Category: Kate O’Hare

The Success of “The Bible’s” Mark Burnett — Minus the Bible Stuff

Faith-filled viewers know Mark Burnett as one-half of the producing team — with Catholic wife Roma Downey — of “The Bible” and its spin-off “Son of God,” along with “A.D.: The Bible Continues,” “The Dovekeepers” and the recent remake of “Ben-Hur.” He and Downey also launched a family- and faith-friendly digital broadcast channel called Light TV (which we reported on here).

People say that Christians aren’t making it big in showbiz, but Burnett proves that isn’t necessarily so.

Of course, his success with faith-based entertainment is built upon decades of producing shows for the mainstream entertainment market. In large part, the credibility he built with shows from “Eco-Challenge” to “Survivor” to “The Apprentice” to “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” and “The Voice” allows Burnett to dabble in Bible tales without damaging his showbiz viability.

In fact, one reason that “A.D.: The Bible Continues” went to NBC instead of History Channel, like “The Bible” miniseries before it, was because NBC was in business with Burnett on “The Voice” and wanted to participate in his new venture.

Last week, entertainment trade publication Variety did an extensive portrait of Burnett, who’s currently president of MGM Television and Digital Group, and managed not to mention a word about his faith-based efforts.

But, it’s worth a read, if only to get a sense of how a former British paratrooper and nanny managed to build a showbiz empire. Read the whole thing here, but below find an excerpt:

Burnett has long been established as one of TV’s most formidable and innovative producers. But his career took a new turn 18 months ago when he was named president of MGM Television and Digital Group, after MGM acquired the remaining 45% interest in Burnett’s United Artists Media Group production venture with Hearst Corp. MGM’s total purchase price for Burnett’s banner was around $600 million.

The executive post at the studio was a surprise to the industry. Burnett had always been the maverick head of his own independent shingle, leaving him free to partner opportunistically with networks and studios as projects arose. Was TV’s ultimate entrepreneurial producer really ready to hang up his cargo shorts and IFB earpiece to sit behind a desk? Perish the thought.

Burnett has adapted the job of running a studio division to his own style, with the encouragement of MGM chairman-CEO Gary Barber. He’s typically in the MGM offices once or twice a week at most. He hasn’t given up his hands-on role as executive producer of NBC’s “The Voice” or ABC’s “Shark Tank,” among other shows. Burnett and his wife, actress-producer Roma Downey, travel frequently in connection with various productions and the couple’s many passion projects. And MGM TV’s president still doesn’t spend much time wearing suits.

Image: Courtesy Kate O’Hare

Visit the Family Theater Productions homepage and Facebook page to learn more about how FTP is reaching out to Hollywood and producing its own projects.

‘Will’ on TNT: Seminarian Views Racy Series About a Catholic Shakespeare

This summer at Family Theater Productions, we have Holy Cross seminarian Brogan Ryan visiting from Notre Dame, so I asked him to take a look at “Will,” the new Monday-night TNT drama about William Shakespeare, which premiered last week. I reviewed it here, but in short, it’s a fast-paced, racy (for sexual content mostly) look at young Shakespeare in London, complete with punk-style costumes, hair and makeup, and modern music woven in.

But, writer Craig Pearce has done his homework, and much of the background info for his historical characters does have basis in fact. He’s also included, as fact in the series, the long-held belief of many scholars that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic — which put him in peril in the stridently Protestant England of Elizabeth I.

“Will” is definitely late-teens and adult fare, but under the more sensational elements, Ryan has found a deeper meaning.

From the beginning of Saint Augustine’s Confessions: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Many might not know the line that precedes it: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord.” This often forgotten, possibly overlooked, statement places the well-known one that follows it in its proper theological and spiritual context. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” (1.1) It is true that we as human beings are seekers who often find ourselves wandering the earth chasing our passions, looking for love and meaning and purpose, but Saint Augustine knows the end for which we as humans were created: God made us for Himself. God is the source and proper end of all of our human restlessness. Our passions come from Him and properly followed lead to Him.

In Will, Craig Pearce seizes on and caricatures this very human reality.

