Mission? Filling hole in Hollywood

Look up "mission" in a dictionary and it's clear why the word makes Hollywood nervous.

A "mission" can be "an aim in life, arising from a conviction or sense of calling." That's nice and secular. But what if "mission" means a group set apart "by a church or other religious organization to make conversions"?

So film insiders flinch when a studio's mission statement proclaims: "Walden Media believes that quality entertainment is inherently educational. We believe that by providing children, parents and educators with a wide range of great entertainment ... we can recapture young imaginations, rekindle curiosity and demonstrate the rewards of knowledge and virtue."

Say what? When a studio starts combining words such as "parents" and "virtue," Hollywood folks assume all its movies will start with a roar from Dr. James Dobson, instead of a lion. Wait, isn't that William "Book of Virtues" Bennett atop the Walden advisory committee?

"Our goal is wholesome, uplifting, family-friendly entertainment that is still competitive in the marketplace," said the Rev. Bob Beltz, director of special media projects for billionaire investor Philip Anschutz. "I'm not going to say that all of our films will be faith-based. But I can say that we hope they will all be faith-friendly. ...

"We want to be a positive influence in Hollywood. But we have to sell tickets to do that."

Take "Holes," for example, which features Louis Sachar's screenplay based on his Newbery-medal winning novel. The movie opened on 2,331 screens last weekend and soared towards $20 million at the box office.

"In a time when mainstream action is rigidly contained within formulas," noted critic Roger Ebert, "maybe there's more freedom to be found in a young people's adventure. 'Holes' jumps the rails, leaves all expectations behind and tells a story that's not funny ha-ha but funny peculiar."

Amen, said Beltz. This story does have a strange, edgy "parable-like feel to it," he said. But it is the movie's serious themes of good and evil, hope and despair, grace and judgment that are catching viewers off guard. Still, while "Holes" contains many religious themes and symbols, it never resorts to preaching. That made it perfect for this new studio.

"When you have a story like that, you don't want to add anything to it or take anything away," he said. "You just want the story to speak for itself."

Millions of American students already know about Stanley Yelnats IV, a good kid who ends up in the wrong place at the right time and is sentenced to dig holes at the hellish Camp Green Lake in West Texas. The lake is dry and the lovely town on the shore is long dead. But there are serpents, scorpions, killer lizards, bitter memories, buried secrets and enough shame to cover everybody. The sins of the fathers are literally being visited upon the sons.

On one level, "Holes" revolves around a gypsy fortuneteller's curse on Stanley's "no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather." But the emotional heart of this multi-generational tale is the divine judgment that hangs over Green Lake. The town's elite once killed an innocent black onion-picker for the crime of falling in love with a white schoolteacher.

The book spells out what the movie acts out: "That all happened 110 years ago. Since then, not one drop of rain has fallen on Green Lake. You make the decision: Whom did God punish?"

In the end the guilty are brought to justice, the innocent go free and the curses are lifted. Stanley and his friends dance as life-giving water pours from the sky onto the parched earth. The big question: Who can make it rain?

Viewers can make up their own minds about that, said educator Michael Flaherty, the president of Walden Media. But if movies are good enough, many will want to dig deeper.

"Many companies that set out to produce family entertainment make the mistake of defining themselves in terms of what they are not going to do," he said. "They say, 'Don't worry. We're not going to have any bad language in our movies.' Or they say, 'Don't worry. Our stories won't have all those bad parts.'

"We think we can do better than that. We think we can make high-quality films and still be true to our mission."