February 10, 2013

A Troubled Hollywood Charity Flips the Script and Raises $240-Million

Motion Picture & Television Fund receives big pledges from film producers

Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times

Four years ago, the Motion Picture & Television Fund was on the brink of closing its nursing home due to financial woes. Today, the group is on stronger financial footing thanks to a renewed focus on mission.

It played like a Tinseltown tale of redemption, complete with an emotionally charged setup: Four years ago, a long-running charity created by film-industry giants to take care of their needy colleagues fell on hard times itself. It threatened to relocate 130 elderly residents from its nursing home. The resulting public uproar cast the nonprofit as the villain.

Some notable Hollywood figures, including the actor George Clooney, criticized the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s cost-cutting moves. Others acidly suggested that if the nonprofit was struggling that much from a lack of cash, it should slash its chief executive’s $600,000 salary.

Even though the charity backed down and kept the home open, its reputation remained tarnished—marred further by two well-publicized instances of neglect at the facility, including one death that resulted in a state-levied fine.

Says Bob Beitcher, who was hired in 2010 as the fund’s president specifically to stop the bruising: “We were wondering if we had lost our way.”

Now for the Hollywood ending: As Mr. Beitcher reset the group’s mission and worked to make the fund more open to those who had criticized it, the organization’s board hatched the idea of a massive capital campaign to reinvigorate the charity’s depleted coffers and to remind people of its health-care and other services for entertainment workers who never earned a fortune.

That campaign, started early last year, has so far produced stellar results: $240-million pledged toward a goal of $350-million, much of it delivered courtesy of several film producers who chose to take on the knights-in-shining-armor role.

'Open to Change’

Among the major donors to the campaign, which is scheduled to run through 2014, are the producer Steve Bing and the co-founders of DreamWorks Studios David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, and Jeffrey Katzenberg (who chairs the nonprofit’s fundraising arm, the Motion Picture & Television Fund Foundation).

Each pledged $30-million to the campaign, earning them spots on The Chronicle’s Philanthropy 50 ranking of America’s most-generous donors.

The media executive Barry Diller and his wife, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, also gave a total of $30-million from their family foundation. And the actor Kirk Douglas and his wife, Anne, provided $20-million.

Using the fund’s motto—“We take care of our own”—as a rallying cry, the group’s leaders used the controversy to steel their resolve and to listen to concerns others had about how it was run.

They reassessed the group’s priorities and decided to place more emphasis on its history of offering health care and retirement support to film- and television-industry veterans. And they realized that with health care becoming more and more expensive, they needed to raise more money to continue to deliver it.

The fund’s openness and humility greased the skids for an outpouring of support that will help the organization allay worries about its future, its leaders believe.

“We were facing two converging factors,” says Mr. Beitcher. “One, we had depleted our reserves to keep the long-term-care building open. And, two, we were coming up on our 90th anniversary and we needed to answer some questions: Who are we? What should we be doing? How can we be around for the people in our industry for 90 more years? We were open to change.

“What the controversy taught us was that we had drifted further from our community than we had thought,” he says. “We needed to recognize the emotions involved and work with the people who had them.”

Celebrity Fundraisers

Formed in 1921 by the screen luminaries Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and Mary Pickford and by the director D.W. Griffith as the Motion Picture Relief Fund, it began raising money by installing coin boxes at Hollywood studios. The hope was that actors and technicians would donate their spare change so co-workers facing hard times could get help.

The group’s first grant recipient, Mr. Beitcher is fond of noting, was an actor who couldn’t afford a toupee for a role. As the new charity picked up steam, it helped destitute actors who found it difficult to make the transition from silent films to talkies.

In the 1930s, Ms. Pickford successfully made a push for a payroll program that deducted donations from those making $200 or more a week. She also asked other studio workers to donate one-half of one percent of their income to the fund. Movie stars from then till the 1950s made appeals on radio shows and raised a total of $5.3-million. (Among the celebrity fundraisers: Humphrey Bogart, Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, and Barbara Stanwyck.)

The fund developed the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, in Woodland Hills, Calif., in 1940, cementing its status as a primary health-care provider for industry workers.

Since then, it has hewed to its mission of caring for older members of the Southern California entertainment industry and offering low-cost health care to young members at six clinics in metropolitan Los Angeles. It also continues to deliver cash assistance to actors, artisans, crew members, production workers, and technicians who struggle to pay their bills.

A Capital Campaign

The fund now serves 150,000 people a year, spending $100-million annually while holding $70-million in reserve.

The reserves are much lower than the $130-million the charity held before the controversy—one reason Mr. Katzenberg and other board members thought a capital campaign, the first the fund has run since the 1980s, was necessary.

Since the campaign started, he and other leaders of the group have spent time taking actors, such as Warren Beatty, and other potential donors on tours of the fund’s clinics and retirement buildings, hoping they’ll recognize the need to give.

“Our industry is about a group of artists who come together to work intensely for 12 to 14 hours a day,” Mr. Beitcher says. “They come together during those times as a family.”

Such close feelings re-emerge when prospective supporters take tours, he says.

“When donors visit our campus, it’s inevitable that someone who lives there will say, 'Hey, I remember you. I was in your first film,’ or something like it. There’s a lot of goodwill among people in our industry that we can tap.”

Those visits have begun to bear fruit, as have some direct appeals from other donors, including Mr. Katzenberg—who, along with his wife, Marilyn, has given millions of dollars annually for several years in addition to the $30-million they announced last year they are leaving the fund in their wills.

“I tell people that those of us who are lucky enough to have the most well-rewarded careers here should feel responsible about caring for those who have fallen on the hardest times,” says Mr. Katzenberg.

A few years ago, it would have been impossible to muster the fervor behind that invitation to give, he admits.

“We’ve gone from a place where we were very challenged. We faced some real uncertainty about the future and about what our mission should be,” he says. “Donors can now feel confident that their money will be valued and used in the best possible way.”

Star Power

One sign that the fund has managed to smooth some feathers is the recruitment of George Clooney as a campaign co-chair. Mr. Clooney wasn’t active in the group until he joined the protest against closing the nursing home. After investigating the organization and seeing that it needed to raise more money to maintain its services to older members, he joined its board.

“He’s one of the leading philanthropists in our industry, so I contacted him directly after reading his criticisms and concerns” in 2009, recalls Mr. Katzenberg. “I asked him to look beyond the emotions of the issue and to realize that we were committed to fixing our mistakes. To his credit, he took a clear-eyed look at the situation and became one of our leading advocates.”

Besides persuading the organization’s leaders that the fund needed to make some changes and take into account what other industry people have to say about it, the 2009 brouhaha served another purpose.

“We did have this hiccup,” says Mr. Beitcher. “As bruised as we were by the process, it did let people know that we have need. We’ve escaped that shadow, but we’re likely to run into another cul-de-sac of sorts. For organizations like ours that provide health care, it’s always something.”

For example, the state or federal government could cut the reimbursements the group receives for providing health care to the needy. “We have to be strong enough to withstand whatever comes at us,” he says.

With an estimated 75,000 members of the Southern California entertainment industry turning 65 by 2020, many of the services the fund offers will increasingly be geared to the needs of older people, says Mr. Beitcher, in the form of long-term care, dementia care, and assisted living. Much of the money needed to do all that will come from the campaign now in progress

“There’s a percentage of our people who can’t stay home when things go wrong because they have no family or money,” he adds. “We want to be there for them.”