The Talent Search: Christians in Hollywood Part 2

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Seventeen-year-old Nicole Smolen is an actress and Christian who works in Hollywood.

Smolen has appeared on such network TV shows as “Criminal Minds” and “Brothers & Sisters” and has been cast in feature films and a national TV commercial. But it’s her role in a new small-budget indie film called “8 Days” that makes her particularly proud.

In the yet-to-be released film, Smolen plays Amber Stevens, a 16-year-old from a well-off home who sneaks away to a high school party with friends and winds up drugged, kidnapped, raped and forced by pimps into the netherworld of sex trafficking.

But because those gritty elements contained in the plot are only the beginning of the storyline, Smolen believes she is not compromising her Christian faith.

“It’s a very inspirational story and I believe it will touch a lot of lives” Smolen told HollywoodNews. “All the profits go to safe houses (for victims of human trafficking) and people in need. It’s not like we’re profiting off of this.”

The role appealed to her, she noted, because “it’s a film that will benefit people and inform (moviegoers) about human trafficking….I don’t want to just be a typical teenaged girl (in films) who’s crazy about boys. I want films that cause change in people’s lives.”

Smolen credits Actors, Models & Talent for Christ, a faith-based nonprofit based in Tyrone, Ga., with helping hone her talents to the point where she and her parents decided to sell their home in Lawrenceville, Ga., and move to L.A. so that she could pursue an acting career. She said she still remains friends with people she met through AMTC and the network helps keep her grounded in an industry where success is often accompanied by rejection and periods of unemployment.

Never heard of Actors, Models & Talent for Christ? Since 2012 alone, the organization says it has trained between 2,000 and 3,000 people in the in’s and out’s of the entertainment and modeling industries.

The training isn’t cheap. This summer’s intensive six-day International Shine Conference scheduled July 1-6 in Orlando, Fla., costs $3,895 to $4,995 per person (a $300 discount applies if paid in full).

To attend the Shine conference, performers must first audition and be accepted. These auditions are held in cities throughout the United States. The next L.A.-area auditions are scheduled for June 21 in Pasadena and July 19 in Anaheim.

AMTC has its roots in a modeling convention that began in 1982 in Charleston, S.C. by a ‘40s-era cover girl named Millie Lewis and her daughter, Carey. That first convention hosted 150 performers and 15 agents from New York. Soon, however, the conventions expanded and became known as the Mid-South Models Convention. In 1992, it went national as the American Modeling & Talent Convention, drawing would-be actors, singers, dancers and comedians along with models.

In its earlier secular incarnation, these conventions showcased the talents of future well-known actors like Megan Fox, Mena Suvari and Matthew Underwood.
But by 2006, Carey Lewis felt that something was missing. In a “come-to-Jesus” moment, she turned her life and her company over to God and what had been variously known over the years as the Actors, Models & Talent Competition…or convention…or conference…or even coalition…changed course.

In 2010, the “C” in AMTC officially came to stand for Christ. Two years later, it became a 501c3 tax-exempt non-profit. Today, Carey Lewis sees herself on a mission.

“God is preparing an army of performers,” she says on the organization’s website. AMTC’s job is to find the talent and guide them up the “mountains of arts and entertainment.”

Earlier this year, billboards for AMTC sprouted around Los Angeles inviting both amateur and professional actors, singers and models to an audition at the Pasadena Hilton. The audition was one of many held throughout the year around the U.S. Anyone ages 4 to 84 (“and occasionally very mature 3-year-olds”) could attend.

Twice each year, AMTC also holds what it calls the International Shine Conference in Orlando, Fla., where dozens of agents, managers, casting directors and music professionals from mainstream and Christian media evaluate the performers, provide them with 8-by-10 head shots, and advise them on the in’s and out’s of having a career in the entertainment industry.

“SHINE is a platform for God’s performers to walk through the right doors: doors that can make a difference, doors that can launch a career, doors that allow His stars to shine for Him,” AMTC’s website states.

AMTC does not promise it will find anyone a job in the entertainment industry but “will prepare people to perform for national and international VIPs of the highest caliber who attend our SHINE event in Orlando, Florida.”

Lewis, whose full name is Carey Lewis Arban, calls herself “Chief Serving Officer” of AMTC.

The organization takes in $6 million a year for its online courses and the biannual Shine conferences, according to IRS tax documents the group posts on its website.

When a performer passes an AMTC audition, he or she enters an online “talent missionary training” program called “The Bridge.” It features online curricula and video and photo tutorials along with professional coaching in seven AMTC hubs, including New York and L.A., AMTC’s website said the training is “Christian-based and God-honoring.” It allows Christian performers to fellowship before, during and after Shine.

