Towards a Cultural Solution: A Proposal for The Story Institute

This is what I would do if I won a really big lottery.

“A culture can not evolve without honest, powerful storytelling.”
(Robert McKee)

The Problem: For over a century, the undisputed engine of global storytelling, Hollywood is now in a crisis. The box-office numbers are holding up but the declining number of theater-goers is masked by the constant hikes in ticket prices. The demographic span of the audience that goes into theaters is at its least diverse in Hollywood’s history. Most grown-ups rarely go to the movies any more. Fewer and fewer films become beloved of the broad cross-section of peoples and places that used to be the hallmark of Hollywood’s golden mystique. The Los Angeles-New York based entertainment industry has not only lost the love of the country and the world beyond, but more often, their offerings are met with derision and disgust. Everywhere I go people ask me, “Why don’t they make good movies any more.” The answer is, “They don’t know how.” The truth that is obvious to everyone inside Hollywood and out is that 21st Century culture has forgotten how to tell good stories.

Bad storytelling is more than just a problem for a handful of artists and media elites. Good stories provide the journeys that lead all of us into wisdom and solidarity with others. Their subtext is always that men have a transcendent destiny, and that what we see is never all that we are. Aristotle noted twenty-five hundred years ago in his Poetics that it is through stories that men acquire compassion and the healthy fear of evil. A society without good stories has no conscience, no heroes and no dreams.

The crisis in storytelling has been brewing slowly over the last century because of philosophical and theological errors. Proximately, it is due to failures in the educational system which have disconnected our young writers from their own cultural heritage and from the rhetorical and intellectual dicipline that would enable them to think critically about the problems of the day and respond with provocative and potentially healing parables. The vaunted “democratization” brought about by wide access to modern storytelling technology hasn’t helped either. Now anyone with a keyboard and a camera-phone thinks they have a right to an audience, regardless of whether they have talent, training or something wise to share.

Remotely, the loss of good stories can be attributed to the pervasive cancer of cynicism that has infected the increasingly secular creative class. As artists pursue materialism and celebrity and move away from spirituality, their source of authentic creativity dries up. This is why Christians could play a unique and powerful role in restoring understanding of the artist’s true place in the heart of the family of men as prophets and ministers of God’s ongoing revelation. We still believe in God. We still believe that men have a spiritual side that animates everything in their material lives.

While the world of theater and publishing is also suffering from bad storytelling, the most egregious harm has come through Hollywood. As the greed-driven blockbuster movement took hold in the entertainment industry in the late 20th century, the essential storytelling elements of plot, character and theme were trumped over and over by spectacle and celebrity to such an extent that it is all too rare to see a well crafted, worthy tale on any screen today.

Contributing to the problem is the near complete absence of Christian storytellers in the mainstream culture. As a secular journalist noted to me years ago, “Even if you people are wrong, we need you in this business because you bring a note of hope.”

Unbelievably and quite tragically, there is no Christian university which is adequately equipping young believers to assume positions of clout in the arena of mainstream visual storytelling. Where there are programs in this area in faith-based arenas, they are generally commandeered by career academics with little experience in the craft. The emphasis quickly becomes a race to buy cameras and equipment so that the students can start making movies for the programs to show off. Most of the fruits that come from these abortive and ill-conceived programs are generally unwatchable and embarrassing. The error is mistaking visual storytelling as a primarily technical pursuit. In the last few years, a new error has emerged in Christian cinema programs which is the weird and embarrassing desire to gear students toward making movies intentionally for the faith-based audience. The Christian sub-culture is the aberration not the goal. It is an arena that is too often defined by its lack of artistry, professionalism, and depth. Christians are irrelevant in the mainstream culture, and that is completely due to our failures to speak to the world in the way it loves – through beautifully crafted, powerful stories.

Stories are equipment for living.
(Kenneth Burke)

The Solution: What is needed is a serious academy-based training program in Christendom which will become the global center of discussion and learning about dramatic story telling. Basing ourselves on the successful artist guilds which eventually produced the Renaissance, Christians today need to strategically and intelligently aid playwrights and screen storytellers in finding their power again in a 21st Century society that desperately needs the hopes, challenges, courage and wisdom that good stories are meant to give. We need to help writers to identify and hone their God-given talents. We will need to prepare them with ethics, theology and philosophy to make their stories rich and responsible. We will need to nurture in them a vocational spirituality to understand and embrace their honorable and vital role as storytellers for the family of men.

