Catholics in Hollywood: Where Do We Stand? What Can Be Done?

TV-productionCatholic Website Aleteia recently did an interview with screenwriter and teacher Barbara Nicolosi, the founder and chair emeritus of Act One, Inc., a nonprofit program to equip Christians to work in Hollywood as writers and executives.

Nicolosi has also analyzed scripts, produced and consulted (and also taught a Hollywood-based RCIA program), so she stands squarely at the intersection of orthodox Catholicism and practical Hollywood knowledge.

Via Variety, here’s her latest screenwriting project:

In the latest of a growing crop of major faith-based films, several prominent U.S. indie players, including Origin Entertainment, Frida Torresblanco (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and Rose Ganguzza’s Rose Pictures (“Kill Your Darlings”), have teamed up on “Fatima,” to be directed by Italy’s Marco Pontecorvo and shot at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios.

“Fatima” will mark the most ambitious attempt to reconstruct the solemn supernatural events surrounding the supposed apparition of Mary to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, since Warner Bros.’ classic “The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima” in 1952.

Nicolosi, currently an associate professor in the Honors College at Christian (but not Catholic) institution Azusa Pacific University, dishes out some tough love in the two-part interview. But, it’s stuff that Catholics need to hear.

Right now, we’re mostly religious window dressing, the target of sex-abuse stories, or depicted fighting the Devil (that last one’s good, but that’s not all we do).

Fortunately, Mel Gibson hit it big with “The Passion of the Christ.” Unfortunately, nothing has come close to matching the 2004 movie’s combination of serious Christianity and commercial success (witness the latest box-office flop, the well-meaning but seriously flawed “Ben-Hur”).

As Nicolosi points out, our Evangelical brethren have stepped into the breach with low-budget, sermon-heavy films like “God’s Not Dead,” but that’s hardly an unqualified blessing.

Here’s Nicolosi, from part one of the interview:

Every studio now pretty much has a faith division where they’re looking for content for that niche market. This is good and bad. The good part is the mainstream industry is talking to people of faith instead of thinking of us as what’s wrong with the world. The bad part is that it’s ghetto-ized us, such that when you bring a really good project like Mary Mother of Christ or A Severe Mercy to them they say: #1, “This is too smart for the Christians; they don’t want to be challenged,” and #2 “You can serve this audience for a lot less than this movie will cost.” I’ve had both things said to me by studio executives.

So, in other words, they say, “Why should we spend 40 million on a movie with faith or transcendent aspects when we can make it for two million with no stars, no great director, no good script, and all you have to do is put some Bible quotes in it and come out as a sweet little melodrama and it will make 30 million for us?” So that is devastatingly bad for the Church, for art, and for the society as a whole, because it’s keeping any beautiful faith-inspired work from getting a serious treatment.

So, what’s to be done? Just stick a priest or two in a movie, show a church, slap a crucifix on the lead actress and be done with it? Not at all.

It’s not enough for a story to have faith; it’s also got to be good.

Nicolosi, from part two of the interview:

So, we give young people a rigorous writing program and compel them to engage the big ideas, through the Great Books. We help them become aware that modernism is a freak, and help them understand the particular lostness of the people of their time — the confusions that are deeply infused in them by the water we’re all swimming in. Then, once they have a good solid foundation, we identify the good writers among them and work with them so that they can learn the basics of visual storytelling. I did an intensive this summer with nine writers —three were our APU students — they have talent and they get it and they’re interesting.

Interesting story comes from interesting people. And being Christian by itself doesn’t make you interesting. You need to be Christian and thoughtful. So when we talk about the Church addressing this problem about the dearth of story-telling, it’s not going to be a quick fix.

Christ sent us forth to evangelize the world, and we won’t do that by just talking to each other — which is what too many Christian films do today. They thrill the faithful, but they don’t percolate out into the larger culture.

Nicolosi also points out that a lot of the Catholics that are already in Hollywood are either weak in their faith formation, or just not sure what it means to be a working person in the entertainment industry AND an evangelist (or keep their faith under wraps for fear of not getting work).

Also, Nicolosi points out, the USCCB hasn’t been much help:

I gave a speech at [the bishops’ own] Catholic University of America years ago, and at the end they told me it was the last class they were having on screen writing — they were shutting it down. And I thought, “Did I miss the memo? Are movies going away?!”

But, Nicolosi says, she doesn’t want the Church to get into the business of making movies:

The Church is supposed to commission art, not make it.

Indeed — and there’s a lot more where that came from. Click here and here to read the whole thing.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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.