A Hail Mary for Hollywood

In the Hollywood culture wars, Barbara Nicolosi is an army of one, a former nun turned screenwriter who constantly urges angry believers to love the artists who so frequently mock them.

"How many of you have complained -- or been enraged even -- in the last month by something you have seen on television or in a movie theater?", she asked a recent audience in Los Angeles.

Hundreds of hands went up.

Nicolosi gently pounced: "Now, how many of you, when you saw that something on the screen that offended you, paused and said a prayer for the filmmakers or producers behind that production?"

Two or three hands were raised -- slowly.

This is part of the problem, she said. The entertainment industry needs diversity. It needs new talent, viewpoints, passion and stories. But a creative sea change will not occur until churches grasp Hollywood's importance in American and global culture and -- yes -- even begin praying about it.

Most of the time, Nicolosi speaks to flocks of Evangelicals on behalf of a national educational project she leads called Act One: Writing for Hollywood. But on this day she was facing members of Legatus, a network of Catholic CEOs and philanthropists.

This allowed Nicolosi to do something she said she had long wanted to do, but lacked the right forum. Bowing her head, she asked the Catholics gathered before her to focus on the Hollywood community and then join her as she said: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. ..."

Nicolosi plays a unique role, but she is not alone. She is part of a growing nondenominational effort to convince schools and ministries to get serious about creating real entertainment for real audiences, instead of cranking out Christian products that preach to the choir. Her passion for this cause began while working at Paulist Productions with the late Father Ellwood "Bud" Kieser, who was best known for making the movie "Romero" and years of "Insight" television programs.

Someone had to read the large stacks of scripts offered by Christians convinced that God had inspired their work. That sad person was Nicolosi. All but a few of these efforts, she said, dryly, were "badly written, banal, on the nose, pedantic schlock."

For some reason, most of Hollywood's critics think that because movies are easy to watch, they must be easy to make. Thus, tiny squads of true believers -- with no experience and little training -- keep attempting Mission Impossible.

"We think we're going to raise $5 million and make a movie about St. John Chrysostom and suddenly people are going to fall down on their knees all over the world and Jesus will float down from heaven on a cloud," said Nicolosi.

This isn't how Hollywood works. It is a town that is fiercely committed to excellence and its high-stakes projects require teamwork and compromise by almost everyone involved, she said. It is a town fueled by unbelievable amounts of pressure, power, paranoia and agonizing moral choices.

The way to prepare to enter this arena is to learn from professionals who already thrive there. This is why Act One's seminars are taught by a team of 75 Christians with credits in shows ranging from "MASH" to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," from "Braveheart" to the "X-Men." The screenwriting program (www.actoneprogram.com) is based at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, but will soon become independent and take on new topics, such as directing and producing.

Hollywood's critics need to get serious or they will continue to look foolish, said Nicolosi.

"There is a sense of outrage in many Christians that the industry should instinctively know how to make the movies that we want to see, and should make them," she said. "That is ridiculous. They are making the movies that THEY want to see, which is their right. ...Just suppose that the situation were reversed and we were the ones who had all of the cultural power in our hands. Would we feel obligated to make a few disgusting films for those groups of perverted folks out there to enjoy, just to be fair?

"Of course not. We have to stop begging and whining."