It's hip to be spiritual in Hollywood these days, as long as you're not religious. The way the fashionable set see it: Scientology and cabala are in, Christianity is out.
But a new program to train Christians to be film and television executives is trying to reverse the trend.
"We're not here to fix Hollywood as much as we're here to fix the church," said Barbara Nicolosi, executive director of Act One, which runs a three-month program that places Christians in entertainment internships and hosts lectures by industry professionals.
Some of the first films ever made played in churches in the early 20th century. But over time, religious leaders began to associate movies with immorality, sex and violence. And Hollywood became a place where people of faith would not go, Nicolosi said.
Today, many Christians shun Tinseltown, and "there's absolute bigotry in Hollywood toward Christianity," Nicolosi said.
" 'Christianity' is a political moniker in Hollywood," she said. "It means you voted for George Bush, you hate gays and you're fanatic about fetuses. . . . It doesn't mean that in 95 percent of the rest of the world, but [it does] in this town."
In 1999, Nicolosi, a nun turned movie executive, helped found Act One to cultivate aspiring Christian screenwriters. Over six years, she has recruited 300 Christians to Hollywood, teaching them how to write movies based on Christian moral values, such as the "sacredness of human life," the idea that "good and evil are not equal" and the notion that "you're never forced to choose something evil," she said.
Realizing that it would not be enough for Christians to write screenplays if no one made them into movies, Nicolosi launched the executive program to train would-be Hollywood decision-makers.
Out of about 60 applicants, Act One chose 15 students to participate in its first executive seminar in Los Angeles. By day, participants go to work at internships at movie studios, production companies and talent agencies. By night, students learn about story development, finance and budgeting, leadership and ethics from visiting speakers who work in the entertainment industry.
"I feel much stronger being here," said Jonathan Strong, 29, an executive program student who interned at a talent agency. "I don't feel alone."
On a recent evening, a room full of young businesspeople, lawyers and even a pilot, gathered from as far as Madrid, listened to a lecture on marketing movies by Jonathan Bock, founder and president of Grace Hill Media, a public relations company that helps studios promote films to religious audiences.
"What we [Christians] have failed to remember is that if you build it, they won't necessarily come," Bock said, adding that it's not enough for Christians to make movies they want to make -- they need to make movies people want to watch. "We have to understand that this is show business," said Bock, who is consulting on the movie "The Da Vinci Code," scheduled for release next year.
The importance of understanding the business of film and television is a central theme of the Act One program, and the idea has taken hold in at least one student.
"I was unwilling to compromise when I came in here, because I'd been so intent on being a martyr," said Todd Burns, 25, who said he had been called by God to make movies in Hollywood.
Before Act One, Burns had been producing movies for Billy Graham, the Christian evangelist. Now, Burns is interning at a production company that makes horror movies. Previously, he had imagined he would end up "at some point where I would have to say no, walk away and give up all of this stuff." But "now, it's more like, I'm here, I've got to operate in this."
So Burns makes horror movies. But, he said, he makes them "less bad" than they would be if he were not involved.
The box office success of "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson's 2004 epic about Jesus's trial and crucifixion that became one of the highest-grossing films ever made, showed industry executives the upside of appealing to a religious audience. Now, it is not uncommon for producers around town to talk about bringing in the "Passion dollars" by drawing an audience of religious viewers who typically do not go to the movies but who went to see "The Passion," Nicolosi said.
"Now is a good moment for the church to be waking up," Nicolosi said.
On the downside, she said, "The Passion" instilled in many Christians false hopes of becoming the next Mel Gibson. Instead of learning the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking business, amateurs are trying to make their own movies, said Nicolosi, who herself is collaborating on a Christian-themed screenplay with "Passion" screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald.
Having raised about $600,000 this year from a coalition of foundations, including the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Communication Campaign, Nicolosi said she is making plans. On the horizon, she said, are training programs for producers, directors and actors. A program for pastors would teach them aesthetic principles, so that religious officials could commission quality artwork.
The church needs to get involved in Hollywood, Nicolosi said, because movies and television influence the way people think.
"The biggest conversation now about meaning, what makes human life distinct and valuable, is being had in the culture," Nicolosi said. "And we've been missing from that debate."