We won’t get anywhere with a mechanical, trade-school type program. Hollywood is stuffed full of people who can use machines. These people tend to linger “below the line” and very rarely affect content. We need to form storytellers in a novel, inter-disciplinary, Humanities-driven, Socratic tutorial, writing-heavy, elitist program. I could write a chapter about each of those qualifiers and if anybody with a lot of money wants to hear more, call or write. The point is, most, if not all of the cinema programs now struggling to buy more equipment at faith-based colleges all over are foolishly barking up the wrong tree. It isn’t equipment we need but prophets.

I’ll say it again, it isn’t equipment that will soothe the aching hearts of post-modern men, it is apostle artists.

Our writers need to have a sense of philosophical history to know the how and why of modern confusions, and a deep enough spirituality and theological formation to know the right medicine to offer. They’ll need lots and lots of literature so as to hone their storytelling instincts. And damn if they won’t need rigorous English grammar and even Latin to correct the terrible wounds inflicted on them by the debacle of our modern educational system.

In addition, our Storytelling Institute could reach thoughtfully into the secular storytelling community. In the way that the Church always blesses and baptizes the best things in culture, the Institute could highlight the best that is in the cultural marketplace. As She has historically done in Her posture of Patron of the Arts, the Church needs a place to hone her pastoral care for creative people, to challenge artists, to inspire them, mentor them and hold them accountable.

I find that most people know what a story is -
until they sit down to write one.
(Flannery O’Connor)

Mission of The Story Institute:

- To create a factory system to pump into the mainstream culture, talented and hirable Christians to write new and wonderful stories for the stage and screen.
- To be the place that Christians think of when they want to become the best storytellers for the stage and screen.
- To be on the cutting edge of educational methods to identify, form, mentor and integrate young storytellers for the mainstream professional environment.
- To be respected in the non-Christian arena for the visionary and effective programs we offer.
- To up the level of global storytelling on the stage and screen in the 21st Century.

This desperately needs to be done. It could be a great source of hope for the people facing the certain traumas of the ongoing cultural collapse. We know what needs to be done. All we need are a few “princes” from the Church to step forward and commission the work the way Christians in ages past commissioned Notre Dame and the windows at Lyon and the statue of the David in Florence. If we start today, we can be making a profound difference in the global cultural marketplace before the middle of the century. If we start today.

“Nothing Left to Say of Me” – Flannery O’Connor’s, “A Prayer Journal”
See Barb at Via Affirmativa in Colorado Springs in May
Coming Soon: Exposing the Ickiness of the Christian Movie Selling Business
Noah – The Emperor’s New Movie
  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    You’re absolutely right. I’ll see what I can do.

  • Ann Margaret Lewis

    I think this is a wonderful idea – but the question I have is this: if we have folks who are trained to write good stories, will they be able to sell them to an increasingly hostile Hollywood? Or, do we need to end run around Hollywood and create our own means of distribution, too? So…does Hollywood needs good stories and storytellers? Yes! But do they WANT them??? Ehhhhh….not so sure about that.

    • brnicolosi

      It’s a good question, Ann. My feeling is we are going to have to pioneer our own production schemes because Hollywood tends to wreck good scripts. But first, we need a whole movement that is so good that they can’t be ignored.

      • Ib

        So does this post portend the move of the Story Institute away from its affiliation with Asuza Pacific … Or has it already broken off with that University … It used to be listed on the APU website, but now you’re gone …

        • brnicolosi

          I’m not aware that the Story Institute as ever on the APU website. The project is part of APU’s capital campaign. If they attract donors, then we will be doing this there.

          • Ib

            Good for you! But I do remember seeing it on the APU website in some way … perhaps only a press release …

    • disqus_SYfrvW7zVh

      Who needs Hollywood? We are increasingly seeing profitable movies – and morally positive movies – made outside those not-so-hallowed gates. Look at what Santorum’s doing in Texas, or what about Sherwood Pictures out of Albany, Georgia? Forget Hollywood. Let’s build our own.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Maybe Barbara can speak to this…It seems to me that Hollywood is actually less hostile than it was 10 or so years ago. Faith is more accepted and more prevalent than in the aggressively secular or downright mocking movies of the 1990s and 2000s. That’s my impression.

