Christians in Hollywood – Part 1: Prayers for Hollywood

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The prayer walkers arrive around lunchtime at major Hollywood movie lots.

At Walt Disney Pictures in Burbank, clusters of Christians who have been allowed onto the lot by key executives, first turn to face the Disney Feature Animation Building and the ABC Building, where they pray for the employees working inside.

Then they move on to the production facilities where they pray for movies and TV shows that are currently in the works. From there, the prayer walkers stop in front of the executive building to pray for Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robert A. Iger and his upper staff, who oversee the global media conglomerate.

“We keep our eyes open and do not join hands,” explains Tamara Khalaf, who attends Ecclesia church in Hollywood and manages the design team for Disney’s Animation Research Library and who has participated in the prayer walks since 2005.

Sometimes they pray for God to dispense His wisdom on Disney executives in their decision making, she explained. Other times, they pray for employees who are in poor health or facing layoffs. They also pray for the success of specific projects like they did for Disney’s blockbuster animated film “Frozen.”

Christians have also conducted prayer walks at Warner Bros. in Burbank and near the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, site of the Academy Awards, during the run-up to the Oscars telecast.

“When we walk onto Warner Bros and we decide we are going to pray…it’s not proselytizing,” said talent manager and acting coach Kathy L. Young, who attends Bel Air Presbyterian Church in L.A. and runs a faith-based group called Hope-4hollywood. “…We literally walk through the lot looking at television projects and names of people and pray for them. We pray for employees or for projects going on.”
She recalled once spotting actor George Clooney’s parking space at Warner Bros. and saying a prayer. “Half-an-hour later, he walked by. We didn’t speak to him but I thought he got that we’re praying for you and praying for your project.”

Christina Lee Storm, a producer whose credits include production supervisor on the Oscar-winning film “The Artist” and who runs a faith-based nonprofit called Act One, has joined others in prayer near the Dolby Theater. She said the purpose of the Dolby Theater prayer walk is to say prayers not only for the Academy Awards but also for the filmmakers.

For decades, many Christians have viewed Hollywood as a modern-day Babylon, something to be avoided like the forbidden fruit in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve.

But the recent success of biblical-themed films and TV programs, coupled with a younger generation brought up in a media-saturated world including YouTube, where anyone can be the star in their own film, has created an explosion of interest among Christians in mainstream film and TV careers. Even evangelical Christian universities now offer popular cinema courses.

Hollywood has become “a place where (Christians) can stand…and be a witness to what we believe. They can be here and be a Christian and do excellent work,” said Kim Dorr-Tilley, a talent agent with Defining Artists in Studio City and associate pastor for entertainment ministries at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles.
“There are more Christians who are saying, ‘I can pursue a career in the arts and pursue a career in Hollywood without giving up my beliefs,” she added.

Because the news media often uses Christian boycotts of films and TV shows in defining Church-Hollywood relations, it may surprise people to learn that many Christians, particularly those working in the industry, wish Hollywood no harm.
Christians working in Hollywood say they do not embrace a “boycott Hollywood” mindset, but believe that by simply living their faith while working in front or behind the camera they can have a positive impact on Hollywood, which is a dominant force in shaping global pop culture. They view Hollywood as a vital mission field.
Even Hollywood is opening its gates to Christians to practice their faith. Studio executives, for example, not only invite the prayer walkers onto their lots, either in conjunction with the Hollywood Prayer Network or Act One, but also allow their facilities to be used after-hours or at lunchtime for Bible study classes and Christian fellowship clubs.

Examples of Christians cooperating with the entertainment industry abound.
Case in point: More than 1,700 entertainment professionals have been matched up in one-on-one “prayer partnerships” with Christian “pray-ers” or “intercessors from outside the industry. The connections are made through the Hollywood Prayer Network, a nonprofit prayer ministry created in 2001 that seeks to impact Hollywood’s culture through prayer.

Case in point: Tinseltown Ministries conducts weekly Bible study classes at 20th Century Fox in Century City and at CBS Radford in Studio City. The couple running the classes say two recent attendees were “saved”—one at Fox, the other at CBS—and then went to their local church to be baptized.

Case in point: Christian fellowship clubs have sprung up at Disney’s main lot in Burbank along with Disney facilities in Glendale, Pasadena and Anaheim.

Case in point: Every Friday from 3-4 p.m., the Catholic nonprofit Family Theater Productions on Sunset Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood holds a Holy Hour for Hollywood where prayers are offered up before the exposed Blessed Sacrament.

Pastoral Associate Laura Billeci said she has 500 people in the entertainment industry whom she emails each week asking them if they require prayers. “They will email back and say, ‘I have an audition this week’ or they’ll ask for prayers for a writing project to get picked up, or they’ll pray for their family…I complete the list and then during the Holy Hour, myself and other staff members ask God to bless these people and grant their requests.”

Case in point: The Hollywood Prayer Network has formed an “Incognito Prayer Team” where intercessors are assigned or can choose to pray for one or any number of Christian or non-Christian celebrities—incognito. Among the photos of celebs on the prayer network’s website are Clooney, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhianna and Justin Bieber.

