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  1. Wealth
August 31, 2006updated 29 Jan 2016 5:00pm

Big-Screen Romance

By Spear's

Zoe Brennan on why a new breed of philanthropists world rather back a movie than open a hospital

Zoe Brennan on why a new breed of philanthropists world rather back a movie than open a hospital

‘It’s the new way of giving something back. Those six-figure donations to political parties are passé, and having the college library or a hospital wing christened in your name is frankly a little pedestrian. Instead, the cutting-edge wealthy are investing in films with a social conscience in an attempt to make their mark on the world.

Billionaire and Ebay founder Jeff Skoll is a prime example of the new breed of super-rich social activist. Dubbed the ‘filmanthropist’, he is following in the illustrious footsteps of old-style philanthropists as John D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, in using his vast wealth to engineer change and influence the lot of the masses.

He has recently paid Palestinian actors to do voice-over of the film Gandhi in an effort to spread peace in the Middle East, for instance.

Even more ambitiously, Skoll’s company Participant Productions – established in 2004 – has just funded the movie Syrianna, which has been called the most political film to come out of Hollywood since the era of the Vietnam War. Written and directed by the Oscar-winning screenwriter, Steven Gaghan, Syrianna examines American interests in Near eastern oil. The film, released at the end of last year in the US, is about an ideology, rather than a particular event of plotline, and is backed by an online campaign, Oil Change.

Participant Productions executive Meredith Blake sums up new wave philanthropic film making thus: ‘Our product is social change, and the movies are a vehicle for that social change.’ Appropriately, the actor George Clooney stars in Syrianna – he has just completed his own political allegory, Good Night and Good Luck.

Also, released in America at the end of 2005, it is also funded by Participant and examines the downfall of anti-Communist witch-hunter Senator Jospeh McCarthy. Together, Clooney and Skoll are being talked of in the same breath as Hollywood activists of a previous vintage, such as Warren Beatty and Robert Redford – while conservatives are claiming Syrianna will encourage terrorism.

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Other recent Hollywood films with a social impact are Steven Speilberg’s Munich, about the Israeli government’s clandestine revenge policy following the 1972 Olympic massacre, and North Country, starring Charlize Theron as a miner fighting sexual harassment.

Increasingly, wealthy individuals are following Skoll’s example: they include internet entrepreneurs David Sacks and Mark Cuban; the ‘God Squad’ Christian Republican communications mogul Philip Anschuts, who has funded Ray and The Chronicles of Narnia; and real estate entrepreneur Bob Yari, who helped finance Crash and Thumbsucker. Jim Stern, part owner of the Chicago Bulls basketball team, backed Hotel Rwanda – the searing tale of African genocide.

So why are the wealthy investing in films to their particular agenda? Philip Beresford, Sunday Times rich list compiler and wealth watchdog, says that donations to political parties have fallen out of fashion. In Britain, this is partly because of the change to the rules governing political donations which came into effect six year ago. In the interest of transparency, all large gifts now have to be declared to counter ‘sleaze’ in politics.

At the same time, fuelled by internet and banking wealth, the super-rich are perhaps more independent minded than ever before. Consequently, Beresford believes that the truly wealthy are increasingly looking for new, more imaginative means of ‘giving back’ to society – or buying influence, depending on what you perspective might be.

‘This is a new trend, and it is happening on this side of the pond as well,’ he says. ‘The rich – this generation having achieved more wealth quicker than anyone else for 70 years – now realise that they give something back to the society which has enabled them to become rich.

‘Like the various forms of charitable giving, investing in films with a social agenda is really “soul food” for the wealthy – it makes them feel good.’

There is another factor behind the rise in ‘vanity film-making’, according to Beresford. ‘It’s the case that the very rich have so much of everything that they simply do not need all the wealth they generate – there is nothing left for them to buy – so they like to contribute socially, which has the bonus of showing them in a good light to the general public and being good for the ego.’

Dr Jimmy Altham, a philosophy fellow at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge, who specialises in ethics, believes that the super wealthy often feel they need to leave a legacy, precisely because they have achieved – and exceeded – normal life goals.

There are, afterall, only so many huge houses and fast cars you can own. Once you’ve got the pad in Mayfair and the castle in Scotland, people are hit by the feeling “I’ve made it, but what am I going to do with my life?” By putting money into a media project you can have a lot of influence and claim: “That is what I did”.’

Henry Fitzherbert, film critic for the Sunday Express and a Hollywood watcher, says that social philanthropists will certainly be welcomes by the movie industry. ‘The cost of making a film has become exorbitant – it is more costly than ever before,’ he relates.

‘To make and market a blockbuster you now need a summer approaching $300. That is the reason the studios are embracing these new investors – with their open chequebooks and willingness to share risk; their political or social views are only too welcome.’

So is Skoll glad that he has, to use the vernacular, put his money where his mouth is? Too right he is – not least because Syrianna has, in fact, proved to be a massive box office success; he stands to make a huge profit on production, as well as potentially making the world a happier place.

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