Mel Gibson Movie Fuels Excitement Among Hollywood’s Christian Filmmakers

By David Finnigan

Published September 12, 2003, issue of September 12, 2003.
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LOS ANGELES — With Jewish groups warning that Mel Gibson’s graphic film about the death of Jesus could resurrect charges of Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion, some in Hollywood appear to be spooked. Despite the movie’s rave reviews from prominent Christian conservatives, 20th Century Fox, which has the option of first refusal to distribute films by Gibson’s production company, said late last month that it would take a pass on “The Passion.”

But at least one group in heavily Jewish and overwhelmingly secular Hollywood cannot wait for the movie’s slated Easter 2004 release: the entertainment industry’s small community of devout Christian filmmakers, screenwriters and producers.

“I haven’t seen this much excitement about one particular film in a long time,” said Father Wilfred Raymond, a Catholic priest and national director of the Family Theater Productions, which produces religious programming and has a billboard above its Sunset Boulevard offices emblazoned with its slogan, “The family that prays together stays together.”

While violence, profanity and sex are widely accepted as normal entertainment fare, much rarer are Hollywood projects offering explicitly religious viewpoints. For many Christians toiling away in Hollywood, it is particularly gratifying to see a major star, such as Gibson, who practices a traditionalist brand of Catholicism, devote himself to a movie project that is an unabashed expression of personal religious devotion.

Zena Dell Schroeder, associate director of the Christian screenwriters’ program Act One, has seen a rough cut of “The Passion” and compared viewing it to “an act of worship. This film is beautifully done; it’s not meant to be anti-anything.”

“There’s still a gulf in Hollywood between people who have traditional religious faiths and the mainstream entertainment community,” said Ron Austin, who worked in Hollywood for three decades, producing the 1970s hit “Charlie’s Angels” in the days before he embraced Catholicism. “It’s acceptable in Hollywood now to be spiritual but not really religious, which applies to a more traditional understanding of the faith and traditional morality.”

Major entertainment companies have curious relationships with Christianity. Studio and television network executives are wary of explicitly Christian films and TV shows, although their parent companies’ music labels make money with Christian groups.

The closest that movie studios get to Christian fare are films like 1996’s redemption-driven “Spitfire Grill” or Gibson playing a widowed minister in 2002’s UFO-anchored hit “Signs” or “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and its rich Catholic metaphors — though none are explicitly Christian films.

Some Christians have decided to bypass the Hollywood studio system entirely and have achieved modest success. The premillennial Christian hit “The Omega Code” grossed $12.6 million in the United States. Richard Dutcher’s 2000 film “God’s Army,” a clear-eyed drama about Mormon missionaries in Los Angeles, cost $300,000 to make and grossed $2.6 million, screening at theaters in the heavily Mormon Rocky Mountain region.

Others believe it is important to work within the Hollywood system.

The stated goals of the Act One program, sponsored by the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, include preparing writers “to be apostles through their lives and work in the heart of the entertainment industry” so they can produce “entertainment alternatives that will be redemptive and deepening for the whole human family.” Its instructors include successful Hollywood figures such as comedic actress Bonnie Hunt and Barbara Hall, executive producer of the CBS series “Judging Amy.”

And those Christians who have opted for Hollywood careers can often be found working in some surprising capacities.

Act One instructor Scott Derrickson has directed and written screenplays for horror films such as “Hellraiser” and “Urban Legends.” For him, this mayhem genre makes perfect sense as a Christian artist’s home.

“It deals so directly with good and evil; spirituality and metaphysics are not only respected in that genre but they’re requisite for that genre,” said Derrickson, a Presbyterian.

Derrickson suggested that “The Passion” might be able to tap into a yearning on the part of movie audiences for more faith-based fare.

“It’s a relatively good time to have a perspective of faith in the writing process,” he said, “because I think that Hollywood is very aware that the majority of Americans who are going to watch movies have an interest in [Christian] perspectives or share that perspective.”

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