Agenting for God

Deborah Netburn is an entertainment reporter for latimes.com.

In this company town there are power restaurants and power gyms, power high schools and power yoga studios. There are also power churches, and Bel Air Presbyterian, high up on Mulholland Drive, is one of them. Ronald and Nancy Reagan were members, and Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly prayed here after 9/11. It is the sort of church where seasoned studio heads sit next to aspiring actresses fresh off the plane from Texas or Ohio or New York. It is also the sort of place where the Rev. Mark Brewer is handed head shots and scripts from faithful entertainment hopefuls desperate for a break.

The leaders of Bel Air Pres, as it is fondly called, figure that half the congregation works in the entertainment industry, which is why they decided to create a ministry called the Beacon to support this community. "When I had a church in Detroit we tried to serve people in the Big Three auto, so when I got here, we thought, 'How do we reach the entertainment industry?'" says Brewer, who took over as head pastor five years ago. "A lot of people working in the industry feel, 'My career doesn't understand my faith and my church can't understand my career.' What Beacon is trying to do is create a community where people can grapple with faith and issues of career, and also support each other. Because Hollywood is a butt kicker and you better suit up for your game."

Around the time the church elders were beginning to conceive of this new ministry, Kim Dorr, an active Bel Air Pres member, was studying to become ordained in the Presbyterian Church. She was an obvious choice to lead the Beacon. "We wanted to have someone ordained to bring a seriousness to the mission, and we wanted someone to be in Hollywood, working full time," says Brewer. "Not just, 'I did a show one time.' She was running an agency."

Kim Dorr is blond. She likes to wear boots. She's older than she sounds on the phone, but not that old--44. She's smart and easy to talk to and not afraid to divulge information about her divorce or how she found Christ or why she once sent a client on an audition for Showtime's soft-porn "Red Shoes Diaries" (or what she did when the client cried afterward and had trouble facing herself in the mirror). She discovered America Ferrera and Jessica Alba, but they both left her agency for a larger one when they began to get famous. She's still not big time, but she has actors with recurring roles on "Dexter" and "Hannah Montana." ("It only takes one person to stay," she says. "Jim Carrey built UTA.") She thinks "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams is asking very provocative spiritual questions on his show: "Sawyer wakes up from a coma and says, 'Are we saved?' Why did he use 'saved' and not 'found'?"

Dorr really loves Hollywood, and she really loves God. "It's just, God is amazing," she says, "just his patience and his forbearance and his grace and all those things." And in some ways, she believes, agenting can be godly. "Jesus stands in the breach between us and our savior, the holy God, and takes upon himself the justice that was meant for us. In a funny way I feel that is a lot of times what an agent does. There are actors who don't mean to shoot themselves in the foot, but they do. And an agent is the one who has to throw herself in front of the bullet and say, 'Here's what happened. It's my fault. How do we make it better?'"

Dorr wasn't always an agent or a pastor or even a believer. She grew up nominally Christian (Easter, Christmas, that's it) in Denver. She studied to be an actress, but after following her husband to L.A. she wound up as a casting director at an independent production company. As her marriage began to deteriorate she dabbled in what she calls "the New Age." She read Shirley MacLaine and tried to contact her own spirit guide. She bought crystals and "cleared" them in the ocean. She went to psychics and checked out Transcendental Meditation. Within a year of divorcing her husband, she lost her job at the production company and took a new job as an agent. Right in the middle of all that she was born again.

The night Dorr became a Christian she had agreed to attend a church service with a friend. "I just wanted to hang out," she says. "I didn't care if it was a bar, Disneyland, whatever." As they drove down the 405, Dorr confronted her friend about her newfound religious devotion. "I said, 'I don't like that you look at me and you think I'm wrong.'" Her friend was taken aback. "She said, 'I don't think of you as wrong. I think of you as being distracted from the path.'" They got out of the car with those words hanging in the air, and that night the sermon was about people who had been distracted from the path. "It's like, I got it," Dorr says.

After her conversion, she joined Bel Air Pres and threw herself into all sorts of church activities--Bible study, teaching Bible study, prayer groups, a mission trip to Cairo. It wasn't long before the senior pastor told her that he felt she was being called into the ministry.

