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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Scripting the Work of the Lord

June 23, 1999|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Onward, Christian writers.

Fade In.

Culled from 100 applicants, 30 aspiring screenwriters are about to hit the books, so to speak, on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. On Aug. 2, they will begin a monthlong course, spending 12 hours a week in class with professional writers and producers whose credits range from "MASH" to "Cagney & Lacey."

Although not by design, the student body is divided equally by gender. Twenty percent represent minorities. More than half are not from Southern California. Seventy percent are between the ages of 25 and 35.

Yet so much for diversity, for everyone in the Act One: Writing for Hollywood Class of '99 shares one thing beyond wanting to write for the screen. They're Christian. The faculty, too.

That is by design.

"This is affirmative action for Christian writers in the business," said Barbara Nicolosi, a screenwriter who quotes Scripture in addition to audience demographics. She's been running Act One since its creation in January as a nonprofit group, funded by foundation grants, to teach skills to the under-represented majority as a way of giving them better access to Hollywood.

Among her co-founders are Coleman Luck ("The Equalizer") and David Schall, director of Inter-Mission, a network of industry professionals hoping to "build up the members of the Body of Christ . . . in order to transform the entertainment community--and ultimately the entire popular culture--from the inside out."

Nicolosi knows how this may sound. She wants you to know that Act One isn't plotting to convert the nation to Christianity through television by graduating guerrillas with word processors. This isn't about proselytizing, she said, so don't lump her and the program with such holiers than thou as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

She's a Catholic, in fact. "I meet some people who say, 'You know the Lord, but are you saved?' Good grief!"

The biggest grief? Mutual demonizing.

"Many Christians think Hollywood is what's wrong with the world," Nicolosi said. "And a lot of my friends [in Hollywood] think Christianity is what's wrong with the world."

When it comes to what gets on television, the latter translates to Christians getting thrown to the lions.

"We're, like, 70% to 80% of the population, but we are never allowed to define characters who reflect who we really are," Nicolosi said. "People who are green-lighting [TV decision-makers] believe if you define a character as being a belief-happy Christian, that's gonna be a turnoff and controversial in a negative way."

What about Martha Williamson's "Touched by an Angel," whose highly watched Sunday night message on CBS is nondenominational godly love? "It isn't really about Christianity," noted Nicolosi. "It's about a happy, benevolent deity somewhere, smiling down on us." If only a TV deity smiled as benevolently on themes about redemption through Christian belief.

Not that she puts all the blame on Hollywood.

"The Christians who are trying to break into the business are not writing at a level that is professional," said Nicolosi, a former development director for Father Ellwood E. Kieser's Paulist Productions and reader for the Humanitas Awards, which honor TV and movie writers for work uplifting human values. "Christians think they deserve the extra credit because they are writing about deeper themes. They don't do their homework. They don't bother to learn how to format, how to structure, how to create characters that are compelling. If it doesn't work as entertainment, it's not going to get a chance to work as anything else. They disdain Hollywood. There's this kind of arrogance that they can compete in an industry from the outside, that Hollywood is the enemy."

Act One hopes to curb that by having each student spend August writing a first draft of something while learning traditional skills. "I'm not gonna be there telling people how to create Christian characters," said faculty member Brian Bird, who is joining "Touched by an Angel" as a supervising producer. "I'll be there as a writer who happens to be a Christian."

Yet students will hear, too, about:

* Staying on course as a Christian in the industry.

* Characters that are incarnational.

* The spiritual power of screen comedy.

The program--which is funded for another monthlong course in 2000--will succeed, Nicolosi said, if it "pumps into the industry every year two or three talented writers who are believers who can impact millions of people by their depth and their insight and their skill."

To say nothing of their Christianity.

"I don't want to see the next 'Jesus of Nazareth' come out of this," Nicolosi said about the 1977 biblical miniseries directed by Franco Zeffirelli. "I wanna see some thoughtful, powerful, beautiful, intelligent screen stories that will have universal application that will resonate with everybody."

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