“We see Hollywood as the world’s most influential mission field,” said Karen Covell, a producer of documentaries and TV specials and founding director of the Hollywood Prayer Network.

“There was a time when (Hollywood and Christians) were not that incompatible,” Covell told HollywoodNews. “Cecil B. DeMille was making his big Bible films. There were groups of priests and pastors who studio heads would turn to to ask about content. When the artists started pushing the envelope a little bit, I think the church leaders started to push away. But artists are always sort of outspoken and radical. I think the church in general doesn’t know how to handle artists.”
Covell, whose organization coordinates studio lot prayer walks, said that just as the artist’s role is to bring truth and beauty into the world through creativity, “God’s first act was creation. He is our role model. He embraces the arts.”

Missionaries don’t go to a foreign posting with the mindset that they must “tell them they’re all wrong,” explained Dorr-Tilley. To be effective in any mission field, she added, “you must understand their language, what their values are, how to speak to those values and speak of the God that you know.

“We’re not here to beat anybody up,” she emphasized, although she concedes that there are Christians, particularly in the nation’s Bible Belt, who “believe Hollywood is Babylon and Hollywood is bad and they say ‘How can we send our children there?’”

Christians working in Hollywood take a dim view boycotting films and TV shows that run counter to their beliefs. Some Christians even say they don’t oppose gay marriage—a flash point in America’s culture wars.

“Gay marriage doesn’t bother me,” said Phil Cooke, founder and CEO of Cooke Pictures, who is married with two daughters and a granddaughter. “Most of my haters are Christians, actually.”

Cooke, whose Burbank-based production company has been involved in Super Bowl commercials and PBS specials, said he has seen a big change in how the church views Hollywood.

When he first came to Hollywood in the late ‘70s, Cooke recalled, people were worshiping rocks and hugging trees. “Being a Christian was weird.”

How large is the entertainment industry’s Christian community? Perhaps 10,000, by one estimate,

Larry W. Poland, chairman and founder of Mastermedia International, said his group’s database has 4,000 believers who work in the industry and calculates there are another 6,000 that “I’d like to get out of the closet.”

Since 1985, Poland’s group has consulted with executives of top global media companies to help them better understand the 100-million-strong evangelical Christian community.

While no one is saying that Hollywood has suddenly got religion, those who run the studios and networks can’t ignore the success faith-based films are having at the box office.

Poland said a key turning point occurred with the phenomenal box office success of Mel Gibson’s 2004 historical drama “The Passion of the Christ,” which raked in $612 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.

When the idea for such a film first surfaced, Poland recalled, Hollywood executives rolled their eyes and said, “Are you out of your mind? This is a religious thing. It won’t make $20 million.”

“That was the first wake-up call,” he said.

It has taken about 10 years for Hollywood to ramp up its production of faith-based films—many which are now reaching the big screen, including recent films like “Heaven Is for Real,” “Moms’ Night Out” and “Son of God,” the latter from the makers of the hit 2013 television miniseries “The Bible.” Director Ridley Scott is making “Exodus: Gods and Kings” starring Christian Bale as Moses, and “Mary, Mother of Christ” is in the pipeline.

Later this year, Nicolas Cage will star in the film “Left Behind,” an action/sci-fi/thriller about a small group of survivors who are left behind after millions of people suddenly vanish and the world is plunged into chaos and destruction. The plot is seen as similar to what is predicted in the Bible as the Rapture.

Another factor that is causing Christians to seriously consider Hollywood for a career is that young people are growing up in a media world and do not see movies and TV and video games as a threat so much as an opportunity.

At Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., a private, Christian university that has its roots in a Baptist college founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell of Moral Majority fame, the Cinematic Arts department has reached out to Hollywood insiders as guest speakers. The program’s website lists such speakers as Dan Gordon, whose screenwriting credits include Kevin Bacon’s “Murder in the First” and Kevin Costner’s “Wyatt Earp”; Randall Wallace, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”; and, Emmy-nominated screenwriter Sterling Anderson, who has written for such popular network television shows as “The Unit” on CBS and NBC’s “Medium.”

What all this bodes for Christians is that they aren’t writing off mainstream Hollywood.

For example, Christians are taking part in nationwide talent auditions to see if they have what it takes to make it in Hollywood.

Adam She, executive director of Actors, Models and Talent for Christ, a nonprofit talent search organization based in Tyrone, Ga., said upwards of 3,000 people have gone through its nationwide talent auditions and six-day training programs since 2012 where they are evaluated by agents, managers, casting directors and music professionals from mainstream and Christian media.

He said many Christians today are changing their perceptions of Hollywood and now view it as a place where they can pursue careers.

“I think 50, 60 years ago, Hollywood filmmaking was very Bible based,” She said. “You had movies like ‘The Ten Commandments’ and ‘Ben-Hur.’ Then all of a sudden judgmental Christians, religiously hypocritical Christians, condemned Hollywood and the entertainment industry because they didn’t know any better.”