In the opening scene of the first episode, we see young Will Shakespeare leaving his family to move to London and pursue a writing career – his heart’s desire. Even though he has a wife and children, his life as a glove maker is not cutting it. “I dreamt this for us,” Will says to his wife as he leaves. “You dreamt this for you,” she responds.

What makes Will such a compelling character, and why I will continue to watch, even through some of the gratuitousness that the first four episodes contains, is that I believe that Will is also trying to live God’s dream for him. Will is not a perfect person and makes missteps aplenty. His passions are raw and unrefined. They need to be directed, guided and purified.

We see (and I was edified by!) Will seeking out his cousin and underground Catholic priest, Robert Southwell, for spiritual guidance and sacramental reconciliation. It becomes clear that Will believes he is serving a larger purpose and working towards a greater end than his own personal wealth, fame and glory. These fascinations of the world are personified in the character of Christopher Marlowe, who has similar passions to Will and possibly even similar abilities, but Marlowe uses them to serve himself. Marlowe’s passions rule him instead of serve him and end up stifling his creative spirit rather than freeing it – a fact we see in Marlowe’s attempt to use pleasure and sensuality to cure his writers block. (It does not!)

Most of the action and drama in the series stems from the conflict and tension that arises from people acting out of their passions. The Catholic-Protestant struggle is a very obvious example of this (the vicious and cruel torture by Richard Topcliffe is in conflict with the stubborn faith and refusal to yield by the underground Catholics. Both hold deep, deep convictions about the rightness of their faith convictions).

Examples of the struggle between good and bad, right and wrong, and grace and evil abound in the series, with Will and others often ending up on the disappointing side of the equation. While these struggles can make for entertaining television, most will find the less obviously answered spiritual and personal tensions more compelling. Struggles with faith, family issues, fidelity, freedom, and finances all work to portray Will as a character who is truly passionate, but also restless.

In what seems like the final, damning straw in a pretty rapid decent for Will’s moral character, Will tells Southwell that he will not help with Southwell’s underground Catholic publishing project. Will wants to focus on his playwriting craft. If we were to hold Marlowe and Southwell as opposite extremes in Will’s moral sphere of influence, it seems like Will has chosen the path of Marlowe – his career and the temporal world over God and the spiritual world, serving his own passions rather than using his passions to serve the Lord.

Whether this is actually the case remains to be seen.

If done well, Will could be a series which captures well the spirit of Augustine. Will’s struggles all point toward a man trying to discern and follow his vocation – God’s dream for him and the proper end for which his passions exist. This is intriguing because it could lead to a story line that we Catholics do not expect. Acknowledging that God has made Will for God’s self means that Will’s ultimate rest – the realization of who God created him to be – might actually lie in writing beautiful plays and poems that bring others to God. His vocation might take him to a place where he is serving the Church indirectly rather than directly. It is possible that Will is not turning his back on God by declining Southwell’s invitation but rather is remaining faithful to God by responding in a different way, like a woman or man who might discern marriage over the religious life or seminary.

Will’s vocation is to be a playwright, not a glove-maker nor a fugitive author. He is restless and at times wayward, for sure, but is also learning that his restlessness is moving him more and more towards the God who made him.

This is my hope, at least, and why I’ll keep watching.

Have you seen the show? Are Ryan’s hopes well-founded? Let us know …

Image: Courtesy TNT

Visit the Family Theater Productions homepage and Facebook page to learn more about how FTP is reaching out to Hollywood and producing its own projects.

Emmy Nominations 2017: Family-Suitable Fare Is in the Mix

We may indeed be living in the era of Peak Television, in terms of the proliferation of offerings on broadcast, cable and streaming — but if you’re counting shows for the whole family, especially scripted ones, pickings can be slim. But the Emmy nominations, released on Thursday, July 13, did manage to find some of the bright spots.

