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Picture Perfect

Rather than retire, filmmaker Leonard Carillo pours his video production skills into SUM Bible College & Seminary.
Leonard Carillo had a rewarding career as an executive producer on Hollywood-based motion pictures and TV reality shows.

So it came as a bit of a surprise in early 2021 when Carillo applied for a video producer’s job at SUM Bible School & Theological Seminary. SUM Chancellor George A. Neau found Carillo to be overqualified. But having retired from Tinseltown, Carillo sought another challenge.

“A person can only golf so many days,” says Carillo, now 65.

A rigorous assignment awaited Carillo: spearheading a team of six to implement a comprehensive online Christian education platform. The effort, launched this fall, uses state-of-the-art technology, a custom-built platform, and artificial intelligence to allow learners to access content from their personal tablet or smartphone. The professional quality content includes recording hours upon hours of high-definition videos in the SUM studio, both lectures from professors and interactive student discussion groups.

Despite long workdays and constant deadlines, Carillo says he feels blessed to be involved in such a project.

“I’ve been working in the belly of the beast most of my life, producing entertainment that is good, but that really has no eternal value,” Carillo says. “Now we’re creating content that will have a profound, eternal impact on the Kingdom. We’re preparing people to go out into ministry and into the marketplace.”

While Carillo says there is no better opportunity for someone with his skill set to work to prepare people to share the gospel, he has no regrets working in an industry some consider godless. He has a different view.

His credits as executive producer and writer include programs such as “Titan: American Built,” “American Ruckus,” and “Cars Yeah.” His movie career involved producing and writing comedies, dramas, and Westerns for the likes of Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Sylvester Stallone, and Jeff Bridges, all Academy Award winners. He made nine independent flicks, including the 2002 short drama “Little Star,” an official New York State International Film Festival selection.

While Christians may view Hollywood as sin city, Carillo found parallels between a movie set and church.

“When you work on a film, you become family with all the crew,” Carillo says. “It’s similar to the body of Christ. When someone is in crisis, the word goes out, and everyone pitches in to show support.”

While the motives may be different, Carillo contends God has infused humans with a similar DNA.

“Because of human nature, we really want to help when trouble arises,” Carillo says. “It’s the way God created us.”

Rather than hellish, Carillo found Hollywood to be a creative environment.

“It’s not different than any other industry,” Carillo says. “I asked the Holy Spirit to guide me and give me words to say.”

He said his faith never wavered. Despite a tumultuous upbringing in a dysfunctional family, as a child he went to an Assemblies of God church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night.

“I’m grateful for church building the foundation,” Carillo says. “It set parameters, giving me the ability to make distinctions between right and wrong. I knew my purpose was to be salt and light.”

After selling a successful advertising agency in 1993, Carillo went to the Los Angeles Film School and by 1995 began working on movie crews. He came by it naturally. His great uncle, Leo Carrillo, was best known as the impish sidekick Pancho on the TV series “The Cisco Kid” in the 1950s. Leo Carrillo also acted in dozens of classic films, including “History is Made at Night” and “If You Could Only Cook.”

Carillo is impressed by Neau’s “never-ending vision,” which Carillo says will have a profound effect on students around the globe. Carillo intends to stay as long as he is welcome.

He almost didn’t have the opportunity to work at SUM. In November 2020, Carillo contracted COVID-19 and double pneumonia simultaneously.

“I was pounding on heaven’s door, telling God I’m ready,” he remembers. Instead he spent five days hospitalized and five weeks on oxygen en route to recovery. The episode gave rise to Carillo’s desire to produce meaningful content the rest of his life.

Neau is enamored with Carillo’s work.

“Leo has really blossomed in this effort,” says Neau, 62. “Every class has a movie quality to it.”

Carillo is now consumed with a new SUM project set to launch next spring. He is part of the team developing a new media production concentration within SUM’s current Associates of Arts in Theology and Ministry degree.

“His experience in Hollywood is a valuable asset in the development of this program with a focus on the practical application of skills in SUM's suite of on-site recording studios,” Neau says.

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.