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."