  • Hunter Dennis

    Everything you just said is important and true. I think that it addresses only part of the problem. Film, our trusty modern art form, requires capital — a lot of capital. Work plus money equals film. If you have talented workers, even better. But without talent, and with money, film still gets made. Ergo, money is the most important part of the filmmaking process. Christian film needs money. Not to be cynical but talent is drawn to money like moths to flame. With money, all kinds of Hollywood guys would be writing, directing and producing Christian film. Money is the key, not training. Talent trains itself in most cases because passion fuels talent. The problem is that true talent, at least in writing, is one in every 5000 who attempts. Unfortunately, film in no way resembles “Field of Dreams”. If you build it, in terms of training and craft at least, it does not come. Money makes it come. We need business plans, talented teams choosing stories, distribution and, most importantly, capital to fuel the process. Most people writing Christian movies are getting 5 g’s, en toto, for their efforts. I think that’s a quarter of what guild gives you for a rewrite. Unfortunately, we must begin the mostly fruitless scramble for money that occupies the time of most players in Hollywood. They spin their wheels all day long looking for money for projects. Unfortunately, as air for Homer’s lungs was necessary for his telling of the Iliad, hard cash is the air for our lungs in film. There is no getting away from this and the search for capital, and the capable organization of it once attained, must be first and foremost. Armored divisions don’t move without gasoline. What is our gasoline — training or money?

    • Ann Margaret Lewis

      That is why I wrote what I did below about accessing Hollywood. However, if we can go to Catholics who have money (and there are some) to start a new business model, then perhaps we won’t need Hollywood. There ARE rich Catholics out there. We just need to find them and get them involved.

      Tom Monaghan may be one to approach though he tends to be a bit controlling with things he puts his money into (which is somewhat understandable, really….but…he would have to build a new Hollywood which would require a different sort of cooperation, I think…)

  • Eric Barr

    Excellent column! If we Catholics cannot tell stories that grab the soul of a listener, it will be difficult for us to teach the catechism, preach the Good News, and reach the ordinary folk who long for God to touch their hearts.

  • Daniel

    JPII college would be a good place to start this type of project, they do the technical side already establishing a storybuilder wing would complete the idea.

  • Brian Niemeier

    The Story Institute is indeed a timely and necessary idea. As a Catholic theologian working to get his novels published through traditional channels, I’m saddened by the popular perception of religious people as creatively stunted and dull. Just as disturbing is the current trend in science fiction to uncritically endorse post-modern ideas, which runs contrary to the genre’s cautionary tale roots.

    There are a few signs of hope. The LDS community has produced some popular authors of high quality such as Orson Scott Card and Brandon Sanderson. Catholics are making an impact on popular fiction as well. Dean Koontz continues to write best-sellers while openly practicing Catholicism. Gene Wolfe was just made an SFWA Grand Master. John C. Wright may be the finest exemplar of your philosopher-artist ideal working today.
    Though your post dealt primarily with Hollywood, getting movie studios to adapt more of these authors’ works could help address the problem until we can field a new generation of Story Institute-educated screenwriters.

    • Daniel

      Good to point out Sanderson and Card. They seem to me an interesting case study in the successful crossroads between the secular arts and religion. I wonder, though (only having read a few of their books) how concerned they (or the LDS community) are with evangelizing the culture. Certainly, Sanderson has denounced the gratuitous violence in Game of Thrones, but is that really enough? We seem to have a much higher bar as Catholics, and it’s that much harder to reach.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        Why would somebody need to use gratuitous violence in a story about violence?

    • Kia Heavey

      Brian, there are several Catholic publishers accepting submissions. Google “Catholic Publisher” to find them. Tuscany Press also comes to mind. They are smaller than the lamestream publishing houses but so what?

  • Michael N. Richard

    Ha! When the lottery had risen into the 300+ million level, I told my wife that if I won that I would want to found a Catholic university dedicated to the arts, especially media arts emphasizing TV, Movies, and Digital games. That way we could fight the culture wars within the culture itself.

    Great article.

  • Daniel

    “Now anyone with a keyboard and a camera-phone thinks they have a right to an audience, regardless of whether they have talent, training or something wise to share.”

    Overall, I completely agree with your proposal. This point struck me as odd, however. Certainly there is a cacophony of untalented, untrained voices out there, but while you seem to bemoan the access that everyone now has to the stage, as Christians we should rejoice that, more than ever before in history, we have the tools to evangelize whole swathes of the world. I don’t disagree with the importance you place on a real classical education, but the conventions of plot, character and theme are not enough to win the battle. A living witness, and a trust that the Gospel’s saving message can separate the chaff, will be imperative to the New Evangelization and our re-taking of the arts.

