Movies shoot for change

Times Staff Writer

ALBIE HECHT is an old hand at philanthropy. The former Nickelodeon president who greenlighted such hits as "SpongeBob SquarePants" has long been generous to children's charities. He has produced public service announcements and telethons, organized community outreach projects and created the Big Help, a campaign aimed at getting kids to participate in community service.

But when Hecht became concerned about the plight of young African war refugees, he decided to try something new: He financed a documentary about Ugandan schoolchildren who are struggling with the ravages of that country's 20-year civil war while competing in a national music contest.

His film, "War/Dance," won the documentary directing award at the Sundance Film Festival last month.

"I was at Viacom for 13 years being a big producer," Hecht said. "Having gone through that, I really wanted ... to do something personal."

As it turns out, he is one of many media big shots who are trying to "make a difference" with a small, personally realized documentary.

In the eight months since Al Gore's global-warming wake-up call, "An Inconvenient Truth," was released, the documentary film marketplace has exploded with backers like Hecht.

Call them "filmanthropists." They have deep pockets and issue-driven agendas. Rather than make high-class dramas that might carry some mild social message, these producers are turning out full-blown advocacy movies.

Although their individual aims may be different, each has used a nonfiction film to shine a spotlight on social injustices, or government malfeasance, and even to recast history in the service of human uplift and national reconciliation.

Almost without fail, filmanthropists have done well financially before deciding it is time to do good. But they are not passive about their investment. They want to control the process and the message.

AMERICA ONLINE Vice Chairman Ted Leonsis, for one, in 2005 self-financed "Nanking," which documents a group of Westerners' heroic efforts to save thousands of Chinese civilians from massacre by Japanese soldiers during the buildup to World War II.

"What I didn't want to be was dumb money," said Leonsis, who came across his subject matter while on vacation in the Caribbean. "This is my story. I'm going to put the team together. I'm going to learn the whole industry. And when the film is done, I'm going to feel like this is my movie."

EBay co-founder Jeff Skoll launched a new company, Participant Productions, in 2004 to make socially crusading films. So far it has produced "Murderball" (about hard-charging wheelchair rugby players), "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Chicago 10" (about antiwar protesters who were put on trial after the 1968 Democratic National Convention), among others.

Endgame Entertainment Chief Executive James D. Stern, better known for backing Broadway musicals such as "Hairspray" and movies including "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle," earned his film philanthropy stripes by financing and co-directing "... So Goes the Nation" in 2006. The $2-million documentary deals with the political machinations that ultimately tipped the battleground state of Ohio in favor of George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election.

"I thought the story could be incendiary," Stern said. "There are some films I do that I'm not emotionally invested in. But as a director, this is a story I was very interested in telling."

Actors turned producers Brad Pitt, Dermot Mulroney and Catherine Keener combined efforts to produce, along with others, "God Grew Tired of Us," a documentary chronicling a group of Sudanese teenagers who fled starvation and genocide in their homeland only to be shocked and bewildered by consumer culture in the United States. The film reached theaters last month.

"This came together because we're a bunch of friends who care about the world and wanted to support a project depicting reality in Sudan," Mulroney said at the film's premiere.

ACCORDING to Mark Urman, head of the theatrical division of ThinkFilms, the company that will distribute "War/Dance" next fall, filmanthropy runs contrary to Hollywood's typical mind-set that puts profits far ahead of any social action.

"While there has always been a great deal of philanthropy in the film business, this is a new iteration: relatively inexperienced people entrenched in another part of the industry making accomplished feature films," he said. "Rather than write a check, you can make a feature film exposing an ill or advancing things about human endeavor."

He added: "Fiction movies take so long to make. Documentaries can be more responsive to the zeitgeist. Look at 'Fahrenheit 9/11.' That was made to get a guy out of the White House."

At the same time, Jeff Sparks, chief executive of the Heartland Film Festival (a nonprofit organization that recognizes filmmakers whose work "explores the human journey by artistically expressing hope and respect for the positive values of life") contends that filmanthropy's recent surge is linked to the growing bankability of documentary films.

