Saturday, April 10, 2010

Jesuits Run a Hollywood Production Company

Rev. Eddie Siebert, SJ directing a scene in Rome, with the assistant cameraman Joe Ellingwood.

Jesuits Run a Hollywood Production Company -

It’S the end of the 15th century, and the rebellious duchess Caterina Sforza, her children kidnapped by the forces of the ruthless Cesare Borgia, stands on the battlements of her castle, throws up her skirts and screams at Borgia’s 15,000 advancing troops: “Idiots! Don’t you think I can make more of them?” Later, with her castle reduced to rubble, Catarina is seized, raped and sent to Rome, where Borgia’s father holds a particularly high office: pope.

Provocative material for a movie, certainly. Particularly when the movie is being made by Jesuits.

“The Borgia Popes” is, in fact, just one of the projects under way by Loyola Productions, a nonprofit production company in Culver City, Calif., owned by members of the Society of Jesus, a large Roman Catholic order of priests and brothers. Jesuits are a missionary order whose members, in this case at least, would rather not be thought of as proselytizers.

“When I have meetings around town, you can see that people are thinking, ‘Oh my God, they’re trying to convert us,’ ” said the Rev. Eddie Siebert, the company’s founder and president. “It’s very frustrating. I try not to say who I am till they get to know me. I don’t even introduce myself as a Jesuit priest. It tends to really frighten people.”

But only if they know what a Jesuit is. “In fact, most people don’t know,” Father Siebert said. “ ‘Oh, you’re Jewish?’ No, no, Jesuit. ‘Is that Catholic?’ Some people would say so.”

Founded in 1534 by the Basque soldier and theologian Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuits have seen their share of controversy:
Pope John Paul II cracked down on the order in the 1980s because of its independence, dedication to social action and theological questioning. The Jesuits have also been featured in their share of movies: “The Mission,” “Black Robe” and “The Exorcist,” to name just a few. But while Hollywood has a long history of affection toward Catholic priests (think Bing Crosby), doing business with them is another story.

“It’s been a really tough battle, to be honest,” said Father Siebert, who founded the company in 2000 and faces the same competition that every other production executive does. He also goes out and raises money. “Which is what I do, but without doing full-time fund-raising,” he said. “The reason we survive is because of generous people and because we work our butts off.”

Being a priest does have some advantages. “Because I’m a Jesuit, if there’s a good Catholic executive over at Sony, they’ll take a meeting. Sometimes they take you seriously and sometimes it’s, ‘Well that’s great, Father, keep up the good work.’ I’ve had to straddle this really awkward fence of being a spiritually empowered Jesuit with a mainstream entertainment production company that’s trying to do cutting-edge material. And that’s really tricky.”

Based in an anonymous office building on an anonymous block in Culver City, Loyola Productions produces some content “just to keep the lights on,” Father Siebert said. There are educational films, industrials and one of the company’s more popular series, “Who Cares About the Saints?,” which has been marketed through Loyola’s distribution system, Catholic universities, high schools and parishes, through Loyola Press and, of course, The host of that series, the author James Martin, S.J. (“The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything,” HarperOne), is a regular on “The Colbert Report.” And he says such participation in mass media is encouraged by his order.

“There’s been a push over the last few decades for the church to become more involved in the media,” Father Martin said. “The same way that Jesus used the medium of parable and St. Paul used letters and St. Augustine used autobiography and Fulton Sheen used television, priests, sisters and brothers are using the most contemporary media to proclaim the gospel. It’s actually encouraged.”

Although “mainstream” is the way Father Siebert says he wants to go (“telling stories that aren’t necessarily doctrinal or dogmatic”), there’s a moral message behind most Loyola productions.

“I hope so; otherwise, what’s the point of their existence?” asked Meyer Shwarzstein, whose Brainstorm Media recently teamed up with Loyola on a documentary series called
“Something to Talk About,” being shown at the Majestic Crest theater in Westwood, Calif., and intended as a showcase for socially conscious nonfiction. (One of Loyola’s more recent productions is a short film called “Righting the Wrong,” about restorative justice and juvenile life without parole.)
A veteran TV and mo
vie producer, Mr. Shwarzstein is helping Loyola develop its “Mercy Adjacent” hospital drama (which predates TV’s current
“Mercy”); it concerns chaplains at a post-Katrina hospital in New Orleans.

“I’m a somewhat religious Jew,” Mr. Shwarzstein said. “I don’t know how to ever characterize it when people say such things, but I was brought up in an observant background and I’m interested in religion. And what I found fascinating about ‘Mercy Adjacent’ is that while we’re very open in our society about a lot of things, we have incredible discomfort about religion. A lot of the progress we’ve made in civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, the media have been there first. But there’s this innate hypersensitivity when it comes to religion. Which is quite fascinating.”

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1 comment:

  1. Fr. Edward would raise more money if wore a roman collar.