    You seem to be saying that elites will be necessary to create these compelling, artistic arguments, but I would be careful to dismiss the masses here. Common Christians with less training in the arts also need to reinvigorate the culture, as they are able. If even 100 more Christian writers, musicians and filmmakers shared their stories with the world, that would be game-changing. And modern storytelling technologies allow us to do just that.

    Perhaps an Institute such as this could interact with, and encourage other Christian storytellers who lack formal training.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    This needs to be a Kickstarter

  • Mark Banks

    As a starting point surely prayer has to play a more significant role than either training programs or funding. Every Saturday I offer up my rosary for Christians in the film industry, as well as those Christians who have hopes and aspirations to work in the film industry… that God will open doors He wants opened, and close doors He wants closed. Once we get serious about praying for the film industry, God will get serious about opening doors for us into the film industry. As a side note to this, perhaps we should also get a petition going for the soon-to-be Saint JPII to be named a patron for screenwriters?

    • brnicolosi

      Prayer prepares us to make the sacrifices that growth requires.

  • TuckerAndrewTeague

    As I understand it Barbara, while seeing the specific need for an institute dedicated to training in excellent storytelling, you are also calling Christian artists in general to look and think beyond the Christian ghetto. This call is, I believe, critical. While the sinner hates the light, the human soul still needs the truth. Therefore Hollywood longs for the truth just as much as it may hate it (really, just as we all do at times). However, bad art is all too often the reflection of bad theology, which is an indictment of many “Christian” films and other works of art. This is why there is more good theology in the GODFATHER films than in many modern “Christian” films, and why the film JUNO (a “secular” film) is a better pro-life film than BELLA (a “Christian” film). And really, making “Christian” art (film, music, etc.) has the regrettable effect of reducing Christianity to a modifying adjective. When you call for good stories (that is, stories of the good, the beautiful, and the true) you are calling for something inherently and fundamentally Christian, not something that can stand apart waiting for the right modifying adjective, for there can never be a good story (good, beautiful, true) that is not, in some way, a reflection of Christ and a calling to the human soul at some level. As a strategy, if we (Christians who make art) start with beauty it just may draw someone to the good which may then interest them in the true. Hollywood tends to be much better at adoring beauty than filmmakers who cater to the Christian ghetto. But this is wrongheaded. If someone loves Christ, worships God and all that He has made, then beauty – a divine attribute – must be adored and sought after. If Christians have the truth, and are interested in the truth, and want to encourage people to love what is true, begin with deep beauty (which is much more than the merely pretty, and in filmmaking more than mere “production values”) and back it up with deep goodness and deep truth. Thus, the Christian who’s vocation is doing art has, finally, a calling as difficult as serious and as glorious as can be. At least that is what I think it is and what it takes. And that, it seems to me, is what you are saying. Right? Thanks for the post.

    • brnicolosi

      “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” [Wink]

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    Good screenwriting isn’t dead yet, but it is in dire peril. The thing is: Nearly all the good screenwriting these days is on TV, not the movies.

    The format of TV gives writers room to breathe. They can develop characters and plot over 14 hours rathern than 100 minutes.

    The dearth of cinema-goers has more to do with economics than anything. Why pay $50 to take my family to the movies on Saturday, when I can pay $2.99 and watch a better movie (or TV show) at home? Until Hollywood can solve that problem, the trend of fewer and fewer ticket sales will continue. CEOs may think they can lure audiences to the theaters with 3D, and they’ll probably keep thinking that until the last theaters close.

  • Ben

    I say think even larger. Isn’t there a need for building up of all the fine arts? I don’t have much money, but I would dedicate my life to helping build an international institute for fine Catholic arts.

  • etme

    @Hunter I recoil at the expression,”Christian movies”. A good story, a true story, a story told in honesty – is implicitly Christian. What is needed is realism, not programmatic writing. Describing reality IS Christian. Or, rather, Christianity is, in fact, a description of reality; as it is, sins and all. Like the Bible, for example, which does the same thing.

  • Jared Denaro

    If I could wallpaper my bedroom walls with this blog post, I would. This is what I feel God is calling me to do with my life.

  • hegesias

    Pretty sure you need a comma after Hollywood in the first sentence.

  • Halcyon

    As a Literature Professor who also teaches at a Humanities-based gap-year program and is about to pursue his MFA in Creative Writing this fall, I think what you propose is exactly what the country (and the Church) needs.

    I’ll keep my fingers crossed and ear to the ground. 8^)

  • Andrea Kirk Assaf

    Have you heard of the Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, sponsored by the Church of Scotland? I’m going to their festival this October to research. And here’s my small “storytelling to renew civilization” effort–