The 69th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards come out on Sunday, Sept. 17, and here are some of the family-oriented or family-friendly shows up for honors:

BEST COMEDY

While neither show is squeaky-clean in the tradition of “My Three Sons” or “Happy Days,” and both contain elements that may require conversations in Catholic families, ABC’s “black-ish” and “Modern Family” receive generally high marks for tackling a wide variety of contemporary family issues without being overly sensational. In 2015, the Vatican even recognized “Modern Family” as a show with worthy elements.

BEST DRAMA

While the nominees here tend toward the edgy, standing out are Netflix’s “The Crown,” a fascinating look at the life of Britain’s Elizabeth II, just before and after she becomes queen. No less than Bishop Robert Barron lauded the show for its depiction of both the difficulties and importance of Christian values (for which, regardless of the direction of the Anglican Church, Elizabeth II has always promoted).

Also nominated is NBC’s excellent family drama “This Is Us,” which had reduced many adults —  including hard-bitten TV critics — to tears, with its heartfelt depiction of two generations of a family hit by loss by enriched by adoption.

The nomination also represents the first time in five years that a broadcast network has had a best-drama contender … and it’s with a family-oriented show! Here’s to hoping that this sparks development of more warmhearted shows on the broadcast networks — in the vein of “Highway to Heaven,” “The Waltons” or “Touched by an Angel” but we haven’t exactly seen it yet.

Because of broadcast standards and a different business model, it’s going to be near-impossible for ABC, NBC, CBS and even Fox to compete with the expensive, edgy shows coming out on cable on streaming services. So maybe they should stop trying and just go back to being BROADcasters, and program for the vast middle of America.

They might even make enough money to survive.

TELEVISION  MOVIE

Thrilled and a bit surprised to see NBC’s “Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love” among the nominees. First of all, TV-movies on broadcast networks are increasingly rare, and this one is a sequel to the previous year’s ratings hit “Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors.” Both movies — inspired by a Parton song, and based on her childhood in rural Tennessee — celebrate faith and family in a warmhearted yet realistic way. Here’s to hoping more broadcast nets decide to get back into the business of making not only family-suitable shows, but movies as well.

Hallmark may own this space at the moment, but that’s hardly set in stone.

UNSTRUCTURED REALITY PROGRAM

A&E’s “Born This Way” celebrates the joys and challenges of young adults who have Down Syndrome, and has become a critical and ratings hit. It’s a sad day when you need a TV show to show the human face of human beings, but we live in a world where many, if not most, people with this genetic condition never make it to their birthday.

I’ve seen huge billboards for this show in the busiest tourist areas of Hollywood Boulevard, and it’s great to see Emmy voters putting it  into contention.

REALITY COMPETITION SHOW

It’s in the reality genre that parents find many shows to share with their children, and this group has several, such as CBS’ “The Amazing Race,” NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” Bravo’s “Top Chef” and NBC’s “The Voice.”

In particular, “The Voice” and “American Ninja Warrior” have proved to be friendly to contestants of faith, and that’s always appreciated.

So, when someone tells you that there’s nothing good on TV anymore, it’s just not true — and we congratulate Emmy voters on recognizing family-suitable fare as part of the quality mix.

Image: Courtesy ITU Pictures

Visit the Family Theater Productions homepage and Facebook page to learn more about how FTP is reaching out to Hollywood and producing its own projects.

Monks of Norcia: Benedictine Brothers Bet on Beer to Overcome Earthquake Devastation

In honor of the July 11 Feast of Saint Benedict of Nursia (a k a Norcia), let’s check in with the Monks of Norcia, who became world-famous for their Gregorian-chant CD, “Benedicta,” which came out in 2015.

But becoming international music superstars didn’t insulate them from the ravages of nature, in the form of powerful earthquakes that struck their region in Umbria in August and October of 2016. Hundreds of people were killed, many more displaced, and the monks’ home, the 14th-century Basilica of St. Benedict, was destroyed.

Here’s how they describe themselves on their Website:

The Monastery of San Benedetto in Monte is perched above the ancient town of Nursia, birthplace of St. Benedict, founder of Western monasticism.

The Monks of Norcia, who have called the city home since the year 2000, were forced to begin work on a new, seismic-resistant monastery on site of their old monastic grange when a series of devastating earthquakes destroyed their church and home in town in 2016.

