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Live from Sundance: Are Your Donors Going Hollywood on You?

By Tom Watson on January 24, 2007No Comment
kevin bacon

Live from Sundance: Are Your Donors Going Hollywood on You?
By: Susan Herr, 1/24/2007

Yesterday’s double Oscar nod to “An Inconvenient Truth” doesn’t affirm the artistic brilliance of Power Point.  But it does confirm the power that documentary film has gained to catalyze social change.
Nonprofits and academia couldn’t achieve in decades what was wrought in one year by a film from one Jeff Skoll whose for-profit film company,
Participant Productions, was established to create “impassioned entertainment.” 

I’ve just returned from the Sundance Film Festival where I spent several days exploring the extent to which his efforts might serve as a model for other donors.  (Participant’s newest feature, Chicago 10, premiered there on the Festival’s opening night.) After all, Skoll is an active philanthropist whose change efforts also span a solid commitment to building the field of social entrepreneurs worldwide.  

A la Carrie Bradshaw, the question I wondered was this: 

Has documentary film become an investment option for wealthy donors who want greater social bang for their buck?

I explored the topic in interviews with directors whose films were debuting at Sundance, several investors who supported films in the competition, and even the actor, Kevin Bacon. 

But the moment of insight came in the first word that major, D.C. donor and business titan, Ted Leonsis, spoke in to my camera: “filmanthropy.”

“Filmanthropy” is term Ted coined to describe a new category of filmmaking where storytelling activates discussion as well as new volunteers and new funds that benefit a social cause.

Leonsis was at the Festival where Nanking, the film he bankrolled, was premiered to much acclaim. It recollects a “forgotten Holocaust,” two words he said should never be used in the same sentence.  With Nanking, Leonsis has not only joined Skoll, he has named a movement.  

I’m not suggesting that socially conscious documentaries are new.  Sundance has celebrated the genre for years.  What is new is the idea that arts and culture donors aren’t the only ones getting goodie-stuffed swag bags at this prestigious event.  Philanthropists passionate about any of a million issues now have the option, albeit high-risk, of using film as a viable change strategy.

And philanthropy was very much on the mind of Kevin Bacon, the ultimate connector, a fact he built on this week at Sundance to launch Six Degrees is a new site that proves says anybody can be somebody if they are working to raise money for their favorite charity.

I joined Kevin in the Entertainment Weekly suite at Sundance on Saturday where celebrities kept coming through the door to sign up. He’s already got Nicole Kidman, Robert Duvall and Tyra Banks. Developed in partnership with Network for Good, Six Degrees enables all comers to build a web page and upload video describing their favorite charities and inviting support (It’s MySpace for the retail philanthropy crowd.)

Kevin is matching the charity that raises the most by March 31st with $10,000. He told me he is open to creating the same ability for donors who might want to promote giving with their own matches. Donations are under $70,000 right now but the fury of the Internet effect has yet to be released.

“Filmanthropy,” however, clearly has.

Back in the day, donors mostly wrote checks and watched from the sidelines.  In the late 90’s, folks like Skoll and Leonsis emerged unwilling to watch, instead jumping in to the work of nonprofits they supported with support far exceeding the checks they wrote.  They are representative of a new generation of donors no longer shackled by nonprofit silos, pressing instead toward ‘double bottom lines’ that harness the power of the marketplace for social change.  “Filmanthropy” is sexy extension of that momentum. 

But make no mistake, Sundance just erected another signpost pointing toward the end of philanthropy as usual.

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