there, but I helped make sure that stayed in there and that he didn't misquote Scripture."
It's a balmy, electric-blue Saturday in the Hollywood Hills, and Act One faculty members Jim and Karen Covell are showing a slide show to the executive class: images of a dusty Masai village in Africa—and then Aaron Spelling's Bel Air mega-mansion. A shot of a muddy Masai supply road, immediately followed by the double-arched entrance to Paramount Studios. Masai people at the watering hole. The entertainment tribe worshipping the golden idol of Oscar. The parallels are tongue-in-cheek, but the message is serious: Hollywood is missionary territory—in many ways as godless and spiritually bereft as the remotest Nile tributary, but far more influential. "You have to recognize the power of this city," Karen Covell tells the class as she paces in front of the U-shaped arrangement of desks, her eyebrows perpetually raised. "We have to get back into the culture and use the media. And we're so thrilled about this group because you guys are the decision-makers."
One of those decision-makers, Todd Burns, looks at her through black-framed Dior glasses, taking notes at a row of tables stacked with Bibles and mock movie contracts (an entertainment lawyer taught the morning class). A 25-year-old UCLA grad, Burns is finishing his last year in a joint M.B.A.-law program at Pepperdine. He used to make evangelistic films for Billy Graham's production company. But now he's interning in a Century City skyscraper for Crystal Sky—a production and distribution company that's putting out Nicolas Cage's Ghost Rider next year—sitting in on creative meetings and writing first drafts of production contracts. Burns has no intention of sanitizing Hollywood; he'd rather see more movies like this spring's Crash. "It's got a lot of sex and violence, but it's got a powerful message of redemption," he says. "Something about it hits you. And if it inspires you to go out and help people, or think about where you're at spiritually? Awesome." That's why Act One's philosophy grabbed him. "It's operating from within," he says. "It's being like everyone else at the conference table." But with a spiritual mission.