Movies December 2005

Can Jesus Save Hollywood?

From The Passion of the Christ to The Chronicles of Narnia, the Christian audience is making spirits rise

Daniel Roemer, a twenty-five-year-old aspiring director, has gathered about a dozen actors and friends to read from his latest movie script, which is going to be called either American Dreamer or 10,000 Virgins. They sit in a semicircle on the homey velour couches of Act One, a Los Angeles program for aspiring Christian screenwriters. In these first-floor offices at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, Bibles are as visible as the hundreds of videos lying around in stacks and on bookshelves, many of which conservative Christians would never let their children watch (American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, The Sopranos, Will & Grace). Mel Gibson's Jesus gazes down from a movie poster on the wall.

Roemer's script is about a young man who thinks he might be a prophet. A couple of times he thinks he is divining the will of God ("Saytha … merry … sahar … uh …"), but it might just as well be snippets from some infomercial: "Holy mascara? Sonny and Cher-a? Aloe vera? It was something like that."

Roemer is slumped in a corner on a little stool eating leftover rice with his fingers, and he laughs when he hears this part read. Boyish, with floppy blond hair, he looks indistinguishable from any other Hollywood writer in his slouchy jeans and ironic vintage T-shirt (Lawn Rocket. From Go to Mow in Six Seconds!). This summer he was one of thirty-four students who attended the four-week screenwriting program at Act One. When he applied, Roemer was asked to describe his belief in Jesus Christ. "I believe in Jesus not because I was told to but because I've found nothing more authentic, even in the middle of an ocean of questions," he wrote in reply. Or, as he later characterized his answer, "Anyone who thinks he has it figured out is B.S."

Roemer is one of the fresh new voices that Act One faculty members talk about when Hollywood studio executives call. Lately they've been calling a lot. "We need a Christian movie," they tell Barbara Nicolosi, the former nun who founded Act One. "Send us your top five scripts." Some might consider this condescending, but Nicolosi figures that at least Hollywood is starting to make room for people like her. The reasons are partly spiritual, partly economic. The movie industry remains affected by post-9/11 national anxiety, and now studio heads want to make movies that "mean something." At the same time, it's well aware of what's known around town as "Passion dollars"—the previously untapped religious audience that made Mel Gibson's independently distributed movie The Passion of the Christ last year's biggest surprise. Recently the entertainment TV show Inside Edition invited Nicolosi to be a guest. "When I first came [to Hollywood], I never thought I'd be on Inside Edition," she confessed to the host before the show. "Didn't you know?" he replied. "'Christian' is the new 'gay.'"

Gibson's movie was a catalytic event in Hollywood. Just after The Passion of the Christ opened, last year, major studios greenlighted additional religiously themed projects, including The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Disney's adaptation of the C. S. Lewis classic, which opens on December 9 and is being hyped as one of this season's blockbusters. Insiders jokingly refer to the movie as the "$150 million tithe"—Hollywood's biggest gift to Christians since Cecil B. De Mille's The Ten Commandments. Because of their religious undertones, the Narnia books are considered to be required reading in the modern evangelical household, and many Christians regard Lewis as the greatest writer of the past century. Disney and its collaborator Walden Media are intent on reaching this audience. They hired Motive Marketing, the company that promoted Passion, to do outreach to churches, and held a publicity event for thirty faith-based groups in an attempt to create buzz for the film. The director, Andrew Adamson, checked religious symbolism with Douglas Gresham, C. S. Lewis's stepson, to ensure that The Chronicles of Narnia didn't portray anything "theologically incorrect."

Expectations among evangelicals run so high that the studio has had to explain, with great delicacy, why the movie is not, in fact, presented as explicit Christian allegory. "To me, the books didn't overwhelm with any religious or spiritual references," Adamson says, though he acknowledges that such references are there if you look for them. The Christian press closely tracked Adamson's search for the actor who would supply the voice of Aslan, the lion. In the novels his life parallels the Resurrection story, and Christians wanted Adamson to hew to the character's Christlike aspects. Ultimately, Adamson explains, he opted not to make Aslan "too omnipotent," because "then he would be inaccessible." He says, "Those who want to look deeper can find more in the story. Those who don't want to look deeper can just enjoy it."

So far Hollywood's gamble on the Christian audience is paying off. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (a sort of The Exorcist for religion majors that pits faith against rationalism and takes the side of the Catholic priest) was the country's top-grossing movie when I visited in September, earning $30 million in its opening weekend. Its director, Scott Derrickson, is a graduate of the evangelical university in Los Angeles, Biola, and guest teaches at Act One. The following week Emily Rose lost the top spot to Just Like Heaven, a movie that plays the priest-exorcist for cheap laughs but is generally sympathetic to the idea of a spirit world. All over Hollywood, in fact, spirits and angels were rising up on billboards touting the new fall TV season: Ghost Whisperer, Medium, Three Wishes. And while you can't quite call it Christianity, it's a clear sign that Hollywood is enthralled with the realm beyond.

W hen Nicolosi started Act One, in 1999, CNN called her up for an interview. She couldn't get any member of her faculty to speak on the air. "They all thought it would cost them their other jobs," she says. Nicolosi refers to the Christians who had been working in Hollywood for some time as the first wave on the beach. They included Ron Austin, a writer for the television shows Charlie's Angels and Mission Impossible, and Jack Shea, the former president of the Directors Guild of America. Back then people used to joke with Nicolosi that it was a sin in Hollywood to admit you went to church. At the time, Christians were portrayed on TV and in movies primarily as irritating neighborhood goofballs (Ned Flanders on The Simpsons), slick phonies (the priest on The Sopranos), even murderers (Cape Fear).

Then, after 9/11, the industry started to change. Studio heads began asking for movies that were "spiritual" even if not explicitly religious. Around this time the Act One faculty started coming out of the closet, as Nicolosi puts it. Ralph Winter, the producer of X-Men and Fantastic Four, and Tom Shadyac, the producer of Bruce Almighty and Patch Adams, began speaking at the handful of new Christian film festivals. Writers on popular TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed began to feel comfortable casually mentioning to colleagues that they were going to church. They were the second wave.

Daniel Roemer's generation makes up the third. "They have no interest in this conversation" about how one reconciles one's Christianity with Hollywood, Nicolosi told me. "They think it's like asking why a Latino or a gay person should be in Hollywood." You can see the shape of this emerging generation of Christians in the hundreds of applicants to Act One: a pastor's wife and former teen country singer who wants to write "culture shaping, commercially successful TV shows and films"; an evangelical marooned at Harvard; a woman who used to work in the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. This generation grew up worshipping God and Quentin Tarantino (the latter sometimes secretly). They are the cinematic wing of what the sociologist Alan Wolfe calls the "opening of the evangelical mind," a cultural renaissance among conservative Christians. Though their parents may have taught them to take refuge in a parallel Christian subculture, the movies these people found in Christian bookstores bored and embarrassed them. To be accepted at Act One you have to believe that Jesus is a real presence in your life. But the worst insult you can deliver there is to say that a movie reminds you of such notoriously low-budget Christian schlock as the Left Behind series and The Omega Code, or that the dialogue sounds like "Christianese."

Presented by

Hanna Rosin is a Washington Post staff writer who is currently working on a book about the new evangelical elite.

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