A Hollywood organization started by Venerable Patrick Peyton – who dedicated his life to using mass media to spread devotion to Mary through the rosary and encouraging family prayer – is still operating out of its Sunset Boulevard offices, 75 years later. Family Theater Productions, which has produced films with stars such as James Dean, William Shatner, Bob Hope, Princess Grace, Frank Sinatra, Eduardo Verastegui, Ali Landry and Jonathan Roumie, will be marking three quarters of a century this coming week.
“Our focus is creating stories that have an emotional impact, that unlock the heart, stories that are true and beautiful,” said Fr. David L. Guffey, C.S.C., National Director and Head of Production at Family Theater Productions.
FTP is looking back at its accomplishments, which include films like “Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton,” “The Dating Project, and “The House that Rob Built,” but also looking forward to continue bringing to the screen “stories that unlock the heart to experience God in some way,” Fr. Guffey said in an interview. That might be through overtly religious films, he said, or films that are simply inspirational and entertaining.
And while Fr. Peyton, known for his worldwide rosary crusades, began FTP in 1947 with what was the mass media of his time – radio – Family Theater is continuing to explore new ways to bring the Gospel message to audiences wherever they are, including various digital platforms and apps.
Some of what’s coming up from Family Theater includes an animated children series based on a popular book series by author Lisa Hendey, called “Chime Travelers.” There are also ongoing internet series for young people, like Catholic Central and the Spanish-language “Lente Católico.”
Behind the scenes, FTP does consulting for other Hollywood filmmakers, reading scripts and answering concerns about Catholic or religious aspects of the story being told. Fr. Guffey did such consulting on the first season of “The Chosen.”
“They really wanted someone to read the script from a Catholic perspective and ask ‘How would a Catholic hear this? Is there anything that would get in the way?’” said Fr. Guffey, who, like Fr. Peyton, is a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross. “They wanted to be sensitive to that.”
Helping Catholic actors discern
Another aspect of FTP’s work that the public doesn’t usually see is the “spiritual direction” it gives to Catholics and other people of faith in the industry. Some, who have worked hard in their fields but don’t seem to be “making it” wonder if they should keep trying or redirect their talents and energies elsewhere.
“You have some people who are just incredibly well trained and have a passion for telling stories and even want to do it from a matter of faith, but they are just not getting any parts. They’re not able to make a living,” said Fr. Guffey, who has been at FTP since 2008. “So a lot of what we’ve done over the years is sit down with people in that discernment process: ‘Is this what God is calling me to do? Should I stay in this? Is it time for me to consider something else? Could I take these gifts and talents and use them in other ways?’ I’ve had that kind of conversation a lot during the time I’ve been at Family Theater.”
FTP’s discernment ministry also is vital for conscientious actors who get roles but discover elements in them with which they are uncomfortable. “Where do you draw the line on the things you’re willing to participate in? That’s a big discernment for a lot of people,” said Guffey, who explained that often when people audition, they might see only a small portion of the script.
Fr. Guffey is one of two priests on the staff of 15, but he said “the other people on the team are all people of faith. Actors and others who are discerning their next move might have one-on-one conversations with anyone on staff or benefit from FTP’s monthly gathering for people who work in the industry. Before Covid, 60 or 70 people would come together for a pasta dinner, prayer and a speaker who addressed some area of faith formation or professional development in the industry. A lot of it now takes place online.
Catholic presence in Hollywood
The priest said it’s important to have Catholics and people of faith present in Hollywood for two reasons.
“One is that they can bring [faith-informed] sensibilities to any project that they work on,” he said. “I think a Catholic sacramental sense is really a sense that can make a movie more beautiful, because with a Catholic sacramental sense there is the idea that anything might convey something of the truth, beauty, and love of God – symbols and story arcs and things that can contain truth and that can help bring depth and beauty to a story. So I think it’s important that we have God’s people, writers, directors, production designers, music people that can do that.
“The second reason is that we find ways that the Church’s stories can be told,” he continued. “It used to be that the secular companies told our stories. I’m thinking of ‘Going My Way’ and ‘Bells of St. Mary’s’ and ‘The Song of Bernadette.’ Those were all studio films. That’s happening less and less, and more and more it’s from independent and Catholic production companies that are going to be willing and able that are going to tell a story about the Church in a way that really tells the story of the Church and doesn’t just use the symbols of the Church or the narrative of the Church to advance a secular agenda.”
Asked how the spirit of Fr. Peyton might still be guiding Family Theater Productions, Fr. Guffey offered: “The family and relationships are core to the faith; they’re core to the Church; they’re core to society. And whatever we can do to help people live meaningful relationships in connection with God, we want to do, and that guides how we choose stories and what we do.”
For many people in the world today – so much more secular than it was in 1947 – the introduction to the faith would not be an overtly religious work, much less something about the rosary, which was so dear to Fr. Peyton’s heart. “The first place to start is where they see somebody on screen who has a really impactful moment of faith that makes them think about their own faith, about their own connection and relationship with God,” Fr. Guffey said. “And that just puts a little spark to start something that will grow much bigger.”