“It is the most unique talent education in the world, because it lifts industry requirements to God’s standard,” the website states.

The Shine conferences allow attendees to sit side-by-side with 50 to 100 reputable agents, managers and casting directors as well as music industry professionals, according to the website.
The International Shine Conferences are held at the Gaylord Palms resort in Orlando (“5 minutes from Walt Disney World”).

The Shine Conference offers 20 talent showcases in acting, modeling, singing, dancing and comedy; over 40 VIP seminars where participants can learn about the entertainment industry from experts; callback interviews; two tickets to the SHINE banquet and awards ceremony; one Wrap Party ticket where a live band and DJ perform; and over $250,000 in scholarships awarded to top talent training schools and universities. Participants also receive one-on-one interviews with industry VIPs and ownership of 100 images, photos and headshots. But make no mistake—Christian fellowship is at the heart of the convention.

Adam She, AMTC’s president and Carey Lewis’ son-in-law, told HollywoodNews that the price tag for the six-day event may look steep, but “it’s the best value in talent development. If you look at what we provide for them…I think you’ll be hard pressed to find any organization to do what we do for twice that amount.”
He said the conferences provide “one agent for every 10 performances so there is an opportunity to network and be introduced and get representation—although that is not our primary goal….It’s not about becoming a superstar. It’s about being the best person you can be.”

But She hints that not all Christians endorse what AMTC is doing.
“Honestly, it’s a funny thing,” She said, “but those that have been responsible for the attacks on AMTC, or most of them, are hypocritical Christians. What we do is so polarizing. It used to bother me a whole lot, but I’ve matured in my faith. I’ve come to see this should be expected because we are doing what God expects.
As for Hollywood, he admits that if his group hadn’t spent years in the talent search business building up its credibility, “we would never have gained the trust of entertainment professionals.”

And, he stressed, Tyrone, Ga., is far from a Southern backwater. It’s located only “15 miles from the Atlanta airport,” he noted.

AMTC lists its “core values” as:
Biblical Authority—“…The entire Bible is the infallible Word of God.”
Unity—“As a non-denominational entity, AMTC seeks unity among all Christ followers, and peace with all peoples….”
Virtue—“AMTC seeks to promote positive role models and uplifting programming in every corner of the entertainment industry….”
Knowledge—“…Before entering the entertainment industry, AMTC graduates should know the business—and know themselves—as well as possible.”
Spiritual Empowerment—“AMTC believes it is not enough to be talented. It is not enough to be educated. One must be spiritually strong in order to survive the ups and downs of this industry….”

Excellence—“…AMTC graduates will excel in this industry when they are not merely talented, but excellent—even more excellent than their industry counterparts.”
Humility—“Pride is the unfortunate engine that drives entertainment…We impress upon our performers the urgency to pursue successful careers balanced by great humility and in to consider others before themselves.”

In an online message on AMTC’s website, She noted that the media’s impact on our culture is undeniable. “If we are to transform culture by making good bolder in arts and entertainment, we must choose to be a part of it, but not be conformed to it.”

He added: “When Israel was defeated, Daniel and his peers were taken captive to Babylon,” the website notes. “They were chosen because of their gifts from God and trained to work in a pagan powerhouse. They did not condemn it, even though its leaders worshipped false gods. They learned to survive and thrive in what was then the world’s most dominant culture. But they never sold out the One True God.”

AMTC’s website includes various “success stories” of young performers who are working in Hollywood. Among them Jaden Martin, who is cast in the new Sylvester Stallone comedy/drama “Reach Me,” and Braxton Beckham, who appears in the recent Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore comedy “Blended.”

Smolen, meanwhile, is working on a screenplay set in the Depression and was recently cast in a low-budget horror movie called “Things That Are to Die,” where she plays a teenager whose parents have been murdered and she must go under hypnosis to see if she can recall what happened that night,
“This industry is very grueling and tough and you have to have a strong foundation, whether it’s a religious or family foundation,” Smolen told HollywoodNews. “I really believe you have to have values or boundaries before you go on auditions because sometimes you are offered roles and you don’t believe in them.

“I don’t plan on doing any nudity or anything like that. I want to do roles that make a different or do films that are good for society and role models for young girls….Acting is a form of self expression. I personally don’t feel nudity is for me. I do believe you have to have these boundaries and I’m not going to compromise my values to make a buck.”

Smolen, who resides with her family in Valencia and is currently home-schooled, plans to enter college and major in filmmaking or journalism.

“You can’t just focus on the industry,” she said. “You have to find other things that you love to do.”

Next: Hollywood’s Prayer Partners


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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