The international community of monks who live there are committed to living according to the ancient observance of the Rule of St. Benedict and understand this otherwise tragic moment in history as a call from God to deepen their vocation as men of prayer, conversion, study and manual labor, and to prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

But music alone is not enough to make the monks self-supporting, as is called for in the Rule of Saint Benedict, who wanted his monastics to live by the work of their hands. The Monks of Norcia took up the brewing of beer called Birra Nursia, which landed in the U.S. in the spring of 2016 — only months before the quakes.

Amazingly, the quakes spared the brewery, so the monks are counting on thirsty customers buying in stores and online to help rebuild their monastery and their mission to the surrounding area and the world.

From The New York Times:

Led by Father Folsom, who is the prior emeritus, the monks now number 15. They learned beer-making from experienced Trappist brewmasters in Belgium, and began to make Nursia in 2012. The beer’s name was chosen “specifically to help the townspeople, rather than naming it after St. Benedict,” Father Nivakoff said.

“We wanted people to identify the beer with the town,” and to help support it, he added.

Brother Augustine Wilmeth, who was born in South Carolina and serves as the brewmaster, said Nursia was “the only monastic beer in the world that is made exclusively by the monks.”

Other monastic brewing operations, he explained, have grown into milliondollar enterprises with many workers. In Norcia, the monks do everything themselves, producing around 10,000 bottles each month.

Meet Father Folsom, on EWTN’s “The Journey Home”:

And when you have some extra time, here’s a whole documentary, from the pre-quake days in 2012 …

Here’s to hoping they find the time to produce some more beautiful music for the world.

Images: Courtesy Monks of Norcia

Learn more about Family Theater Productions’ upcoming, new and vintage productions as well as our Hollywood Outreach Programs; and, of course, you’ll find us on Facebook. Visit our YouTube and Ustream Channels for our contemporary and classic productions.

Angela Lansbury, Michael Gambon and Emily Watson Cast in ‘Masterpiece: Little Women’ on PBS

Principal photography is about to commence on a new version of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” for PBS’ “Masterpiece,” and now we know some of the key roles.

Originally published in two volumes, in 1868 and 1869 (and followed by “Little Men”), “Little Women” follows the lives of the four March sisters — Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy — and their beloved mother, Marmee, as they pass from girlhood to young adulthood in New England during the years surrounding the Civil War (the story begins their father away, serving as a chaplain in the Union Army).

BAFTA Award-winner Emily Watson (“The Theory of Everything,” “Genius”) will play Marmee. Starring as the sisters are Maya Hawke (Jo), Willa Fitzgerald (Meg), Annes Elwy (Beth) and Kathryn Newton (Amy). Dame Angela Lansbury (“Murder, She Wrote”) plays the girls’ wealthy relative, the cantankerous Aunt March. Michael Gambon (“Harry Potter”) plays kindly neighbor Mr. Laurence; and Jonah Hauer-King (“Howard’s End”) plays his grandson, Laurie Laurence, the quintessential boy next door.

“Little Women” is Playground production for the BBC and “Masterpiece,” with a production team from the U.K. and U.S. Hedi Thomas (“Call the Midwife,” “Cranford”) is the writer, with Vanessa Caswill directing.

From the press release announcing the production:

Writer and executive producer Thomas says: “Little Women is one of the most loved novels in the English language, and with good reason. Its humanity, humour and tenderness never date, and as a study of love, grief and growing up it has no equal. There could be no better time to revisit the story of a family striving for happiness in an uncertain world, and I am thrilled to be bringing the March girls to a new generation of viewers.”

“The mini-series is a storytelling form unique to television, and the opportunity to adapt Louisa May Alcott’s novel over three hours is a gift from the BBC and MASTERPIECE on PBS,” said executive producer Callender. “This is a character study of young women rich in texture and detail, and it’s an honour to be able to bring it to life in this extended form with the great Heidi Thomas, one of the finest writers working in television today. In the hands of the exciting directorial style of filmmaker Vanessa Caswill we hope to deliver a new screen version that will speak to contemporary audiences, meet the expectations of the book’s ardent fans and bring a whole new generation to this great classic.”

