WASHINGTON, D.C. — Family Theater Productions is marking its 75th anniversary with just one event, a dinner at a Hollywood hotel April 27, because the folks there are just too busy to do more.
Family Theater wants to start production on, among other things, an animated series based on a popular children’s book series and a holiday-themed film, said Holy Cross Father David Guffey, national director of Family Theater Productions.
The anniversary, to be celebrated at the iconic Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, is a tribute to the “humble beginnings rooted in prayer” of Holy Cross Father Patrick Peyton, the Catholic production company’s founder, and his “faith and trust in God,” Guffey said in a statement ahead of the event.
“The 75th anniversary is also a tribute to the ways Hollywood and entertainment have changed,” he said, from radio production to TV and films and now social media, apps and video.
Back in 1947, when Peyton founded Family Theater Productions, it was a relative snap to get that era’s stars on a stage or behind a microphone. Those stars included Bob Newhart, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Loretta Young and Lucille Ball, among many others.
Now “it takes two to six years to get a film made,” Guffey told Catholic News Service during an April 14 phone interview from Hollywood. The process, he noted, starts with getting the script written, then comes casting and financing, plus many other things in between.
Back then “there were only a few distribution patterns, but there was a great need for this content,” Guffey said. “People were hungry to deal with Catholics.”
Now, there are seemingly limitless distribution networks — Guffey cited YouTube and Vimeo as just two. But also today, “sometimes it can be harmful to a mainstream career if you participate in a Catholic project,” he added.
In 1947, when radio was king and broadcast television was in its infancy, word got out — and fast — about something airing coast-to-coast. Today, those things “go viral,” but the audience is more diffuse.
Guffey said anyone with a smartphone is able to access content. “There are a lot of great things created every single day. The single biggest thing is finding our audience, letting your audience know about it,” he added, noting he had found something recently, but “I feel I’ve discovered something that’s been out for a year.”
In addition to new projects, Family Theater Productions is still finding outlets for two of last year’s projects: “The House That Rob Built,” about a women’s college basketball coach, and “Pray: The Patrick Peyton Story.”
Family Theater made a deal with UP TV to debut “Pray” over Easter weekend, and to offer it UP’s streaming service starting in June.
Other streaming deals are done “on a case-by-case basis,” Guffey told CNS.
With Family Theater Productions now having 75 years under its belt, there’s a five-year plan afoot.
“We have a direction that we’re headed,” Guffey said. “We really believe that great stories unlock the heart and open up people’s heart to the possibility of love and faith in new ways. We believe in the power of narrative, either in a document or a scripted film.”
Those would come in the form of feature films and possibly a limited television series “to bring beauty from the Catholic tradition to audiences throughout the world,” he said. “We’ll always be involved in Catholic content creation.”
That “throughout the world” phrase has its origins in 1958, when Family Theater made its first films. It was a 15-part series on the mysteries of the rosary, which was Peyton’s focus. The Irish-born priest, who is a candidate for sainthood, was known as the “rosary priest” for his dedication to spreading love of the rosary and family prayer.
“Our first effort to get it (the series) to the world was what we called a mission kit,” Guffey explained. “We sent the mission a mission kit — 15 reels, a film projector with a speaker and a screen you could put against the wall.” He added that for some of the Catholic faithful in places like Peru and Chile, it was “perhaps the first film they ever saw.”
“It’s become so much easier now, the whole world has access to YouTube” and a host of streaming platforms, he said. “We make an effort to make that popular. We’ve done this through the last 30 years. We dub into Spanish but we also have subtitles in French and Portuguese and sometimes other languages as well.”
In a throwback moment, the anniversary dinner will feature a live performance of a vintage Family Theater radio drama.
Guffey found a director who specializes in radio dramas, and someone to do sound effects live as they did in the old days. Starring in the reenactment will be Clarence Gilyard (“Walker, Texas Ranger”) and Michael Harney (“Orange Is the New Black”).
At the same time, Guffey is keeping an eye on the success of “Father Stu,” the new movie starring and produced by Mark Wahlberg.
“God bless Mark Wahlberg, a big risk to his career, and I hear he financed much of it. If it does well, there is an audience for faith-based content,” he said. “People tell me they want more of it. Then we’ll share it and see that they can make more of it.”