It's the Tuesday night of the recall election, and five players are engaged in a spirited debate in a classroom at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Only these aren't political operatives, they're five of Hollywood's more successful practicing Christians, and they're discussing the fine line they walk in trying to enlighten as well as entertain.
Sitting before an audience of 16 students in the Act Two program for Christian screenwriters, Dean Batali (writer/co-executive producer, "That '70s Show"), Lee Batchler (co-writer, "Batman Forever"), Jack Gilbert (former workshop director of the Warner Bros. Writers Workshop), Ron Austin (writer, "Matlock") and Act Two executive director Barbara Nicolosi are debating the meaning and merits of spiritually charged yet provocative movies like "Magnolia." Although it has a lot of profanity, themes of sexual abuse, family dysfunction and misogyny, the instructors believe the film offers amazing lessons -- that it is an example of a film with flawed characters who seek and find redemption and forgiveness.
For an hour, questions and answers fly as the panel discusses such issues as when and how moral ambiguity can be helpful or go too far, and whether spreading a Christian message is better served by writing explicitly Christian characters or by conveying moral values through secular characters. While these debates have raged for years in church circles, Act Two and its parent program, Act One: Writing for Hollywood, have generated a great deal of interest in the past five years thanks to the caliber of faculty members and such bold credos as "it's better to tell an R-rated truth than a G-rated lie."
Despite the sometimes impassioned differences among faculty and students, one thing is clear: A new and savvier generation of Christians is hitting Hollywood, one that's come a long way from making apocalyptic thrillers and "altar call" films that ministries such as Billy Graham's sometimes used to convince people to accept Christ into their hearts.
"We all seek to incorporate the Christian worldview into movies and television, but we discuss how to naturally get our point of view in our work," said Batali afterward. "We don't want our art to be agenda-driven, but we do have a valid worldview that should be part of the cultural conversation."
Act One's voice in that conversation has become louder since the program's inception in January 1999 by members of the Christian entertainment fellowship organization Inter-Mission, which, along with the unrelated Actors Co-op theater group, is housed at First Presbyterian. From the start, the goal has been to offer a monthlong, daily series of interactive lectures on screenwriting by working industry professionals rather than a dry academic approach, to show students that thriving careers are possible for churchgoers worried about anti-religious discrimination in Hollywood.
Nearly five years later, the program has taught 210 students at classes in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Along the way, a course track focusing on TV writing careers, a screenplay critique service, writers' groups and a thriving online information community also have been established. Applicants for admission to Act One submit a variety of writing samples for consideration, while Act Two participants are selected from writers of completed scripts from the "best of the best" Act One graduates.
During the week before the recall, a camera crew from the American Movie Classics cable network shot a documentary on the program and Dominos Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan played host to Nicolosi and other board members and associate director Zena Dell Schroeder for a fund-raiser for Act One at his Ann Arbor, Mich., estate. Perhaps most impressive, representatives of Act One have entered the hallowed halls of Congress to present testimony on their work in the cultural maelstrom.
"One of our alums works as a speechwriter in the Bush administration, and he talked us up on Capitol Hill and we got invited to give a program on ethics and entertainment creation, and how to approach Hollywood to gain a more favorable response in terms of inviting the industry to consider the social impact of its work," recalled Nicolosi, who has overseen Act One since its inception. "More invites kept coming up and we met with senators, Capitol Hill staffers, the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives and had lunch at the White House. But everywhere we went, we told everyone to praise the good the industry does rather than focus on the bad it does."