"On the business side, something like 'March of the Penguins' showed that documentaries really can make some money," Sparks said. "You didn't see that three years ago. The business model has changed."

Documentaries, which rarely cost more than $2 million to make, are a comparative bargain weighed against most narrative features. Some recent documentaries have even been moneymakers. "Penguins," for example, which documented the extraordinary resilience of the Antarctic bird, cost a modest $8 million, eventually grossing $122 million worldwide.

But filmanthropists are the first to tell you: They pay heed more to their hearts than to the bottom line.

Take Charles Ferguson, for example. He created the technology for Microsoft Front Page and sold it to the software giant for $133 million in 1996. He says he spent a "significant fraction" of that fortune to finance his first film, "No End in Sight," an Iraq war documentary he also wrote and directed. The film, which premiered at Sundance, focuses on the decisions made by the Bush administration since 2003 that Ferguson argues have resulted in widespread Iraqi sectarian violence and several thousand American combat deaths.

"Everyone said the same thing: It's a very difficult film for a beginning filmmaker to make, very demanding, very complicated -- which was true," Ferguson said. "They also said, 'You'll be competing with 10 other people trying to say the same thing,' which turned out not to be true at all. I just felt so strongly about the issue and the importance of showing it to the world at large, I had to make it."

Similarly, Hecht's cause -- Ugandan war refugee children, many of whom are former conscripts in the rebel army or are grieving the murder of their parents -- dictated his course of action. But rather than saddle his multimedia company, Worldwide Biggies Inc., with the costs of the film, he decided to create a nonprofit called Shine Global. "I'm thinking: I'm a filmmaker, and it sounds like an incredible story," he said. "Then the event of making this movie became a conversation about, 'What's the best way to do this?' Our financial advisors said, 'Start a nonprofit.' That way we can tell stories like this that help end the exploitation of children. The story created the company."

FILMANTHROPISTS who are short on technical filmmaking know-how need to hire technical advisors and directors to help them conquer moviemaking's learning curve.

Ferguson first reached out to a friend who helps program the Telluride Film Festival. The trail led Ferguson to Alex Gibney, the Oscar-nominated writer-director of the documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room." Ferguson hired him as an executive producer. In effect, Gibney conducted a go-as-you-learn film school.

"It was like being a major league manager," Gibney said. "I told him where the balls and bats were, and he did the rest: He conducted 75 interviews. He was a good student, a quick listener and surrounded himself with talented people."

"No End in Sight" won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance "in recognition of the film as timely work that clearly illuminates the misguided policy decisions that have led to the catastrophic quagmire of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq," according to the jury's recommendation.

Ferguson, like other filmanthropists, hopes his film will bring policy changes.

"I hope to improve the level of national debate about Iraq, how we got to this place and what it is actually like," he said. "Secondly, this is not the last time the United States will use military force. And I wanted to communicate more broadly that war is a serious matter. If you are going to use military force, if you are going to put soldiers in harm's way, if you are going to invade and occupy a nation, you have to do it seriously."

Leonsis said one of his goals in making "Nanking" was to create a foundation to house the 880 hours of survivor interviews and reams of archival research assembled for the film. But his larger ambition is to foster a Sino-Japanese cultural detente. The Nanking massacre is still a sore subject for both countries, and a vocal minority of right-wing Japanese deny it ever took place.

"Today, China and Japan have disagreements and cultural differences that go back to this time in history," Leonsis said. "And I honestly believe a film like this can get them talking."

Although the most recent crop of filmanthropic documentaries is still months away from reaching audiences -- only "Nanking" and "War/Dance" have landed distributors since their Sundance premieres -- that is hardly discouraging to the new breed of documentarians. "The concept of theatrical documentaries is a relatively new phenomenon; the advent of digital film is new," said ThinkFilm's Urman. "This wasn't possible 10 years ago. The audiences, the outlets, the technology were not there." Now, however, "it's becoming a regular thing."

chris.lee@latimes.com

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday February 16, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction Documentaries: An article in Section A on Wednesday about activist-backed documentaries misidentified the name of the movie production and distribution company ThinkFilm as ThinkFilms.
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