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Larry Poland Builds Bridges Between Hollywood, Evangelical Christians

Hollywood and evangelical Christians don’t exactly have a harmonious history. So it’s always something of a jolt to be reminded that a group of the latter schedules regular prayers for specific showbiz leaders and media influencers — including, in what’s left of June, Warner Bros.’ Sue Kroll, FX CEO John Landgraf, actress Anna Kendrick, and the ubiquitous Kardashians.

The “prayer calendar” (and yes, it’s organized alphabetically) is just one of the innovations arising from Mastermedia Intl., which seeks to engage the entertainment industry and effect change through what amounts to constructive engagement. Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the group is led by Larry Poland, who has spent the past 35 years conducting this sort of missionary work, although the mysterious tribe he oversees drives around in expensive cars and tosses around words like “synergistic.”

Having “flunked retirement two or three times,” Poland is again seeking to engineer a transition in day-to-day management, one that will position Mastermedia, he says, for the next 30 years. Yet whatever the organization’s future, its past and present under Poland has generally operated in stark contrast with Christian groups that pursue a more confrontational approach — using “anger strategies,” as Poland calls them, like boycotts and protests, which he considers counterproductive.

“I knew instinctively that was not the right way to go about it,” Poland says. “The best way to change content is not to scream and yell at the people who produce it.”

In such a polarized political environment, Poland’s attitude feels particularly refreshing, and it has helped keep doors open that might otherwise have been shut. Part of Mastermedia’s outreach has involved conducting corporate seminars, seeking to educate decision-makers about the spending power of the evangelical market and ways to address the faithful without casually or inadvertently insulting them.

“What I always respected about Larry is that he’s never come in the spirit of scolding. He’s always come in the spirit of constructive conversation,” says HBO chairman-CEO Richard Plepler. “What they were really trying to do is keep the lines of communication open between our industry and their movement.”

In Poland’s view, many of the industry’s slights are the product of ignorance, not malice. And while moving between these two different spheres, Mastermedia simultaneously seeks to convey to evangelicals that while they might disapprove of many movies and TV shows, there’s little to be gained, Poland says, by “trying to force them to share your values.”

Mastermedia has claimed its share of victories through the years, though many of them are defined by what people didn’t see — the excision of a casual line that some would deem blasphemous, for example, or the ability to reach studio or network leaders with a specific concern.

Poland concedes that devout Christians are swimming against several powerful tides, from disproportionate secularism within media to technology that makes content available on smaller and more narrowly targeted platforms — distribution sources that needn’t worry about offending even a sizable segment of the population. By contrast, he notes, through most of world history, “Most people never saw a sex act they weren’t involved in.”

Despite his cheerful demeanor, Poland isn’t a Pollyanna about the gap separating media culture from evangelicals. There’s a reason he titled his recent book on the topic “Chasm: Crossing the Divide Between Hollywood and People of Faith.”

Still, having witnessed the fruitlessness of interaction characterized by boycotts and picket signs on one side, and ridicule on the other, there’s a great deal to be said for bridging that space by using an olive branch. And as Plepler suggests, if Mastermedia’s formula for trying to influence hearts and minds was transplanted from Hollywood to Washington, “We’d get a lot more done.”

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