Hollywood has certainly given Christians enough reasons to be wary. The comedy group Monty Python’s 1979 film “Life of Brian” about a hapless man who is proclaimed the Messiah was replete with religious satire that provoked a storm of protests. And, director Paul Verhoeven’s is developing a film titled “Jesus of Nazareth” based on a book he co-wrote, which reportedly contains the scenario that the Virgin Mary was impregnated, not by God, but during a rape by a Roman soldier.

But perhaps the low point in Hollywood-Christian relations occurred in 1988 when a wave of protests by evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics greeted the release by Universal Pictures of Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which included a “dream sequence” sex scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

“People were begging Universal not to defame their Lord,” Mastermedia’s Poland recalled. “I have a friend from 1988 who still will not go to Universal theme parks because he’s so upset that Universal would launch a film showing Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene.”

The late MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman, who ran Universal’s parent company, became a target of protests with people picketing his Beverly Hills home.

The Los Angeles Times reported in 1988 that concern over anti-Semitism arose when a fundamentalist preacher led a protest by about 200 people at Universal Studios and was quoted as saying, “These Jewish producers with a lot of money are taking a swipe at our religion.” A small plane overhead pulled a banner saying, “Wasserman Fans Jew-Hatred W/Temptation.”

The preacher’s comments were condemned by mainstream church leaders and organizations.

The controversial movie played to sold-out theaters even as uniformed security guards checked the bags and purses of theater patrons. The Times reported two L.A. moviegoers were ejected from Cineplex Odeon Cinemas in Century City after they stood and shouted denunciations of the film. “Yellow paint had been splashed on a theater window and over a poster for the film in Los Angeles about 5 a.m.,” the paper wrote, “but for the most part, people on both sides of the issue spread their message with picket signs and slogans on T-shirts.”

Protests also broke out in other cities. In Paris, the Cinéma St.-Michel in the Latin Quarter was completely gutted in an arson attack and 13 people were sent to the hospital over Scorsese’s film.

Many Christians still feel that Hollywood shows little tolerance if Christians publicly express their opinions on controversial issues.

One recent example involved Phil Robertson, the bearded family patriarch on the popular reality show “Duck Dynasty.” When it was discovered that Robertson had given a GQ magazine interview in which he expressed the opinion that homosexual behavior is sinful, he was suspended indefinitely by A&E. But then a huge viewer backlash ensued demanding that he be reinstated and A&E buckled.

“I understand the church’s frustration with Hollywood and I understand Hollywood’s (desire to keep) the church at arms length because of our history of protest. There just isn’t enough intermingling by both groups,” said Dean Batali, a producer and screenwriter whose credits include “That ‘70s Show,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage Witch.”

Batali said there is too much suspicion on both sides and that’s part of the problem.

“I often say I have a front row seat for the culture wars because I’m a Christian,” Batali told HollywoodNews. “Sometimes,” he then quipped, ”I feel like I have to protest against myself!”

What people have to understand about Hollywood, he said, is that it is, first and foremost, a capitalistic system. “Everybody wants to make money. At the very first meeting, they ask, ‘Will this make money?’ There is no conspiracy.”

Gary and Judy Swanson’s Tinseltown Ministries conducts weekly Bible studies on studio lots: Wednesday nights at 20th Century Fox in Century City and Thursday evenings at CBS Radford in Studio City. Doors open at 8 p.m. and guests must pre-register with the Swanson’s before attending. Guests also must present a valid photo I.D. to get through studio security.

“The goal of the study is to have a place to come and worship God and learn from the Bible and take it from there,” Gary Swanson, 73, told HollywoodNews. “…The main thing the study does is to put God’s Word into people and then God, in his own timing and way, convinces these Christian people as he wants.”

The Swanson’s, who reside in Redondo Beach and have four grown children, said they’re not actors and have never been involved with show business. For years, in fact, they lived in Chicago. But once in Hollywood, they learned how to adapt to people in the industry.

“Hollywood is very much a tribe,” Gary Swanson said. “They have their own structure on how you get ahead. They have their own language….We should not hate Hollywood. There are some people here who create things of great beauty.”
Next: Actors, Models & Talent for Christ

Photo By Hearst Entertainment Productions and LightWorkers Media

About Robert W. Welkos

Executive Editor: Robert W. Welkos is an award-winning journalist who covered the entertainment industry for 15 years as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. During this span, he wrote extensively about the movie industry from turmoil in the executive suites, the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, and box office hits and bombs to visits to movie sets as well as profiles of top stars and A-list directors, cutting edge features on the newest indie films and visits to famous film festivals like Sundance and Cannes. Prior to entertainment, Welkos worked as a reporter and assistant city editor in The Times’ Metro section where he undertook major investigations for the paper as well as covering breaking news and writing in-depth features. Before joining The Times, he worked for the Associated Press in Reno, Nevada, and City News Service in Los Angeles.

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