How ‘Kidnapped for Christ’ Documentary’s Social Impact Is Saving Teens

“Actors, for better or worse, are influencers, and you can either use that power for good or waste it,” EP Mike C. Manning tells TheWrap

All filmmakers hope their work will have a lasting impact on audiences, but one powerful, eye-opening documentary in particular has had a significant impact on U.S. legislation since airing on Showtime last year.

Kate Logan’s “Kidnapped for Christ” has become a valuable tool in pushing state-wide regulation in California of reform camps, and executive producer Mike C. Manning has been crucial to that educational effort, having continued to crusade for nationwide regulation as well.

Manning became involved in “Kidnapped for Christ” after a conversation with one of its protagonists, a childhood friend.

“So we’re hanging out and after a couple shots of tequila, he tells me about his time in this reform camp in the Dominican Republic. By the end of the story, I was in tears … I couldn’t believe this could happen to him. I met with Kate and asked how I could help,” Manning told TheWrap.

He wasn’t the only industry veteran to lend his name to the film, which struck a chord with the Hollywood community.

Tom DeSanto, who [produced] ‘Transformers’ and ‘X-Men,’ cared enough about the subject to get involved. Then Lance Bass signed on and was a great asset to the film,” said Manning. Together, the group expanded the production from a small film to a feature documentary, premiering it at Slamdance in 2014 and selling it to Showtime last summer, where it has aired ever since.

“We’ve started a conversation about the abuse that’s going on in these camps. We’ve received thousands of letters and tweets from the film being on Showtime, and became engaged in this conversation,” said Manning.

The filmmakers have shown “Kidnapped for Christ” to staff at LGBT centers and to politicians such as California Senator Ricardo Lara, who introduced the Protecting Youth From Institutional Abuse Act, which aims to regulate the private industry that treats “troubled” teens.

“You need a permit to operate a puppy day care or a nail salon, but with teens you don’t need a license, and it’s ridiculous that it’s not regulated,” bemoaned Manning, who has visited many camps himself.

“We’re not saying all these camps partake in abuse. The bill they’re introducing in California, [which] they hope will become a template for other states before becoming a national bill, wants these camps to be regulated by the state Department of Social Services so they’re able to check in on what’s going on,” explained Manning. He added that Reps. Adam Schiff (California) and Bobby Scott (Virginia) have pledged their support for regulating behavior modification camps.

President Obama himself has taken action, calling to end conversion therapy for gay youths on Apr. 9 in response to a rash of teen suicides. Manning notes that conversion therapy has already been banned in California, and as many as 18 states have introduced similar legislation.

In addition to being a social activist, Manning is also an actor (Disney Channel’s “Cloud 9”) and producer whose production company Chhibber Mann Productions is focused on creating entertaining pro-social content.

“It’s a happy accident that I became involved in ‘Kidnapped for Christ,’ and ever since I’ve wanted to do more. Actors, for better or worse, are influencers, and you can either use that power for good or waste it,” said Manning, who went on to elaborate on the creation of his company with Vinny Chhibber, a fellow actor and speechwriter for non-profits.

“So far, my formula has been to find a cause that I really care about and infuse that with a social media campaign alongside a documentary. We wouldn’t have been as successful if not for Lance [Bass] and his social media on ‘Kidnapped for Christ.’ Pauley Perrette from ‘NCIS’ has done the same thing for my next documentary, ‘An Act of Love,’ and her knowledge and expertise was a big help. It’s about the Methodist Church and the growing divide between progressives and those who are more discriminatory.” The film, which reunited Manning and Logan, highlights the story of Rev. Frank Schaefer, who was defrocked for violating church law by officiating his son’s same-sex wedding.

In addition to producing and co-starring alongside Wyatt Russell and Alex Karpovsky in the indie comedy “Folk Hero & Funny Guy,” Manning has been working on “Lost in America,” a documentary about homeless youth from director Rotimi Rainwater. “We’ve been trying to infuse that project with some star power,” said Manning. “It’s the first broad look at homeless youth — others have looked at a certain group in a certain area, but we’ve been in close to two-dozen cities.

“We signed on months ago to shape the story, which involves talking to politicians about legislation, heads of organizations … and individuals who are making a difference in their own community. We interviewed Jon Bon Jovi about the JBJ Soul Foundation, which has helped highlight what people are doing to help the problem.” Manning hopes that both “Lost in America” and “Folk Hero and Funny Guy” will debut at Sundance next year.