Reaching the unchurched: Paulist Productions brings good news from Hollywood

Dating ProjectDating Project

How do you make movies and TV shows in Hollywood today if you are a Catholic company?

In 1960, when the late Father Bud Kieser, C.S.P., started Paulist Productions—producers of the long-running show “Insight” and films like “Romero” and “Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story”—he had three guiding principles, according to Michael Sullivan, the company’s president.


First was “Gospel density,” says Mr. Sullivan. “On a scale of one to 100, where 100 is ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ and zero is ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ we’re trying to push towards the higher end of the scale.”

Second: “God serves only the best.” In other words, the stories Paulist Productions will tell must be of the highest quality.

So for “Insight,” Father Kieser hired great writers like Rod Serling and Michael Crichton; and Tom Fontana, creator of the TV series “Homicide,” has written a number of movie screenplays for the company. Father Kieser also created the prestigious Humanitas Prize, which awards Hollywood writers for stories that “explore the human condition in a nuanced, meaningful way.”

“For the Paulists part of the mission is supposed to be reaching out to the unchurched.” The best ways to do that are constantly shifting. These contemporary leaders of Paulist Productions look on that fluid landscape with optimism.

Third: “Spend the money like it belongs to the poor.” That means being thrifty, of course, but it also means being nimble. As cable networks came to the fore, with none of the religious programming requirements that the F.C.C. placed on broadcast TV, the company shifted into the independent film space.

In recent years under the leadership of Oscar and Emmy-winning producer Chris Donahue, Paulist Productions explored returning to series television, but in the end decided against it. “More and more, you see even with less expensive programming like basic cable reality shows, the network wants to own the show,” Mr. Sullivan explains. “Values overlap with the buyer might be more difficult to achieve. They’re going to own the content, and you may have value clashes.”

Instead the company is innovating in other ways. Mr. Donahue recently acquired a film about young adult relationships called “The Dating Project.”

Boston College philosophy professor Kerry Cronin had observed that students did not date anymore, but were “hooking up.” For an assignment she challenged her students to go on “traditional” dates: Students had to ask for a date in person, not via text; there was to be no drug use, alcohol or touching beyond a simple hug; and the date could not last longer than 90 minutes “because no one’s that fascinating.” Then she made them write papers about it.

The film explores Ms. Cronin’s ideas by following the dating experiences of a number of young people. It is a project Mr. Sullivan finds very much on point for Paulist. “If you think of marriage as a sacrament, dating is the anteroom of that sacrament,” he says.

But how does a little documentary like this find an audience between the latest Marvel extravaganza and the next installation of “Star Wars”? Precisely by taking advantage of its niche-ness, says Mr. Donahue.

“Today we’re able to target our audiences and deliver specific content to specific people much more dynamically than we ever have,” he says. “We could send a message to everyone who has a cellphone walking out of a parish church on a weekend if we chose to.”

Marketing the film specifically to young adults, the company is doing a “one night only” screening in theaters across the country on April 17.

Hollywood is sometimes characterized as hostile to religion. Both Mr. Donahue and Mr. Sullivan disagree.

Mr. Sullivan is a longtime Hollywood producer and was the first president of entertainment for the former UPN network. “I don’t think any development executive is sitting in their office thinking, ‘We’ve got to get the Catholics in here,’” he kids. “But they are intrigued by the faith-based space.

“Kirk Cameron’s ‘Fireproof,’ which made $30 million [on a budget of $500,000], ‘God Is Not Dead,’ ‘The Passion of the Christ’—when these kinds of films blaze across the sky it gets everybody’s attention.”

That is why Paulist is currently developing Jesuit Father Greg Boyle’s best-selling “Tattoos on the Heart” as an independent movie.

Hollywood follows success, Mr. Donahue says. “‘Schindler’s List’ was made because Steven Spielberg had made ‘E.T.’, ‘Jaws’, all of those movies.

“The more credibility you have as a storyteller, the more people will listen to you.”

And, he says, “you don’t have to be a Catholic company to tell Catholic stories.” He points to this year’s Oscar nominees: Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” has as its lead a Jesuit high school grad trying to be a person for others; “Lady Bird” focuses on a Catholic school girl in Sacramento; and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” not only references Flannery O’Connor, but offers a very O’Connoresque tale.

“It’s an extremely violent movie, but O’Connor’s short stories are very violent,” Mr. Donahue says. “They’re about institutional evil. They jar characters and jolt them and then finally grace enters their lives.”

“For the Paulists,” says Mr. Sullivan, “part of the mission is supposed to be reaching out to the unchurched.” The best ways to do that are constantly shifting. But both of these contemporary leaders of Paulist Productions, like Father Kaiser before them, look on that fluid landscape with optimism.

“There are opportunities for an organization like ours,” Mr. Sullivan assures.

Mr. Donahue agrees. “It’s a really great time to be a storyteller,” he says.

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Nora Bolcon
11 months ago

The Paulist Fathers are an awesome community of priests, and the first community of priests in the United States. They do great things, and work tirelessly trying to regain the lost youth of our church, and so many of the folks that have been made to feel marginalized, at any age, in our church. They are good guys in today's not always welcoming Catholic Arena. I am very thankful for them and the work they do for our Church. I will look forward to this film.

If you feel moved to consider Priesthood, I would strongly recommend checking out the Paulist Fathers.

If you want to worship in a very loving, bright community, the Paulist run churches and centers around the country have great people with whom to enjoy mass and also do so many other enjoyable things.

MK McAdams
10 months 3 weeks ago

Great piece!

Professor Cronin taught me at Boston College. A great teacher and mentor. A small note: She holds a PhD and should be referred to as as doctor.

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