Tony Sands can remember the moment he fell in love with movies and started hoping to make his career in the entertainment industry. Just like millions of other young boys in 1977, he gasped at the mind-blowing sight of X-Wing Fighters zooming across the big screen, engaged in battle in the climactic moments of "Star Wars."
Sands went on to graduate from the prestigious film program at the University of Southern California and work in special effects on hugely successful films, including "Space Jam," "Dr. Doolittle" and "Titanic." But he's found greater meaning in his current career with the Catholic-run Family Theater Productions as the co-writer (with his brother Joseph) and director of the latest two editions in FTP's "Manifest Mysteries" DVD series.
The ambitious project is designed to create contemporary half-hour dramas spotlighting a message tied in with each of the Rosary's 20 mysteries. But the target audience for "Mysteries" is teenagers, who tend to drift away from the Church amid their most rebellious and questioning years.
"Probably around my preteen and midteen years, faith wasn't as important to me. Then around high school graduation time, it dawned on my folks that not only did their teens not know their faith, but they didn't either, so they started a teen Bible study," Sands told Our Sunday Visitor.
"These films are inspired by that experience. While they're made for any age or type of person, they're above all meant to inspire interest from teens at a time when many walk away from their faith," he added.
Sands' two films, titled "Assumptions" and "Finding Mary," have already been shown on television in Boston, Florida and Northern California -- but he's still hoping to secure a film or DVD distribution deal.
The first program, "Assumptions," follows a pregnant mother's agonizing decision about whether to fight her cancer with a risky surgery that could kill her unborn baby or risk leaving her older daughter and the baby motherless if she doesn't fight the cancer. The second film follows a teenage girl who learns she's adopted and tries to track down the biological sister she never knew she had.
The projects mark a return to the origins of FTP, which was founded in 1947 by Holy Cross Father Patrick Peyton. The priest, whose cause for canonization has been opened after his 1992 death, believed that using the mass media of one's time was key to maximizing his mission in encouraging families to pray the Rosary.
Father Peyton launched his mission of FTP with the Mutual Broadcast System, one of the earliest broadcast TV and radio networks, as his outlet for programming. His deal enabled him to present a dramatic episode each week, as long as he had a major Hollywood personality in them. Father Peyton managed to have more than 500 celebrities appear on his radio theater shows while also giving breaks to some of the biggest names in show business.
"He gave James Dean his first onscreen credits in 1951 and gave George Lucas a place to stay for a couple years and his first onscreen credit as an assistant cameraman in the '60s," says Father Willy Raymond, current head of FTP. "William Shatner starred in the program that George Lucas was involved with. The last thing Princess Grace (aka movie star Grace Kelly) did before she died was a Christmas special for FTP, and he had a lot of other celebrities from Jimmy Stewart and Rosalind Russell to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope."
'Prayer and pasta'
Father Raymond took over as national director of FTP in 2000. He has overseen the launch of a national billboard campaign featuring two messages, "The family that prays together stays together" and "A world at prayer is a world at peace," which are displayed on nearly 5,000 donated billboards annually.
Father Raymond also hosts monthly "Prayer and Pasta" dinners at FTP's Hollywood headquarters for Catholics in the industry.
"We outreach with 'Prayer and Pasta,' RCIA classes and spiritual direction, encouraging young people to bring their faith to the forefront," he said. "They're the future of Hollywood, and we want to encourage them to produce works they can be proud of and elevate the quality of work that comes out of Hollywood."
To contact Family Theater Productions or to order the "Manifest Mysteries" DVD series, call (800) 299-PRAY or visit www.familytheater.org.