Sitting in a director’s chair in the Rayburn House Office Building’s Gold Room on Monday evening, Hollywood producer and writer Dean Batali conveyed his disillusionment with the Tinseltown elite, calling them a group of “mean” and “broken” people.
“It’s like being in junior high with rich, smart and angry people,” remarked Batali, a co-executive producer of Fox’s “That ’70s Show” and a former writer for the WB cult classic “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
“They all lost their virginity by the age of 14 and think that’s the way it is,” Batali lamented to the crowd of mostly 20- and 30-something Hill staffers snacking on movie popcorn and soda at a forum titled “What Hollywood Needs: From Individuals, From Washington, and From America.”
Sponsored by Act One Writing for Hollywood, a coalition of Christian writers and producers on a mission to improve the quality of films and television programming, Batali and other members of Act One offered advice on how lawmakers and staffers can help improve the quality of film and television programming.
The group also used the event to scout for talent among the denizens of the Capitol’s hallways who might dream of leaving politics and encouraged those interested in learning the crafts of screenwriting and directing to consider attending Act One’s programs and seminars.
The event was sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) — neither of whom attended — and the Wilberforce Forum. It was organized in conjunction with The Voice Behind, a nonprofit communications group run by current and former Hill aides that promotes “goodness, truth, and beauty in and through art, entertainment, and media.”
Seated beside Batali, Jack Gilbert, a former director of the Warner Bros. Writers Workshop, also criticized the sort of person typically drawn to a writing career in Hollywood.
“There are a lot of dysfunctional people [in Hollywood] that want that recognition … but that’s not all that different than politics, is it?” Gilbert told the crowd, which erupted in laughter as many nodded in agreement.
Batali had equally harsh things to say about the very shows that have padded his own pocketbook as jaded writers and money-hungry studios sacrifice quality for the bottom line.
“I think television is very damaging,” Batali admitted. “I don’t think it’s valuable to show 13-year-olds using drugs as we did on ‘That ’70s Show.’ I won’t even get into 16-year-old girls having sex with vampires.”
Batali’s insights on what he calls “lowest common denominator television” provided the crowd of budding young politicos a unique perspective on what’s wrong with Hollywood today.
Batali and his colleagues in the movie and TV industry also offered advice on what they and their lawmaker bosses can do to help fix it.
“You need to seek out and discuss shows that are good,” Batali said, explaining that average people have a lot of power to influence studio decisions simply by expressing their opinions in letters and through Web sites.
“Boycotts do not work,” he added.
Barbara Nicolosi, a TV and film consultant and the founder of Act One, said she wants to challenge the Hollywood climate by encouraging writers to produce scripts that will give the audience something more than simply the “gritty and raw” entertainment so commonplace today.
“We get enough of the real,” Nicolosi said, adding that she doesn’t see enough examples of “unconditional love” and “mercy” — art with a positive message that “would render us more than we are.”
It’s Nicolosi’s belief that “if you can inspire and make people long to be better than they are … then why don’t you?”
To that end, Nicolosi is encouraging lawmakers to get involved by giving plugs to quality, responsible television shows and movies — praise she believes would go a long way in inspiring writers and producers to generate more of the same.
“If periodically you could have your bosses say, ‘There was a great moment on “Boomtown” this week,’” Nicolosi told the Hill aides, referring to the current NBC drama. “Don’t laugh. This is something [the writers] would eat up. … They’re artists. They want this affirmation.”
Janet Scott Batchler, who co-wrote film scripts for “Smoke and Mirrors” and “Batman Forever” with her husband, Lee Batchler, told the crowd that having their bosses make references to shows and movies that espouse good values would also show others that they “share the same stories” and are not “up here on the Hill, isolated, separate.”
Funded by the Roman Catholic Church, Act One was launched in Los Angeles in 1999. It opened an office in New York two years later and is now conducting activities and workshops across the nation to train a new legion of writers for the mainstream.
As Zena Dell Schroeder, the associate director of Act One, explained, “We are a faith-based program” but “we are not out there trying to produce Christian projects.”
“We want to produce mainstream projects that represent a world view,” Schroeder said.
Schroeder said many Christians want Act One and others to simply make projects with a Christian message, but the group is looking to get out a more basic message: “That is not how we can use this medium. It is not evangelistic. It is pre-evangelistic.”
Schroeder also warned her audience that creating good programming or movies won’t simply come from excluding objectionable material, whether it be sexual content, violence or offensive language.
“A good movie is good because of what it offers, not because of what it doesn’t have,” she explained.
Nicolosi announced Monday that Act One will launch a business program next year to help individuals who already have MBAs and law degrees cultivate careers as studio executives.
The Hollywood delegation seemed to strike a chord with many in the political audience who described themselves as Christians.
“What you see about us is Gary Condit and scandals, and what we see about you, well, you know what we see,” explained one young woman who said she was pleased to see “so many Christians” turn out Monday.