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."

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.