Hollywood. For some, it’s a land of opportunity. For others, it represents a source of darkness. Into this emotionally and artistically charged center within the City of Angels, 13 Regent University students ventured last May for two weeks of immersive study. A group of approximately 10 students is preparing for this year’s experience. They will hear from more than 30 film and television professionals on a variety of subjects, learning it all under the Hollywood sign.
“Los Angeles is where the magic happens,” says Regent’s newest professional-in-residence, Sean Gaffney. “This is where the largest collection of minds that understand television and film are gathered.” Gaffney worked in the story department of Warner Bros. before jumping coasts to lead Regent’s efforts in television—a firsthand experience that gave him added perspective as he fielded student questions about industry life.
“The transformation of Hollywood will take place by those sent to live and work there,” an impassioned Gaffney explains. “This is a great time for Christians in Hollywood. Both individual Christians and ministries are growing in number and influence; but to take advantage of the upswing, one must fully join in the community.”
These two weeks provide students with the skills to help them do that. “The Hollywood Experience helps our students understand how to work in Hollywood, but more importantly, it helps them understand how ‘Hollywood’ works,” explains Dr. Mitch Land, dean of the School of Communication & the Arts (SCA).
Booker T. Mattison, filmmaker and SCA assistant professor, oversaw last year’s groundbreaking experience. “This is an opportunity for students to not only experience how a television writer’s room is run, but to hear from working Hollywood writers, directors, producers, editors and assistants,” he says. “The things we’re championing in the classroom are also being championed by working professionals.”
Each day during the inaugural Hollywood Experience, students discussed what it means to be a Christian artist and how to thrive as one in Hollywood through a devotional, Getting Through the First Draft of Your Life. In the book, screenwriter Kris Young examines the discipline, rejection, isolation and potential success of the Hollywood writer from a Christian perspective. As one of the featured speakers, Young explained that movies and religion address a similar yearning. “The hungry heart drives most of what humans do,” he says. “As storytellers, that puts great responsibility in our hands to feed hungry hearts with the work we produce.”
For Hollywood Experience students, that work means early mornings writing drafts and days spent in classes, listening to panels of professionals, touring studio lots, and getting access to the people who many hope will one day be their neighbors, colleagues and employers. Evenings are spent in a television writer’s room where their work sometimes stretches late into the night.
Helmed by seasoned writer-producers Gaffney, Dean Batali and Sheryl Anderson, 2013 students in the writer’s room developed the story and early episode drafts for a web series called The Bradbury. Condensing a typical season of television writing into two weeks yielded seven 5-7 minute episodes of the series. Two episodes have been filmed and are in post-production, two are in production, and an additional three are in development with plans to produce in summer 2014.
The series follows the mystery of a hotel night manager as the bellhop and the desk clerk engage with the guests he draws there who come to stay and leave a little of their brokenness behind. It’s a comedic series that draws on the idea that sometimes what people want and what they need are two different things, and the mediator between the two is often the Holy Spirit. Though The Bradbury was created and is being produced for the Internet, the teaching focus of the study program was distinctly on television.
“When you have Spielberg saying the motion picture model is on the brink of imploding, that’s something significant,” says Mattison. “The corporations that own the studios and the networks get more profit from television than film, so this is also very practical on our part, preparing our students to be employed. We want them to be working on projects where they can influence people. The Hollywood Experience is the first step, and it’s a very big one in the direction of really strengthening our influence in the television industry.”
Regent’s area of mastery has traditionally been narrative filmmaking, and with more than 360 international film awards to date, the school has proven its mettle.
“Most film schools teach people how to be filmmakers and storytellers using the physical and emotional,” Gaffney says. “We’re able to be more complete, more holistic in that we get to bring the spiritual world into the art as well.”
This more complete approach to art leads to stronger story, says Anderson (Charmed, Where Calls the Heart). “To have a real education, a sense of perspective and a notion of how art fits into the world produces better product, and you’ll be more successful as a result,” she said, speaking to students during the program.
“My prayer for all of you is that you will come out of this program so confident in both your art and your faith that you’ll be able to produce art that speaks for your faith, seamlessly integrated, and be able to focus on the joy of producing great product that advances the kingdom.”
Award-winning filmmaker Christine Swanson, a film school friend of Mattison, put things in perspective for last year’s group: “Talent is meaningless. Humility is everything. Preparation is key,” she said. “Connections count sometimes more than great talent,” she explained. “Second to that is writing with excellence. Calling is never an excuse for anything less. All the connection in the world doesn’t make up for poor story.”
Swanson encouraged the students to keep their priorities in order. “You can never have enough success to be happy if you’re not centered in God.”
Encounters like this one helped students get a glimpse behind the proverbial curtain. They also connected with Regent alumni who now work for DreamWorks, ABC Family and Disney. They heard from Hollywood producer Ken Wales, who produced the movie Amazing Grace; actor-director Anson Williams, who played Potsie on TV’s Happy Days; and Brian Davidson, a Regent graduate and writer-producer on CSI Miami.
“These professionals helped us manage our expectations, gave us tips and really poured into our lives,” says Eric VanValin ’13 (Communication & the Arts). “It surprised me how everyone emphasized humility. The perception is that you need a big ego to make it to the top, but it’s actually the exact opposite. As a Christian, humility and excellence are traits that should already personify us. If we are able to die to ourselves and serve others, we have a better chance of making an impact in Hollywood.”