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

Many members of this generation are ahead of the broader evangelical culture. But already Christian institutions are popping up to support them. Biola once forbade its students from watching films of any kind; now it has a film department, as does Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical school just outside Pasadena. In 2002 Pat Robertson's Regent University opened a performing-arts center with film and animation studios, two screening theaters, and a back lot. Two years later George Barna, a respected evangelical pollster and researcher, had a revelation: he decided that film had more influence on parishioners than church, and he started Barna Films, an arm of his Christian media company. Philip Anschutz, a devout Christian and the billionaire founder of Qwest Communications, founded the Anschutz Film Group last year; it includes Walden Media, Disney's partner in The Chronicles of Narnia. (Anschutz produced last year's Oscar-winning Ray, in which he insisted on excising Ray Charles's cursing and womanizing.) Christians can now choose from among a dozen Hollywood prayer groups, including the Hollywood Prayer Network, dedicated to building "an army of talented professionals to change Hollywood from the inside out."

Despite the recent thaw in relations between Hollywood and Christians, the spiritual struggle of most evangelicals in the industry continues. Nicolosi receives letters from Christians horrified that her faculty includes writers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and That '70s Show, and that she uses American Beauty, a movie about a father who lusts after his daughter's friend, as a teaching tool. Scott Derrickson, who also directed the horror film Hellraiser V, draws criticism from Christian Web sites for dwelling in the darkness. He defends horror movies as the genre that "deals most directly with good and evil," saying that it "not only allows but also often demands a religious or spiritual point of view."

Derrickson has also drawn criticism from the left. After the release of The Exorcism of Emily Rose he was frustrated that what he considers a nonpolitical movie was nonetheless dragged into the culture wars by various reviewers. One called it "Karl Rove" cinema. "That was crushing to me," says Derrickson, who describes himself as anti-Bush and anti-right wing.

Many younger screenwriters prefer comic-book movies for much the same reason that Derrickson is drawn to horror. "They're full of heroes and villains," says Leo Partible, a contributor to the book The Gospel According to Superheroes.

On a recent Tuesday night a group of about twenty Act One students gathered for a lesson on pitching ideas to studios. The aspiring filmmakers submitted their ideas anonymously, on little slips of paper that filled a huge glass bowl. Amy Snow, a graduate of Pepperdine University who won the prestigious Disney Screenwriting Fellowship, and Lee Batchler, who wrote Batman Forever, selected pitches to read aloud; for each pitch students held up a green card for "yes," a yellow one for "not sure," or a red one for "no." The ideas started to fly—for reality shows based on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy; episodes of Gilmore Girls, Scrubs, Arrested Development, and Curb Your Enthusiasm; movies that were spy thrillers, fantasies, romantic comedies. Ideas featuring Christian characters were occasionally mentioned but received no more attention than any others. Someone wanted to do a show with a born-again plot line. "I don't know about this evangelical-Christian thing," someone said skeptically. "Is it supposed to be an indie film or something?"

Afterward I mentioned to Chris Riley, Act One's director of writing programs, that the pitch session sounded like those at any other film school: people liked the edgy, original ideas and rejected the tired ones. If I hadn't known this was a Christian screenwriting program, I told him, I never would have guessed. I meant it as a compliment, but he didn't entirely take it as one. "That's something we really think about here," he said.

Nicolosi gets the most heat for having on her staff Dean Batali, one of the lead writers for That '70s Show, a long-running sitcom that's literally about sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Batali doesn't need anyone to tell him he's living in Satan's vineyard. He is a prime example of the kinds of compromises a Christian has to make when he becomes successful in Hollywood. "I can make an argument that this show is degrading the culture," he told me, and he mentioned that the Parents Television Council, a watchdog group many Christian parents trust, routinely gives his show a red light, signifying that it "may include gratuitous sex, explicit dialogue, violent content, or obscene language, and is unsuitable for children." But, he says with resignation, "this is where God put me."

Batali, forty-one, could pass for a midwestern pastor. He's friendly and clean-cut, and tucks his shirt into his jeans. His office is decorated with drawings by his two kids and with considerable Winnie the Pooh memorabilia. On his desk is the first line of a script that's about to be filmed: "Fez wakes up in bed with a 45-year-old woman." On the other side of his desk is his Bible, which he reads every day at work—a habit his fellow writers definitely think is weird. Down the hall from his office is a door marked Hot Girls club, a reference to a juvenile running joke on the show.

"I sit in a room full of profanity and blasphemy all day long," Batali explained. When he pitches his own episodes, he tries to steer away from sex. If he's given a sex scene to write, he doesn't "get into the mechanics" the way another writer would. Instead he uses wordplay. "Does that change the culture and bring more people to the God of Abraham? No. But it's a tiny grain of salt." One time, he told me, four characters had a "fascinating" discussion about God. But they were high on marijuana.

Batali is frustrated with Hollywood types, because most of them have never heard of a church youth group, even though nearly half of American teens belong to one. But he's also frustrated with his fellow churchgoers. "It's just crap," he complains. "We claim to serve such a wonderful God whose people can't write a scene or paint a painting." What Tony Kushner did for gays and Eve Ensler did for feminists some Christian writer ought to do for his own group, he says. "Where's the Christian Vagina Monologues?" He's aware of how ridiculous that sounds, but means it nonetheless. Batali's plan is to build enough of a reputation that he can eventually pitch his own drama pilot with plenty of funny, three-dimensional Christian characters.

After the script reading at Act One the actors headed off home or to their late-night bartending jobs. Roemer, his co-writer Ron Fernandez, and his producer, Craig Detweiler, were left behind. Detweiler runs Biola's film department and is giddy about Roemer's script. He says it represents the best of this new generation of Christian filmmakers, the generation he's trying to mold—it's Napoleon Dynamite with soul, a Donnie Darko that found the light. The problem is always the same, though: where to get the money.

In the future imagined by Batali and Nicolosi this won't be a problem. Every Hollywood studio will have an Anschutz in the making, a Christian executive looking to help one of his own. Every channel will have its Christian version of Will & Grace, some sitcom set in a megachurch or a Catholic high school. Christians will be like Jews, like African-Americans, like gay people in Hollywood: just another minority looking back and laughing at the time when they couldn't even get a job in the mailroom.

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

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