Review of How to Succeed in Hollywood (Without Losing Your Soul)

Review of How to Succeed in Hollywood (Without Losing Your Soul):

By William David Spencer

Editor’s Note:  William David Spencer is Ranked Adjunct Professor of Theology and the Arts, teaching in Gordon-Conwell’s Boston campus, Center for Urban Ministerial Education. He is the author of more than 200 articles, stories, poems, editorials, and author or editor of 13 books, the latest of which are Marriage at the Crossroads:  Couples in Conversation about Discipleship, Gender Roles, Decision Making and Intimacy, Dread Jesus (reprinted by Wipf and Stock), Reaching for the New Jerusalem:  A Biblical and Theological Framework for the City, Urban Voice Series, and an urban adventure mystery novel, Name in the Papers.

Keying off his experiences working in the film industry, guitar virtuoso and veteran sound track composer Ry Cooder, in his song “Down in Hollywood,” once warned unsuspecting travelers to gas up and drive swiftly through the tinseled city, because on every corner its lurking predators are waiting to seize passersby, yank them out of their safety zones, and kick them around their mean streets.

The warning also applies to all of us worldwide, since everyone with technology is exposed to the gargantuan reach of the entertainment industry and its power to shape public opinion through the means of the net. In my travels, I have noticed the whole world is “star struck,” from the Michael Jackson ephemera store I discovered on the street of Athens to the thriving markets of Disney bootlegs I came across in Havana during one of the windows of U.S. travel there. But no matter which end of the camera readers are interested in, their attraction and its ramifications are thoroughly explored in this thorough and thought-provoking study by deeply respected Hollywood insider Ted Baehr, creator and driving force behind the Movieguide®, the filmdom “bible” that guides public opinion.

His book, subtitled “A Fieldguide for Christian Screenwriters, Actors, Producers, Directors, and More. . .” contains an enormous amount of information in its fourteen chapters. It is much like an army survival manual. A huge 564 page compendium of inside information, it draws from interviews with an astonishing number of key figures, such as the chairman of Walt Disney Pictures and the Walt Disney Studio, the president of Hallmark Hall of Fame, the president of PorchLight Entertainment, the producer of the Simpsons, the producers of Independence Day, Free Willy, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, the director of The Passion of the Christ, the scriptwriter of Finding Nemo and Toy Story, the writer of Braveheart, the creator and executive producer of 7th Heaven, as well as the actor who played its protagonist, the director of photography and cinematographer for Crash, iconic actors like Pat Boone and Jane Russell, right into contemporary talents like John Ratzenberger, veteran voice actor in every Pixar movie, as well as other producers, directors, screenwriters, songwriters, marketing and distributing executives, photographers, and on. In short, this book draws from a lifetime of insights and contacts by an author who is a long term Emmy-winning producer of literally hundreds of documentaries for PBS as well as the seminal CBS-TV production The Chronicles of Narnia:  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which anticipated recent productions by decades.

Considering the five paradigms with which Christians have historically regarded culture observed by H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture, Ted Baehr, who holds degrees from Dartmouth College, New York University School of Law, and the Institute of Theology at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, considers the nature of each paradigm, but his ultimate goal is to follow “Christ the Transformer of Culture” (10), for, as he assures readers on the back cover of How to Succeed in Hollywood, “The Hollywood culture can be changed.”

To unpack this statement, he divides his book into two sections of six and seven chapters, respectively, preceded by a prayer, preface, and introduction, and followed by a conclusion, an epilogue (which is 1 John 5:10-12), a glossary, notes, and an index. The preface affirms the value of story, as a necessary form of cultural communication that reveals “the moral, philosophical, social, psychological, spiritual, and aesthetic messages the story conveys” (xv), and, therefore, what its worldview values. The introduction lays out clearly how the visual spinning out of stories will be examined through a variety of informed sources. It also orients the exploration to follow by questioning readers who are interested in entering the film industry, on their motivation to do so, the value they assign to money, the level of their loyalty to God’s way of living and working, their sense of responsibility toward the influence they will develop, their plan on how to resist the temptations they will face, and whether they will use the Bible as a guide to leaven the society they will enter or whether they will let that society leaven them. The introduction is excellent and, like the text that follows, filled with sage advice and a multitude of statistics, illustrations from films, and insights from insiders that support each point being made.

