News and analysis
February 18, 2015

Business Leaders Move Quickly to Send Thousands of Kids to See ‘Selma’ Free

Paramount Pictures/Photofest

An act of "pop-up philanthropy" in New York City raised thousands of dollars to help school kids see the movie "Selma" and sparked similar movements in more than 30 cities across the country.

"Selma," nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, chronicles the civil-rights movement protests that led to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Central to the story is the Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery. It took several tries to complete the protest, with state troopers assaulting peaceful black participants during the first attempt, and ultimately the effort compelled President Lyndon Johnson to endorse the bill.

Moved by the film, a group of African-American business leaders in New York City raised money for public middle-school students to see it for free.

"I walked out of the theater with my wife and said, ‘Every New York City eighth grader should see this movie," said William Lewis Jr., co-chairman of investment banking at Lazard.

Mr. Lewis proposed the idea to Charles Phillips, CEO of Infor and a director of Viacom, which owns the movie’s production company, Paramount Pictures, then pitched it to friends at a dinner party. Four people offered to donate $10,000 each.

After Mr. Phillips called Paramount to figure out logistics, the small group called other friends and in a matter of days had raised $270,000 from 27 people. Donors included Debra Lee, CEO of BET Networks, Ed Lewis, co-founder of Essence magazine, and Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express.

"Every single person said yes," Mr. Lewis said.

Paramount negotiated for a lower ticket price at the 28 participating theaters, and teachers arranged group discounts, allowing about 75,000 kids to see the film, Mr. Lewis said. The group advertised the effort, called Selma for Students, by distributing fliers at schools and libraries.

Few films before "Selma" have focused on Martin Luther King Jr., and it was a desire to teach young people about his important legacy that motivated the business leaders.

"Almost 50 years have gone by, and people think about Martin Luther King more within the context of a textbook," Mr. Lewis said. "I felt this was a great opportunity to grab a bunch of young people who are very much attuned to going to movies, and I thought this would be a very efficient way to introduce them to Dr. King."

They also hoped to impart the significance of the entire civil-rights movement.

"So much had been sacrificed by so many people in order to gain the right to vote," Mr. Lewis said. "There were serious consequences and risks with protesting in the deep South in the ’60s and late ’50s. I wanted young people to really appreciate how courageous those people were."

And because many of the contributors grew up during the era the movie depicts, they wanted to share their experiences.

"Selma was a big deal in our life," Mr. Phillips said. "It was real for us, and it struck us it might not be for someone who’s 7 or 8 or 9."

Replicating Success

Thrilled with how quickly the campaign came together, the group called on business leaders in other cities to replicate their efforts and distributed an outline of exactly how to proceed. By the end of January, money had been raised for 320,000 student tickets.

In Washington, D.C., the March on Washington Film Festival took up the cause. It seemed like a natural fit for the organization, now in its third year of presenting films and performances about the civil-rights era.

"The idea was so powerful," said Robert Raben, festival founder and president of the Raben Group. "It underscores the hunger for this kind of storytelling and narrative."

The fundraising effort, which amassed $115,000 to purchase 11,250 tickets at nine theaters, relied on a network of mostly African-American civic leaders to spread the word in less than a week. They "seemed to feel great about coming together on this cause," Mr. Raben said.

During the promotion’s two-week run, students from D.C. public and charter schools who showed a report card or student ID were admitted to a screening—although Mr. Raben joked that a lot of grandmothers probably were let in, too.

Raben contacted Kaya Henderson, chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, who agreed to develop a curriculum to accompany the film. "It took Kaya Henderson 30 seconds to agree to it," Mr. Raben said. "She put her content people and the head of her logistics on it, and they were off to the races."

In Chicago, After School Matters, a nonprofit that provides extracurricular activities for high-schoolers, raised money to provide free tickets for 10,000 high-school students and developed a study guide for program leaders to use to encourage discussion of the film’s themes. The University of Chicago distributed 1,000 of the tickets through its Neighborhood Schools program.

"What’s remarkable is we sent out an email late on Monday, and by the middle of the day on Tuesday, the tickets had been claimed," said Kim Bolton, the university’s associate director of communications for civic engagement. "There’s clearly a hunger out there for this."

Google Jumps In

The effort also struck a chord with Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the technology company. It has been working with charity crowdfunding website DonorsChoose.org to help teachers pay for field trips to see the film in eight cities where Google has offices or data centers.

"As ‘Selma’ tells the story of one man’s dream that changed the world forever, we’re thrilled to be working with Donors­Choose.org to support field trips that bring Martin Luther King’s message to young dreamers—and future leaders," said Meghan Casserly, corporate communications manager at Google, in an email.

In Tacoma, Wash., 361 students saw the film at a local nonprofit movie theater, thanks to $2,287.50 provided by the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, the Black Collective, and the Tacoma Chapter of the Jewish Voice for Peace. The program has been extended so more students can benefit.

"Movies are a pretty flexible, easy, low-barrier way to start catalytic conversations," said Gina Anstey, director of grants and initiatives for the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation.

Spontaneous Movement

Mr. Lewis and Mr. Phillips attribute the success of the movement to several factors. The idea came during the winter holidays, when their friends were off from work but still checking email. Paramount agreed to tackle the negotiations with the theaters, relieving them of the burden of managing logistics. The concept steered clear of politics and had strong emotional appeal. And it felt familiar to the work they do in their careers.

"I looked at it like doing a deal," Mr. Lewis said. "It was ‘pop-up philanthropy.’ It’s the kind of thing that business people can really relate to. We don’t want it to be something that drags on and on."

Perhaps most important, Mr. Lewis said, was the spontaneity of the movement. From the outset, people were so inspired that they pledged money before setting up a nonprofit or considering tax deductions. . The organizers have since created a nonprofit organization, name to be determined, to coordinate future "pop-up" efforts,

Added Mr. Lewis: "It was philanthropy in the truest and purest sense."

Send an e-mail to Rebecca Koenig.