Dorr went to seminary part time for five years while working full time as an agent. "I kept thinking, 'There will be a point in time when God will remove me from entertainment and put me 100% in ministry,'" she says. "And I kept waiting, but there was never a time when I felt released from my job. And things kept growing at work! We increased our revenue. Our staff was more flawless than it had ever been before. We experienced blessing!"

In one month last fall, Dorr was ordained and became co-owner of Defining Artists, the agency she helped build. She was also given the new title of Designated Pastor to the Entertainment Industry at Bel Air Pres.

The Beacon meets every other Sunday after the second morning service. Hundreds of members receive weekly e-mails about Beacon activities, but on average only 30 to 80 attend each event. At a recent meeting an impossibly handsome young man stood just outside Evans Chapel, handing out name tags and directing people to pizza boxes inside. A few threw $5 bills into a basket labeled "donations" and grabbed a slice, but this was an industry crowd, so most avoided the carbs. There were several young blond women whose smooth good looks could help them pass for teenagers in a show on the CW, and many of the young men were blessed with prominent pectorals and easy, charming grins--but the rest were regular-looking assistants, managers, agents, directors, producers or writers.

After 20 minutes of small talk and non-pizza eating, Dorr took the microphone from the lectern and ran through a series of announcements, reminding the group about a workshop on storyboarding, a director's forum and a discussion on how Jesus used story to convey his message. Then she offered up a prayer. The industry folks bowed their heads, clasped their hands and closed their eyes.

Like many of those in the pews, Dorr is fluent in two languages that have very little in common. On a Sunday she might begin a sermon with the words, "Holy God, be with us as we continue to explore various avenues of media and entertainment and how we impact the world with what we do in Los Angeles and Hollywood. Empower us through your spirit as we give our lives in service of you, Jesus." But during the week she is more likely to be at her desk with her headset on telling a client's manager, "So they want him Monday and Tuesday for scale plus 10 per day and co-star billing. It will be in the closing on a shared card."

Dorr says she considers herself an agent who happens to be Christian, and not a Christian agent. She does not work exclusively with Christian clients, and she rarely sends her clients on Christian projects. Most members of the Beacon are similarly clear that they have not gone into the entertainment industry with a broad religious agenda or to do specifically Christian work. A Beacon-like group at the Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles would probably not feel the need to define its mission in such anti-religious terms, but in this town the word "Christian" still connotes "crusade."

"When somebody comes out as a Christian, there is this immediate stereotype of what falls into place behind that," says Dorr. "'Well, you must be right wing, and you must be Republican, and you must be X, Y and Z.' And that is really what so many of us in entertainment now want to redirect. When somebody says, 'I'm a Christian,' what we want the culture to hear is, 'I point toward beauty, truth and grace, rather than these political agendas.'"

At the same time, the Christian right has often shown prejudice toward those who work in Hollywood. "A lot of the Midwest and the Bible Belt for a long time rejected Christians in Hollywood because it felt like Babylon," she says. "So there was a sense of not being supported in what is like a mission field by other Christians in the United States."

Part of Dorr's work with the Beacon is helping Christians navigate the industry, as well as a path in a world that does not always respect Christian values.

"How do I fight the good fight and still maintain a career? That's what Beacon is helping me figure out," wrote Charlie Shanian, a screenwriter and Beacon member (and Tori Spelling's ex-husband), in the testimonial section of a Beacon brochure. Later, he says, "I do know that I want whatever product I create to bring me closer to God rather than further away, but if that is just giving people a good laugh for two hours, that is awesome. I don't see it as a takeover or an infiltration or anything like that."

Terry Botwick, a partner in Vanguard Films who helped get the Beacon off the ground, agrees. "I'm not really a fan of an overt attempt to cause people to believe what I believe," he says. "When a film reeks of having an agenda it is less interesting as an entertainment vehicle."

At the Beacon meeting, Dorr began a Q&A; session with a retired CBS News anchor, focusing on how his religion and moral and ethical questions had informed his work. A few times a year the ministry also sponsors an all-day intensive "Actor's Bootcamp" to help members improve their auditioning skills, learn what to look for in a head shot and how to get representation. And Dorr runs an invite-only fellowship for Christian agents and managers--not just Bel Air Pres members--that offers the chance to network.

But beyond career support, the Beacon's mission is to create a safe space where people like Dorr and hundreds of others can talk about the biblical implications of "Lost" or whether the Christian character in "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" is being treated fairly. Because you can't do that in most churches, and you can't do it over a business lunch at Kate Mantilini either.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°