The first section is entitled “Foundations.” Chapter 1 deals with the relationship between the church and the film industry, focusing its exploration of the mutual attempt to woo cooperation from each other in an examination of Niebuhr’s paradigms for how the followers of Christ and those who inhabit the film culture should interrelate. This discussion segues into a succinct history of the connection between the performing arts and the church from the mystery or miracle plays of the Middle Ages (11) to film. Realizing that such a discussion ends inevitably in the need for a worldview on which one’s actions are predicated, the author, who co-chaired an Art and Communications Committee for the Coalition on Revival to forge “The Christian World View of Art and Communication” sets out the committee’s findings of what are necessary components for a Christian worldview of the Arts (12-15) and then contrasts those with “Hollywood’s Pagan ‘Theology’ of Art” (15-16). Having set out these two bookends, he discusses thirty-seven prominent religious movies from the silent seminal film The Passion Play (1897) to The Nativity Story (2006) and concludes by asking: “What Constitutes a ‘Christian’ Movie?” (25) What he sees at stake here is nothing less than the power of influence. Paraphrasing philosopher John Locke, he notes, “whoever controls the media controls the culture” (28), and for the next twenty three pages carefully examines that issue in regard to Hollywood, suggesting the kind of interpreting questions we need to bring to its productions and the values they are promoting. The skilled blending of data, quotation, scholarship, and examples from fi lms and the lives of those who make them sets a model for the methodology he will continue to employ to explore the nuanced dimensions of Hollywood’s impact on the thinking of a myriad of cultures. In addition to the schools at which he earned degrees, Ted Baehr also studied at Cambridge University, the University of Bordeaux and Toulouse, and the University of Munich, and currently lectures all over the world, so his vision is globally oriented.

In the truest sense of the phrase, chapter 2 gets down to business. It begins by reminding readers that the movie industry is just that: an industry. It is not primarily aimed at communication or art, but at entertainment and making money, but the church is all about communication, as its goal is to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. This difference in priorities creates a tension that often resolves itself in peculiar ways. For example, we learn that neither the actor who played Eric Liddell nor the screenwriter of Chariots of Fire were Christians. The screenwriter, an agnostic, summarized the plot as a “couple of young fellows who put their fingers up to the world.” Much of the backing money came from a Moslem who died in the car crash that killed Princess Diana, the producer was Jewish, and the only committed Christian was the actor who played the Jewish runner (54), yet this is one of the best loved and most honored of “Christian” movies. With that striking introduction, the author explores the building blocks of film, such as backstory, the sales pitch, the plot twist.

The subtitle has promised this book is a “fieldguide” and chapter two examines both the crafting skills and the working values a Christian needs to parallel to produce films of the quality that can, indeed, bring about positive change of culture while they entertain, inform, make money, and edify.

Chapter 3 deals with discerning God’s plan for one’s life and whether it does or does not involve a career in film, and, if it does, how one can succeed in serving God. This chapter draws on first person experience from the insights of actress Donzaleigh Abernathy (daughter of Ralph Abernathy), who, bathing her career in daily prayer, consciously forged a reputation for taking only “socially minded projects.” As she observes: “They knew I wouldn’t do any schlock. I only work on honorable movies with redeeming values” (93-94). She also notes that she chose a series of mentors from Sidney Poitier to Ruth Gordon to Gregory Peck, who advised her on every aspect of acting, so she could hone her skills. In addition, the chapter features the insights of seminarian turned writer, director, and producer Randall Wallace (Braveheart, The Man in the Iron Mask), who emphasizes the connection of clarity of faith and clarity of career vision. Chapter 3 ends with thirty three pages of hands-on exercises designed to discern one’s motivation and clarify one’s talent and, then, introduces readers to descriptions of jobs to explore that are commensurate with what one discovers about one’s gifts from doing the exercises.

