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Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture

It can't be denied: many people of faith view the entertainment industry with a measure of suspicion. To answer some of this suspicion, Barbara Nicolosi and Spencer Lewerenz have compiled a collection of essays, Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture. Nicolosi and Lewerenz are two members of a circle of Hollywood producers, writers, and executives who conceived and support Act One, a Christian screenwriting program in Los Angeles. The essays in this collection are written by others in this circle and serve as a primer to those people of faith with some misguided notions about the entertainment industry.

While some of the more anecdotal selections in the collection are worth flipping past, the essays by Ron Austin, Thom Parham, Barbara Nicolosi, and Charles B. Slocum offer profound reflections on the meaning of cinema, society, and faith and in themselves warrant purchasing the book. Aside from explaining the common disconnect between Hollywood and people of faith, these essays provide some basic insights on the market forces that drive the entertainment industry. For example, in his essay, “Changing the Channels,” Dean Batali explains how advertising—not ratings—drives television programming. (Batali is the executive producer of Fox's That '70s Show.) Batali says that Christians can complain all they want about the quality of entertainment, but to really affect change in the industry, they need to do the unexpected: watch more television. By actively engaging the industry instead of denouncing it, Christians can change the view that they are a small market with little consuming power. And since the decisions of television executives are dictated by advertising dollars and not their own ideologies, the market will change to fit the demand. It is a basic economic truth that money will be invested in a product with a greater likelihood of return, but the fact that it needs to be said exposes the odd notion many people have about the entertainment industry: that because it must run by the rules of entertainment, it doesn't also run by the rules of industry.

While much of this collection is spent repeatedly bemoaning the misconceptions held by many Christians, the collection does take time here and there to offer practical solutions to the perceived disconnect between Hollywood and faith. For example, Slocum's essay, “The $10 Billion Solution,” contends that there is a means by which the faithful can influence society apart from a slow infiltration of the entertainment industry by people of faith—the modus operandi repeated time and again in this collection. Most of Behind the Screen preaches that Hollywood needs quality Christian entertainers; Slocum preaches that Hollywood needs quality Christian entrepreneurs, men and women who will think large and invest in a wide range of projects, studios, distribution channels, and yes, even entire multimedia conglomerates (hence the title of the article).

This book has passages of real insight that remind the audience of the traditional links between the Gospel, storytelling, visual art, and the business of communication; however, there are as many passages that come across as simplistic and patronizing. If this collection of essays has one flaw, it is that it does little to recognize that there are those outside Los Angeles who have actively and prudentially considered how to create products that better society and engage culture. More than one essay projects frustration more than encouragement: frustration that Christians just don't get it, rather than encouragement to think and act creatively. To be fair, there is much with which to be frustrated; Christians commonly mistake piety for technique. But some of these essays risk losing the part of their readership who do not need this reminder, who are eager to employ their entrepreneurial talents, and who would rather receive practical advice about this industry like that from Slocum, Austin, or Nicolosi.

And yet, this collection does one thing consistently well: it reminds the reader that the entertainment industry is a real industry where businesses and workers are subject to the same rules of excellence and quality performance as any other successful industry. Whether the matter at hand be the production of goods or the production of films, without refined technique, good intentions walk.