Father David Guffey sat down with me after giving a talk on the media to a roomful of people at this past winter’s Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, California.
Guffey, who belongs to the Congregation of Holy Cross, splits his time between the celebrity-packed St. Monica Church in Santa Monica, and Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, home to Family Theater Productions. Father Guffey is National Director of the Catholic apostolate, which produces family-friendly entertainment.
Hearing the questions asked of Father Guffey, it seems that many Catholics — like a lot of their fellow Americans — are ignorant of how the entertainment industry works. So, when they hear how much money is needed to produce something actually worth watching, they balk.
“We have to learn not to be intimidated by it,” said Guffey, “and part of the way that you overcome being intimidated by it is when you believe in the power of it. Because if you don’t believe cinema has power, then when I say I need a million dollars for a film, you’re going to say, ‘A million dollars for that? We could feed the poor” — if you don’t see that that million dollars could inspire people to so much more.”
These days, Protestants and Evangelicals produce many more movies and videos for the faith-based audience than Catholics do. But, few of these productions penetrate beyond the faithful, so the impact is limited. Guffey would like to see Catholics, as part of the Universal Church, concentrate on speaking to all people.
That starts with a story.
“The greatest challenge,” he said, “is to find the great content, the great story told by a great storyteller collaborating with other great storytellers. In the Catholic tradition, we have an idea — and this is broader than us — that you can use amateurs and have professional results.
“Sometimes amateurs can do wonderful things, but you need people who can really work their craft. We’ve learned that example in casting. The last show that we did was ‘Family Dinner’ and we had over 700 submissions for the lead part, so there’s lots of talent out there.
“We always start with our friends, and we’ve got some incredible friends. But you have to be able to say to a friend, ‘You’re working your way up to a great actor or a great director, but you’re not there yet, so I really have to go with somebody who can do it well.’ Then it’s just getting our own administration on board to understand the cost of production, is a challenge.”
Irish immigrant and Holy Cross priest Father Patrick Peyton — renowned for his devotion to the rosary — founded Family Theater in the 1940s with the goal of drawing on Hollywood’s big names to make quality entertainment for the whole clan.
Since the 1960s, FTP hasn’t really lived up to Peyton’s vision of drawing in top industry names, and by the time Peyton died in 1992 at the age of 83, Hollywood had drifted far to the political left and into a libertine culture that’s antagonistic to sincere expressions of faith. And often Catholics are a hostile to Hollywood as it is to them — so they’d rather not sink their money into it.
“There’s a myth,” said Father Guffey, “that Father Peyton got everything for free. He had a lot of people who were very generous, but he paid people. We had a radio show on the air from ’48 to ’68, and in the heyday, in the ’40s and ’50s, it always had big stars. It had to have a big star, a great story, and it couldn’t be preachy.
“Our arrangement with the Mutual Broadcasting System is that we couldn’t say Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu — and again, it’s an example of when limits made for creative possibilities. Mutual paid for the whole production staff. We paid for the actors and scripts.
“We got all those production people to work for us, but they weren’t free.
“Our Protestant brothers and sisters realized this in the beginning. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of sacrifice that goes into what they’ve done, but there’s no question that they have to pay people who have to support families. There’s an expectation that things are going to make money.
“We have to recover some of that entrepreneurial spirit. I call it Apostically entrepreneurial — but a lot of times, that doesn’t come with a business plan. I heard a series of talks about [EWTN founder] Mother Angelica, and people and organizations said, ‘Oh, it was all faith, and it was all prayer.’
“It was a lot of that, but you know what? The deacon that was there, Bill Steltemeier, he was an incredibly savvy businessman.”
There are very successful Catholics out there who could potentially fund productions (hmmm, “Entourage” producer Mark Wahlberg comes to mind) but they’re not going to want to lend their funds or name to something unless it’s top-shelf.
“That’s where the content comes in,” Guffey said. “I believe when we go to them with projects that are worthy of that, then they’ll be there for it, but we have to get there first.”
FTP has been producing medium- and low-budget videos and Web originals, and that’s allowed it to start building a production community.
“We’re looking to do features again,” said Guffey, “and we’re going to be able to do that because of the experience we had, and the people that worked with us.”
Also, Catholics writers, producers and directors have to grow a tougher skin and be willing to tell challenging and even provocative stories.
“The other thing that Catholic media has to contend with,” said Guffey, “is we can devour our own through review boards. Somebody joked that Jesus wouldn’t be able to get his parables through a review board.
“We have to make sure that we can’t have something that’s so off the mark that it’s offensive in a scandalous way, but we also have to show the dark side of life. To show the wages of sin, you have to show sin.”
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Images: Courtesy Kate O’Hare, Family Theater Productions