Let's say you wanted to write a newspaper piece about a big, complex topic, maybe something like Christians trying to find doorways into work in Hollywood. There are two responsible ways to do this kind of news story.
You could take a comprehensive approach and attempt to update the status of the full story, backing up several decades and demonstrating that this is not a new story. You would contact the key players, old and new, and go for a real update on the big picture.
Second, you could do a modest piece that looks at a new institution that is getting into this field, a new school or a new professional program that claims to have a fresh approach. Then you briefly -- three to four paragraphs or so -- mention that there are a host of other people who have been doing this work for (that word again) decades. Perhaps you ask the veterans to critique the current state of this work and evaluate this newcomer in their home turf.
But here is what you do not do, especially if you are writing the The Los Angeles Times, for heaven's sake, which is supposed to "get" Hollywood. You do not write a shallow, barely researched piece about a newcomer on the block and then proceed to ignore all of the professionals who have been working in this field (one more time) for decades.
Alas, this third option is precisely what the Times offered the other day, under this snippy headline: "Selling Stardom: A Christian path to Hollywood."
The story focuses on a program called "Actors, Models & Talent for Christ," which grew out of a talent-search company in Atlanta. Readers are told that it jumped into this new line of work when "owner Carey Lewis became a religious Christian." Here is what passes for the thesis and summary material in this story:
As people scramble to find ways into Hollywood, they are increasingly looking for an edge. This has helped spur a cottage industry of academies, workshops and conventions that promise actors insider knowledge.
And it's not just acting. There are seminars on directing, screenwriting, editing, makeup — name the craft, and there is a program for it. The groups that put on the events can usually point to a few success stories, but industry experts caution that talent, luck and persistence are the key ingredients for making it in Hollywood.
"I think a lot of the instruction some of these entities offer can be rather dubious," said Zino Macaluso, an executive with SAG-AFTRA, the actors union. "If anyone is asking you, in a high-pressure environment, to take out a checkbook and write a four-figure check for some future benefit that may or may not come to fruition, we would urge you to proceed with extreme caution."
By implication, AMTC is supposed to be the "Christian" entry in this "cottage industry" scene. It's the novelty act, you see.
Now, let me add a personal note here. I first became interested in the subject of Christians working in Hollywood back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There were already quite a few organizations in place and the easiest way to get plugged into that scene was to head to Hollywood Presbyterian Church (the excellent actors co-op is celebrating its 24th anniversary) and just talk to folks. One of the veterans on the scene was producer Ken Wales, best known for his work with comedy czar Blake "Pink Panther" Edwards.
Today, there are all kinds of interesting Christians working in the mainstream, and we're not talking about Mel Gibson (although he is a force to be reckoned with when he's sober and going to Confession).
To get a rather blunt look at this, check out this rather old Beliefnet list of "The 12 Most Powerful Christians in Hollywood." Tyler Perry (obviously) made the list, along with Denzel Washington, Patricia Heaton, Philip Anschutz, Howard Kazanjianm, Scott Derrickson and others. But there are so many sharp believers to talk with in Hollywood these days. How about Pete Docter at Pixar? How about superstar actor Chris Pratt? Producer Ralph Winter of the X-Men, etc., is alive and well. Yes, I confess that he's the pro who wrote the forward to my book "Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture."
So what does it tell you when the Times is focusing on a new Christian Hollywood operation that, as its talent, is talking about "T.C. Stallings and Ben Davies. Both appeared in this year's Christian drama 'War Room' from TriStar Pictures, which grossed about $67 million against a budget of about $3 million."
One more point: Where are the legitimate, solidly academic programs at universities such as Azusa Pacific, Biola and Pepperdine? Where are Susan Isaacs and Thomas Parham? Where are the networkers and artists linked to Act One, an operation that has (again I stress) been around for decades. Where are my old BestSemester.com buddies at the Los Angeles Film Studies Center, the leaders of a full-semester nationally known program that has a massive alumni network in the mainstream film industry?
To be blunt, do editors at The Los Angeles Times even know these people exist? Do they care?
Instead, we are told that AMTC is really "less about prepping for a career in showbiz than it is about learning some skills and having fun -- in a morally sound environment." Oh, and the price tag will soon be about "$5,245 for a package that includes, among other features, up to four weekends of classes and admission to a talent showcase held in Orlando, Fla., twice a year."
The Times offers glimpses of the program, which look something like this:
"The morning prayer over, the mostly teen-aged and twentysomething participants at the DoubleTree seminar were divided into three groups.
For the rest of the day, the performers -- including a mohawked woman in a jumpsuit, a 6-year-old boy who clung to his mother, and a girl toting a scuffed guitar case -- cycled through three classes.
In one, they learned how to audition, reading lines in front of their peers. During the training, instructor Mark Daugherty -- an actor whose credits include the ABC Family show "The Fosters" -- taught the performers how to use emotional recall while auditioning to bring the appropriate feelings to the surface. In one case, he told the participants to think about "the coolest or hottest person at church."
I am, like, so totally sure that this one-liner cracked up all the cool folks in the newsroom. And then there is this wink, wink final act in the story:
After the session ended, Erika Jester, who began working for AMTC earlier this year, sat on the edge of a sofa in the DoubleTree lobby. Jester, 39, said her Hollywood pursuits began in 2013 after she had a religious vision while attending church. It led her to seek a career as an actress and ultimately a role with AMTC.
"What I saw, it was complete blackness, and pings of light started going off," Jester said. "And then that's when I heard God say, 'You are to go be a light in the darkness of Hollywood.' "
I wondered if, maybe, I was being too cynical about this story. So I asked veteran screenwriter and teacher Barbara Nicolosi, a key figure in Act One and several other academic settings, for her take on this Times piece.
First of all, she said the AMTC price tag was way too high for that kind of non-accredited four-weekend set of "courses." And also:
One of the things we figured out really fast with Act One, is that the training we provided would only take root if we could draw our students into a thriving, productive, challenging, accountable community. Great art for the screen is really hard, and takes years of ongoing development and sacrifice. The students who found community through Act One tended to do more and do better. Weekend seminars need to lead somewhere. ...
The main thing for people to understand is that there is no Christian path into Hollywood any more than there is a Christian path into major league baseball. You have to have loads of natural talent, years of exhaustive and exhausting training, an unwavering passion for screen storytelling and a good deal of luck to succeed. Just like all the nonbelievers.
In other words, this is a serious subject linked to art, talent, education and, to use the proper Christian term, "vocation." Also, Los Angeles is THE place to report and write this story. #Duh
Read the Times feature, please. Am I the only person who thinks that the pros working in this strategic newsroom failed to take this subject seriously?