The Common Good
March 2009

Changing the Channels

by Carl Kozlowski | March 2009

Writing for Hollywood -- with Jesus in mind.

Scott Teems was just another aspiring writer struggling to survive in New York City when a screenwriting course called “Act One: Writing for Hollywood” changed his life. He was young, newly married, and stuck selling shoes in Queens for $10 an hour when he was accepted to the program.

Teems recalls he was “dead broke,” but thanks to Terence Berry, a student in Act One’s executive training program who footed the bill for him, he embarked on a series of creative adventures that has now enabled him to write and direct the upcoming film I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down, with a cast headed by the Oscar-nominated veteran actor Hal Holbrook. In fact, Berry and Teems partnered on the project to bring it to life, using the knowledge Teems learned in the writing program and Berry acquired on the executive side to guide them through the treacherous process of making a first film.

While friends helping each other is not new to Hollywood, the fact that Christian brotherhood formed the root of their partnership is a fairly unique development. But as Act One opens its 10th year of Hollywood outreach—teaching a new generation of TV and film writers and their attendant studio executives a mix of excellence, artistry, and personal holiness—its imprint on the entertainment industry, and by extension the world culture, is growing ever stronger.

“Act One had a tremendous impact on me. I had an instant connection to [founder] Barbara Nico­losi’s view of the role of Christians in Hollywood, as well as her palpable loathing of the sugar-coated schlock that far too often passes for ‘Christian entertainment,’” says Teems. “The real-world, right-off-the-studio-lot teach­­ing was em­powering, and the classes gave me as much education (if not more) in a month than I learned in my years of film school. But the real value for me was and still is the community, because having like-minded compadres to share your burdens and pray with is a huge blessing in this soul-crushing industry.”

TESTIMONIES LIKE THAT are music to the ears of the nonprofit’s staff, particularly Nicolosi. A former Paulist nun who grew up watching classic movies in Newport, Rhode Island, Nicolosi found herself disgusted with the quality of scripts that passed her way during her first post-religious job as a development executive in a Christian-owned production company.

“As a kid, I would say my parents were very intent on making sure we had exposure to great movies, so I didn’t watch what a lot of my friends were watching. I remember when American Graffiti came out—my mom said absolutely not—but she took us to see Gone with the Wind on the big screen,” recalls Nicolosi. “I saw Dr. Zhivago when I was 11, and used to watch Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin instead of Saturday morning cartoons. At the time I didn’t know what was going on, but they were intentionally exposing us to good work so we’d have better taste.”

Those lessons paid off in adulthood, when Nicolosi decided she’d had enough of films that were more mediocre than meaningful. In the late ’90s, she started asking her Christian friends in Hollywood if they wanted to establish a way to teach new Christian filmmakers how to maintain their morals while improving their artistic strengths.

“I was reading lots of bad scripts by good people. One day I got a call from a friend with Crisis magazine and I told him ‘Christ­ians are not being martyred, they’re committing suicide,’” says Nicolosi. “He had me write an article about it, it got sent around a lot of circles in Hollywood, and finally drew the attention of InterMission, a Christ­ian networking group. They said ‘Would I run a group that would teach better if they found the money?’”

The result was Act One, which in its main form offers an intensive, month-long course of all-day classes in the myriad aspects of writing scripts, from the basics of formatting to the secrets of great storytelling, to how a movie can be broken down into more than 100 “beats,” or distinctive scenes. Mixing staff members with guest lecturers who come from hit movies (such as Ralph Winter, producer of the X-Men and Fantastic Four films) and TV series (such as Dean Batali, producer/writer of That ’70s Show and Buffy the Vampire Slayer), it is a curriculum that leaves no one unchanged on either the social, spiritual, or creative level.

As the program has grown in stature, dozens of its alumni have started landing some impressive opportunities in Hollywood. Amy Snow, for instance, not only won the prestigious $50,000 ABC/Disney Writ­ing Fellowship, but also sold her comedy spec “Kept Men” to Para­mount Pictures. Clare Sera and her writing partner Ivan Menchell sold their original feature pitch “Blended” to Warner Bros., and she also signed to co-write the family action-comedy Captain Abdul’s Pirate School for Nickelodeon Movies. And Steven Chang was hired as a staff writer on the ABC comedy series Miss/Guided, which was produced by Ashton Kutcher.

Act One has also grown to encompass an executive program, which trains those who want to affect the business and production side of the industry so that Christians also can be found in the financing and distribution of films and TV programs. The program has placed more than 20 alums in prime positions with studios and production companies across Holly­wood.

More than 50 weekend-long conferences have offered intensive lessons featuring some of the same top industry figures in cities and towns across America, bringing the Hollywood experience to those unable to come out to it. And in 2004, Nicolosi and other Act One representatives spoke before a panel of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington about the parallel importance and responsibility of Washington, D.C., and Hollywood in sending cultural messages into the world.

THROUGH EVENTS SUCH as these, Act One has shown its understanding of the sociopolitical influence that Christians should strive to share with the world and the vitality of producing films and TV shows with a substantive message.

“We’re Christians in Hollywood who are seeking to share and explore the reality of the human condition in dynamic ways, much in the way Bono shares his message of peace and justice,” says T.J. Berden, Act One’s programs coordinator. “In exploring the realities of the human person, we seek to open up the dialogue between cultures, religions, and nationalities. Our scripts and films are not ‘Pre­cious Moments’ greeting cards, but rather a very raw and dynamic snapshot of the struggles, pains, and joy of the world around us.”

Add in a script-critiquing service that offers in-depth analysis of anyone’s script for an affordable fee, and a TV-writing program that has already placed five alums in series’ staff writing positions in just its first five years, and the nonprofit has an impact far greater than its small staff would seem to indicate.

“Obviously the content of the programs is amazing, but the best thing about it is the community, the spiritual component of what we’re doing and really integrating why we’re here. Seeing it through the lens of the mission field colors who we are professionally and how we approach our writing,” says Vicki Peterson, director of the organization’s writing program. “For me, there is nothing better than being able to connect your faith into your work and everything else you do.”

Carl Kozlowski writes for weekly newspapers in Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as for Our Sunday Visitor. For more information on Act One, see www.actoneprogram.com.

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