"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.
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.
The problem, Burns says, is that very few people in the boardroom have a clue about the kind of material Christian viewers want. Television execs were dumbfounded by this spring's cancellation of CBS's Joan of Arcadia—which, after bobbing on a sea of critical acclaim and Emmy nominations, capsized from lack of viewer interest last season. Deciphering the vagaries of this audience is exactly what Batali, the executive producer of That '70s Show, thinks his students will accomplish.
"They simply don't know who we're talking about," Batali says of his secular colleagues' skepticism about Act One's target audience. "So if we have executives in there who can say, 'Here's who will watch the show, and here's the value of putting something like this on,' I think that's what's going to work."
Ralph Winter, the X-Men producer, says he's had doors open recently that could make that a reality for Act One grads in the business. Just last year, when Fox wanted to turn the Christian best-seller The Purpose Driven Life into a movie, a studio executive called Winter. "He said, 'We need your help. We want to make this into a movie, and you know how to get that market because you're a Christian. Can you help us?'" Winter's also hoping to parlay the work of Christian author Frank Peretti, who has 9 million books in print, into a movie franchise. He's already helped push one of Peretti's books, The Visitation, through the production pipeline at Fox. "I'm trying to build a brand on Frank's writing and demonstrate to these guys that we know how to get to his fans and build material that they'd like," says Winter.
But for Act One's new legion of missionaries, there may be some hard lessons in store concerning the industry's own fanaticism about the bottom line. After the runaway success of the wholesome Warner Bros. drama A Walk to Remember in 2002 (when The Passion was just a twinkle in Mel's eye), Barbara Nicolosi, got a call from an exec at a production company who was sniffing around for similar scripts. "I said, 'But A Walk to Remember was a banal, badly written, superficial portrayal of people! Why would you want that?' He said, 'Well, the Christians liked it.' I told him the Christians liked it because it's about two teenagers who didn't have sex before marriage—but it's a bad movie! He said, 'Well, that's our problem now. We have to make movies we don't want to see.'" Nicolosi was fuming. "Do you know how demeaning that is?" she says. "How insulting to Christians? That we're so stupid, to entertain us—it's like feeding 5-year-olds?"
For a guy who makes his living writing a hit comedy show, Batali oesn't look like he laughs very much. In fact, he looks exhausted—the kind of tired you'd expect from a devout Christian who runs a show about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But he says he's learned to pick his battles—to slip in the odd wholesome joke and keep the onscreen family functional (even as the pot smoke wafts up from the basement). This Sunday, he's fronting a retreat for Act One students on the eucalyptus-lined campus of Mount St. Mary's, a Catholic college near downtown L.A.
"God has blessed me with a success that I don't understand," he tells the 60 or so people assembled in the chapel-like classroom. "I live every day wondering: Is this right? Is this where I'm supposed to be?" He tells them they'll all face this same dilemma when they break into the industry, where their new mission field is full of false idols—and lest they risk being cast out of the tribe, they'd better learn to kneel before them.
"The guys who come out of this program, if they do it right, are going to be the guys greenlighting the next Freddy vs. Jason," says Jonathan Bock, president and founder of Grace Hill Media, the Christian PR firm Sony hired to grass-roots market The Da Vinci Code. "There's been a lot of discussion about whether they'd do that—and I think the answer is yes, they would. But that's just one movie. There are other ways to influence the business."
Like making sure no one has to suffer the sight of Pinocchio's thong-cleaved butt cheeks ever again.