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Selling Stardom: A Christian path to Hollywood

They are aspiring actors, models and singers of all ages and backgrounds, and they've gathered at the DoubleTree hotel in Orange for an intensive weekend of show business training.

But first, they will pray.

"Heavenly father, we thank you God for bringing us all here today," said group leader John Montes, as some of the 43 participants closed their eyes and raised their hands. "Let us become one, and let us understand, God, that we are here for a bigger purpose than ourselves."

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As people scramble to find ways into Hollywood, they are increasingly looking for an edge. This has helped spur a cottage industry of academies, workshops and conventions that promise actors insider knowledge.

And it's not just acting. There are seminars on directing, screenwriting, editing, makeup — name the craft, and there is a program for it. The groups that put on the events can usually point to a few success stories, but industry experts caution that talent, luck and persistence are the key ingredients for making it in Hollywood.

"I think a lot of the instruction some of these entities offer can be rather dubious," said Zino Macaluso, an executive with SAG-AFTRA, the actors union. "If anyone is asking you, in a high-pressure environment, to take out a checkbook and write a four-figure check for some future benefit that may or may not come to fruition, we would urge you to proceed with extreme caution."

The weekend talent seminar at the DoubleTree seeks to set itself apart in two ways. One, it's aimed at Christians. Two, it's run by a nonprofit group — Actors, Models & Talent for Christ, based in Atlanta. The group contends that film, TV and pop music have an outsize influence on the culture, and that Christians need to be full participants.

"There is no better way to go out to all the world than through media and the entertainment industry. ... It's where all the role models are at," said AMTC Executive Director Adam She. "[Hollywood] is a mere reflection of the world it portrays. The darkness is not just [in] Hollywood. It's the whole world."

Over the course of the weekend, AMTC trainees will learn some show business basics, including how to read lines in an audition and how to walk down the runway.

While some training seminars have gotten a bad rap for trading in outdated information, She pointed to several AMTC graduates who have found success in Hollywood, including T.C. Stallings and Ben Davies. Both appeared in this year's Christian drama "War Room" from TriStar Pictures, which grossed about $67 million against a budget of about $3 million.

AMTC has its roots in a secular talent search company, which was known by several names, including American Model and Talent Convention. In 2010, a few years after owner Carey Lewis became a religious Christian, the company changed its name to Actors, Models & Talent for Christ.

It became a nonprofit in 2012, and since summer of that year more than 4,000 people have gone through the program. It employs about 30 people full time and uses about 100 part-time instructors who work with the performers.

She, who had his own religious awakening in 2008 and is married to Lewis' daughter, pointed to the group's nonprofit status and his own annual salary — he said he makes $60,000 — as evidence of its good intentions.

"It's clear moneymaking is not a top priority," he said.

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At the time of the Orange County seminar, AMTC employed a policy it dubbed "pay what you pray," which asked performers to pray for guidance on how much they should pay for a host of services. Most contributed in the $3,000 range, She said.

"I did pray about it, actually, and I wound up paying $1,300," said Alex Stovall, 20, a student at Arizona Christian University in Phoenix. "From my experience with life, if God puts you in a position and you don't have a doubt you should go for it."

But the voluntary pay plan didn't make financial sense, she said. Starting next year, participants will pay $5,245 for a package that includes, among other features, up to four weekends of classes and admission to a talent showcase held in Orlando, Fla., twice a year.

For some, the program is less about prepping for a career in showbiz than it is about learning some skills and having fun — in a morally sound environment.

"It's good to be around people that have good morals and are doing things for a good reason," said Lori Sebest, who paid $2,500 for her daughter Chloe's training. "When Chloe is with this group, she is with her people. They all have the same interests and it's not weird. It's such a blessing that she can be around people who are like her."

Participants don't have to be Christian, but many say the faith component is crucial.

"It's a little more secure," said Vanessa Flores, 14, of Sacramento. "Especially in this business — a lot of people go off edge. And I think if I keep my head stable with God in it, everything will be good."

Chloe Sebest, 14, said that she hopes Christians who are trained by AMTC can spread God's word in Hollywood.

"We are trying to be the light in the darkness of Hollywood," she said. "We are trying to shine the light on what Christianity should be — what it really is, how it is this accepting religion. … Right now, I think Christianity has a bad rep. I want to show again that we 'love thy neighbor.'"

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The morning prayer over, the mostly teenaged and twentysomething participants at the DoubleTree seminar were divided into three groups.

For the rest of the day, the performers — including a mohawked woman in a jumpsuit, a 6-year-old boy who clung to his mother, and a girl toting a scuffed guitar case — cycled through three classes.

In one, they learned how to audition, reading lines in front of their peers.

During the training, instructor Mark Daugherty — an actor whose credits include the ABC Family show "The Fosters" — taught the performers how to use emotional recall while auditioning to bring the appropriate feelings to the surface. In one case, he told the participants to think about "the coolest or hottest person at church."

In another class, the performers learned how to deliver lines on camera. In the third, they received modeling training. (The handful of singers on hand received separate coaching from music industry professionals.)

The workshops were designed to teach real-world skills that could be applied immediately in the participants' show business quests, but also prep them for AMTC's semi-annual six-day conference in Orlando that began this week.

In the class focused on delivering lines, Derrick Edwards, 21, sat in the back of the room as Stovall worked on a monologue. Edwards met Stovall in the Army and came to the event in support of his friend.

"Me, I'm religious, but I am not like him," said Edwards, who wore camouflage shoes and sported a tattoo on one arm of a cross and the word "faithful," and on the other a vixen toting a machine gun. "All he talks about is God. He's going to go far."

Instructor JoAnn Smolen, a talent manager, praised Stovall's performance, eliciting an approving "Hooah" from Edwards.

In one of the modeling classes, instructor April Baker asked the group of 20 to stare at a teenage girl in the center of the room. The 15-year-old squirmed uncomfortably at the attention. Baker said the point was to show how a performer's emotions could be conveyed without words.

After a lunch break, the performers gathered in a meeting room for an exercise called a "redirect," which teaches actors how to deal with curveballs during the audition process. Participants were given lines to read in front of the group, and after delivering their performances, Daugherty and Smolen would call out other ways they wanted the dialogue read:

"Do it deadpan."

"Do it shy."

"Do it like Donald Trump."

After the session ended, Erika Jester, who began working for AMTC earlier this year, sat on the edge of a sofa in the DoubleTree lobby. Jester, 39, said her Hollywood pursuits began in 2013 after she had a religious vision while attending church. It led her to seek a career as an actress and ultimately a role with AMTC.

"What I saw, it was complete blackness, and pings of light started going off," Jester said. "And then that's when I heard God say, 'You are to go be a light in the darkness of Hollywood.'"

daniel.miller@latimes.com

Twitter: @DanielNMiller

One in a series of occasional articles about selling stardom in Hollywood.

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 30, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "A Christian pathway to Hollywood" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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