Chapter 4 details the power of story to affect people positively or negatively. This chapter includes instructions on how to write effectively, reminding readers that “the average movie takes nine years from start to finish. The Passion of Christ took 10 years. Evita took 23 years. Batman took 17 years” (150). Helpful fill-out exercise pages, interviews with writers, and a step by step explanation of what comprises a successful script provide a large practical component to the chapter. The attention to story continues in Chapter 5, emphasizing the fact that moral Christian values drive the most successful movies. Chapter 5 includes charts that illustrate this fact, while also noting that certain genres succeed more than others, thus strong biblical values, wedded to science fiction or fantasy adventure, comedy, supernatural horror, and animated features take one “well on your way to making a blockbuster hit” (212).

Finally, section one ends with a careful discussion of the audience appropriateness of content, particularly the effect of violence on viewing children, but as well violence and pornography’s immediate effect on the thinking of adults as well as the aftereffects in their actions.

Section two invests its seven chapters in a “Step by Step” exposition of every facet of the industry. Chapter 7 introduces the aspects of producing a movie from pre right to post production. Chapter 8 tackles financing and the related area of how rights are handled as well as distribution, with extremely sage advice that reminds us that losing one’s money is as simple in Hollywood as going broke in a glitzy casino (265-275), since the film industry is like a fraternity that routinely hazes outsiders. Chapter 9 features hands on exercises to fill out on breaking down every aspect of making a film and includes illustrations of storyboards, daily schedule charts of filming days, descriptions of behind camera jobs. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. Chapter 10 goes into every aspect of production, including how to conduct rehearsals, how to chart camera shots and other camera advice, lighting, graphics, audio, locations, and on. Chapter 11 explores post production issues including music and sound, editing, distribution and sales, but contextualizes all of these tasks, as do the previous chapters, within the worldview of a vibrant, living Christianity that bends all activity toward the goal of serving Christ. Chapter 12 examines the roles of director and actor, and illustrates its points with interviews with John Ratzenberger of Pixar and Morgan Brittany, who reminds readers that “I have two children who can see everything I’ve ever done, and they have nothing to be ashamed of or hide from their friends. They don’t have to say, ‘My mom did Playboy, or this sleazy movie.’ In my twenties these things were all thrown at me. I had no kids, no husband, but I looked into the future and said, ‘If I make this choice, the consequences will never go away’” (428-429). As with the myth in academia, that one needs to compromise one’s beliefs in certain fields to gain a PhD, the myth that one needs to sully oneself to advance a career in film is exploded by the success of each of the Christians interviewed who have achieved success without selling themselves out. We are counseled that one needs to “die to ‘rich and famous’” (432), if one is to live for Christ and follow the Lord’s calling in fi lm or, really, in any profession. On a personal note, I recognized Morgan Brittany’s name, not from her role on “Dallas” (which I have never seen), but for her role in The Prodigal, which I thought was one of Billy Graham’s most memorable  movies. The chapter ends with Morgan Brittany’s example of how to “help the Christian projects” (433), and the insights of. . . Jane Russell (whose brooding portrayal in The Outlaw has become iconic). Finally, Chapter 13, “Movers and Shakers,” takes a look at the dynamics that drive the industry by drawing on the insights of a variety of major players whose insights serve as a kind of summary of all the practical advice that has transpired.

The conclusion summarizes the spiritual perspective that has motivated this book, gives tools for further study, and ends with encouragement grounded in facts that faith expressed through talent and skill does succeed in Hollywood. A helpful glossary of terms, endnotes, and an index complete this unique production.

Renowned today as the definitive tracker of movies who assigns the ratings accepted by. . . [millions] worldwide in all his Movieguide’s many forms, Ted Baehr is a major figure who has invested much effort to produce a master work that is essential reading for anyone touched by the power of television, the megaplex, Netflix, etc., which is many of us around the world, as well as our students, our parishioners, our neighbors. Every school, every church, in fact, every home with a television set, or a DVD player, or a computer should have this book available in its library. In our increasingly visual world where opinions are being formed by images, it is indispensable reading.