Hollywood and Christianity often seem to be at war. Indeed, there is a long list of movies that have attracted religious condemnation, from Gone with the Wind with its notorious “damn,” to The Life of Brian and The Last Temptation of Christ. But the reality, writes William Romanowski, has been far more complicated--and remarkable.
In Reforming Hollywood, Romanowski, a leading historian of popular culture, explores the long and varied efforts of Protestants to influence the film industry. He shows how a broad spectrum of religious forces have played a role in Hollywood, from Presbyterians and Episcopalians to fundamentalists and evangelicals. Drawing on personal interviews and previously untouched sources, he describes how mainline church leaders lobbied filmmakers to promote the nation’s moral health and, perhaps surprisingly, how they have by and large opposed government censorship, preferring instead self-regulation by both the industry and individual conscience. “It is this human choice,” noted one Protestant leader, “that is the basis of our religion.” Tensions with Catholics, too, have loomed large--many Protestant clergy feared the influence of the Legion of Decency more than Hollywood’s corrupting power. Romanowski shows that the rise of the evangelical movement in the 1970s radically altered the picture, in contradictory ways. Even as born-again clergy denounced “Hollywood elites,” major studios noted the emergence of a lucrative evangelical market. 20th Century-Fox formed FoxFaith to go after the “Passion dollar,” and Disney took on evangelical Philip Anschutz as a partner to bring The Chronicles of Narnia to the big screen.
William Romanowski is an award-winning commentator on the intersection of religion and popular culture. Reforming Hollywood is his most revealing, provocative, and groundbreaking work on this vital area of American society.Religious Communication Association Book of the Year Award 2013
“Reforming Hollywood brilliantly comingles film history with church history, dispelling enduring fictions that the religious community only wanted to censor films. Weaving in fresh material from Protestant archives, this work contributes greatly to a fuller understanding of the constructive contributions of religious leaders to the Hollywood film industry. This remarkably fresh, significant, and fascinating text truly reforms misunderstandings of Hollywood and religion.”
--Terrence Lindvall, C.S. Lewis Chair of Communication and Christian Thought, Virginia Wesleyan College
“Film history is filled with studies of how Jews and Catholics influenced the course of the movie industry. William D. Romanowski’s pathbreaking study Reforming Hollywood reveals how a wide range of Protestant organizations waged their own battles for control of what audiences would or would not see on the screen—a battle that influenced the religious and moral content of American film from the silent era to the present.”
--Steven J. Ross, author of Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics
“As the first book to examine the relationship between Protestant church organizations and the motion picture industry, Reforming Hollywood corrects film history’s tendency to exaggerate the influence of the Catholic Legion of Decency and its successors. In this authoritative account, Romanowski reveals how Hollywood’s relationship with the Protestant establishment was crucial to debates around film regulation, and charts the erosion of its influence in the post-war years. This is a well-told story, with new perspectives and information in every chapter.”
--Richard Maltby, author of Hollywood Cinema
Reviews and Notices
“Reforming Hollywood “makes important contributions to the history of movie censorship….Romanowski’s achievements are narrow but solid.”
--Francis G. Couvares, Modern Intellectual History
“Reforming Hollywood is richly researched and painstakingly footnoted….Is it clearly and compellingly written and certainly of interest to students and academics looking to enrich their understanding of film censorship, intersections between religion and entertainment and the wider debates about the uses and purpose of film itself.”
--Hannah Grave, Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies
"Romanowski's Reforming Hollywood is an important, timely study. It redresses a lacuna in the historical foundations of Hollywood, deftly accounting for the crucial role Protestant religious bodies had to play in the development of an American cinematic imaginary."
--Bruce Isaacs, Literature & Aesthetics
"William D. Romanowski demonstrates that Protestants sustained a complex engagement with Hollywood throughout the twentieth century. This deeply researched book therefore fills an important gap in the history of American cinema and adds to the understanding of religion in movies."
--Anthony Burke Smith, American Historical Review
"William Romanowski is fair-minded, has a fascinating story to tell, and tells it well..."
--Tom Aitken, Times Literary Supplement
Romanowski contributes to the ongoing discussion of the terrain between the reform and regulation of the American movie industry in the twentieth century….Reforming Hollywood is an important reminder of the role that affiliated Protestants played in the ongoing struggle against film censorship in the first half of the twentieth century and later in establishing a viable system or ratings and classifications.
--Nancy J. Rosenbloom, Journal of American History
This thoroughly researched study reveals much more about the institutional worlds of liberal Protestants than about American film history and, as such, contributes to a recent boom in scholarly interest in American religious liberalism….readers will appreciate and learn much from the fresh perspective on the relation of religious Americans to the movies that Reforming Hollywood offers.
--Judith Weisenfeld, Church History
Romanowski does not deny that there were and are Protestants who advocate censorship on moral grounds but seeks to readdress the way in which this ‘caricature’ has come to predominate in American film history….For those with an interest in popular culture and its relationship with Christianity, in this instance American Protestantism, Romanowski’s book is illuminating.”
--Eleanor Jackson, Theology
“People who seriously want to understand the role of Christianity in the history of American film production need to read William Romanowski’s detailed analysis of How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies. Unearthing daunting new data through arduous archival research, Romanowski effectively challenges anyone who assumes that Protestant response to Hollywood have been primarily censorial.”
--Crystal Downing, Christian Scholar's Review
"This is one of the most important and substantial film books of 2012."
"Reforming Hollywood should become the standard secondary source for anyone interested in the role Protestants have played in the history of Hollywood—and in understanding how their work has helped shape, for better and worse, the cinema we have today."
--Patton Dodd, Books & Culture
"To attempt to summarize all of the questions and issues that Romanowski's book raises would do disservice to his text. Reforming Hollywood is an important resource for scholars of American cultural, religious, and intellectual history, as well as media theory, but it also is an important read for Protestants--especially evangelicals--who tend to assume that our recent attempts at a more sophisticated, fully-rounded view of filmmaking and analysis are a new development."
--Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today
"Pop culture expert Romanowski (Eyes Wide Open) offers a subtle and surprising thesis: far from being censorious, American Protestants have for a century had a formative, complex, often cooperative relationship with the Hollywood film industry through a variety of commission, councils, and representatives seeking to use film to promote and improve the nation's moral health. The book brims with historical evidence-gathered from interviews and periodicals and painstakingly footnoted-that proves and provides nuance to Romanowski's argument...Especially fascinating is the illumination of the cultural and political forces that developed culture wars in the entertainment arena."
"...thoroughly researched, astonishingly succinct study...serious students of the media and religion will savor its rich detail."
"This is one of those important books which may change the discourse in a discipline. It is erudite, inspiring, meticulously researched, and published by the world's most prestigious academic publishing house; it sets out, explicitly, to retell the standard history of its field."
--Byron Borger, Comment
"...for those wanting to think more deeply about how artistic freedom, profit margins, and Protestant concern for public welfare have related to one another, the groundbreaking Reforming Hollywood will be just the ticket."
--Barry Cooper, The Gospel Coalition (thegospelcoalition.org)
William D. Romanowski gives us a meticulously-researched, highly readable account that illuminates the history of American religion in the twentieth century....[Reforming Hollywood] is a fluent, thorough history from which any student of film or American religious history--and anyone who loves the movies--will learn a lot.
"Romanowski mines an extensive network of studio memos, minutes from religious meetings, press clippings, and trade publication coverage to uncover the ways in which Protestants voiced their concerns about the state of the industry while also navigating that precarious position of preserving filmmakers' rights to freedom of expression."