“Bringing alive this beloved American novel for a new generation of PBS viewers is a dream come true,” said Beth Hoppe, Chief Programming Executive and General Manager, General Audience Programming, PBS. “In the hands of Rebecca Eaton and Colin Callender’s Playground, and with the superb talents of writer Heidi Thomas, we are confident this story of strong women will resonate with both new and longtime fans of MASTERPIECE.”

No premiere date has yet been announced, but it seems unlikely we’ll see this before mid- to late-2018.

Image: Courtesy Amazon.com (Kindle Edition); Wikimedia Commons

Learn more about Family Theater Productions’ upcoming, new and vintage productions as well as our Hollywood Outreach Programs; and, of course, you’ll find us on Facebook. Visit our YouTube and Ustream Channels for our contemporary and classic productions.

‘Catholic Central’ Star and Saint Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists

This fall, we’re launching a new Web series, called “Catholic Central,” to teach about the Faith in fast and funny short episodes that are both entertaining and informing — “enter-forming,” if you will — and our hosts are Kaiser Johnson and Libby Slater.

Both Minnesotans, Johnson and Slater are multitalented actors, writers and producers. Slater is also a graduate of John Paul the Great Catholic University, near San Diego, California, a relatively new school that, among other things, specializes in training students in all aspects of media.

Back in 2014, the school produced a video in which a group of students recited sections of Saint Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists, in which the pontiff — himself an actor in his younger days — spoke to hearts and souls of musicians, actors, painters, sculptors, writers, etc.

This mirrors what’s been going on in our in-house studio, as writers, actors, producers and crew people assemble to shoot new episodes of “Catholic Central” — which we’ll be doing again next week, in advance of a Sept. 15 launch.

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s Libby and her former fellow students in the video, released in 2014 to coincide with John Paul’s canonization. Watch closely for a fresh-faced Libby:

Click here for the full text of the Letter to Artists, and here’s a taste:

Society needs artists, just as it needs scientists, technicians, workers, professional people, witnesses of the faith, teachers, fathers and mothers, who ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art form which is “the art of education”. Within the vast cultural panorama of each nation, artists have their unique place. Obedient to their inspiration in creating works both worthwhile and beautiful, they not only enrich the cultural heritage of each nation and of all humanity, but they also render an exceptional social service in favour of the common good.

The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a “spirituality” of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people. It is precisely this to which [Polish poet and dramatist] Cyprian Norwid seems to allude in declaring that “beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up.”

This past May, the National Catholic Register published a reflection on the Letter to Artists. The whole thing can be found here, but this is one particularly illuminating passage:

Those of us have felt that artistic “spark” brimming within us — those of us that love to write, to create, to paint, draw and sing — would do well to heed the call upon our souls that this Letter speaks of.

This spark is something divine – let us keep it that way. It is something God has endowed us with, and whether we always acknowledge it or not, it still belongs to him. Let us keep it sacred and use it to set the world on fire for Christ.

But to do this, an artist doesn’t always have to be obvious about it. Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., who’s just joined us on staff at Family Theater, is both a Holy Cross priest and a filmmaker. I asked him about the Letter, and here’s what he wrote back:

JPII’s Letter to Artists encourages Catholics to evangelize through Beauty. Hopefully, this leads to openness to Truth and the Good. My own prayer is that artists may do so, subtly and with veiled language as Jesus did — in some stories and parables he doesn’t even mention “God.”

So, if you want to praise God directly in your art, have at it. But, also know that there are many ways to lead people to the light of Christ, and it takes true talent to do it without your audience even realizing they’re being evangelized.

Images: Courtesy Kate O’Hare for Family Theater Productions/Wikimedia Commons

Learn more about Family Theater Productions’ upcoming, new and vintage productions as well as our Hollywood Outreach Programs; and, of course, you’ll find us on Facebook. Visit our YouTube and Ustream Channels for our contemporary and classic productions.