A mission to transform Hollywood
Legate Derry Connolly leads a university bringing Christ to the world of entertainment . . .
People of faith often complain that Hollywood runs roughshod over Christians. For some, the answer is to avoid mainstream entertainment altogether. But John Paul the Great Catholic University — aka JP Catholic — has a different solution.
Students at the country’s only Catholic film and business school are taught to impact Hollywood by transforming themselves through Jesus Christ — and by excelling at making quality movies and entertainment.
Derry Connolly, founder and president of the San Diego-based university — and member of Legatus’ San Diego Chapter — says he never set out to found a university.
In 2000, he visited Franciscan University of Steubenville with his daughter. At the time, Connolly was teaching entrepreneurship at the University of California San Diego. Steubenville’s dynamic spirituality caught him by surprise. During the next three years, Connolly felt God calling him to found a university with Steubenville’s spirituality — but focused on the media.
“I spent three years telling God, ‘No,’ but He put it in my heart and it kept coming back,” said Connolly. “I couldn’t get rid of it.”
With the help of generous donors and a team of Christians working in Hollywood, JP Catholic opened its doors in 2006 in San Diego’s Mira Mesa neighborhood. In the fall of 2013, JP Catholic moved to a new campus in Escondido, 30 miles north of San Diego. The new campus has more building space and is only five minutes away from a train station that takes students directly to Los Angeles.
The budding university offers two Bachelor of Science degrees: one in communications media and another in business. Within the communications media degree, students can specialize in directing films, producing, screenwriting, acting, animation, video game production and the New Evangelization. The school also offers two master’s degrees: one in business administration and another in biblical theology. The university’s MBA is specifically focused on film production.
JP Catholic’s 170 students live on campus, with 90 other students taking its online theology degree.
“The theology department is led by Dr. Michael Barber, who studied under Scott Hahn,” said Tiffany Hall, a senior at JP Catholic. “He’s been really great. We do a scripture class that takes us through all the covenants in the Bible.”
The Catholic faith permeates every aspect of the school. All professors sign an agreement that they will not teach anything contrary to the Catholic faith, and every theology professor has a mandatum — an acknowledgement by the local bishop that the professor is teaching in full communion with the Church.
Dorms are housed in apartment complexes with a strict no-visiting policy between male and female students.
“In our common room, we pray a rosary every night at 9 p.m.,” said Hall. “I love that! We have daily Mass and our chapel is always open for daily Confession.”
“Responding to the crisis in the world of Catholic higher education, JP Catholic is part of a group of faithful universities founded over the past several years,” said Adam Wilson, communications director for the Cardinal Newman Society. “It was created with the renewed conviction that a Catholic university must be founded on the Church’s authentic vision for Catholic education.”
Chris Riley, a Protestant, heads the screenwriting department at JP Catholic. Before coming to the university, he worked for 14 years at Warner Brothers as the head of the script processing department. He is considered an authoritative figure in Hollywood when it comes to screenplays.
“There is a certain amount of theory for screenplay writing,” said Riley. “There is some science, a ton of art, and then wrestling with the story. The hardest thing to overcome is the discipline of writing.”
Students interested in screenwriting first take a class on theory. Then they take a class where they write an episode for a TV series. Finally, they take a feature-film writing class.
“Ultimately, screenwriting students must write a feature-length film,” said Riley. “By the time they graduate, they will have multiple scripts.”
One of JP Catholic’s strengths, he said, is the strong link between the faculty and the film industry.
“Students have gotten great internships,” said Riley. “We have great networking possibilities. Our faculty really understands the business.”
In terms of making it in Hollywood as a Christian, Connolly says things are changing for the better. “The Christian network in Hollywood is getting stronger,” he said.
“I haven’t experienced a ton of hostility to the faith,” he said. “Most people I work with want to do good work and are not specifically hostile to Christians.”
JP Catholic students made a full-length feature film last year called Redline, starring Nicole Gale Anderson. It’s available on DVD and streaming on Netflix. They’re working on a second feature film called Leap.
“Students who major in film produce their own short films,” Riley explained. “They raise the money themselves, create a schedule, get the equipment and crew, and shoot the film. Donations come from family and friends and crowd-funding sources.”
JP Catholic’s gaming and animation program is also growing in popularity. The program focuses on design, art and storytelling.
“I want to create my own video games, like interactive puzzles, adventure games and solving mysteries,” said Hall. “I want to start my own studio — called Guardian Studios — using Old Testament stories as a basis, so people can learn the faith and virtues.”
Students like Hall, however, are aware of gaming’s pitfalls, especially for younger players.
“What bothers me about violent video games is that sometimes you’re rewarded for violent behavior,” she said. “You need to be rewarded for right behavior. Children need limits with any kind of ‘screen time.’ I love the digital world, but it will never be God’s world.”
Connolly sees a bright future for JP Catholic, with a peak enrollment down the road of 1,200 students. The school is planning to launch an undergraduate degree in fashion design, as well as theology, in two or three years.
But the university’s mission is above and beyond fame and fortune.
“What I hope for all my students,” Riley said, “is that they are individually impacted and transformed by Christ. Some will go into mainstream Hollywood. Some will get married and have children. I want them all to bring the flavor of Jesus wherever they go.”
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.