When Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" premieres Dec. 8, Warner Bros. will host a gala party following the film. No matter the reviews the film gets, it will be Saint John's Heart Institute that comes up with the big box office.
The premiere, chaired by Judy Ovitz, is yet another example of how Hollywood works--or, at least, how Hollywood makes things work. Ovitz is the wife of super-agent Michael Ovitz, and as such has the gracefully exercised pull to put together an underwritten premiere for one of her favorite charities.
Not as easy a job as it used to be, since the studios aren't as forthcoming with the cash necessary to put on the lavish, puffy parties--especially with costs and scope escalating yearly. The couple became involved with Saint John's Hospital & Health Center in Santa Monica more than five years ago, Judy Ovitz explained, when they and other Malibu residents pushed for an emergency medical outpost in their community. "We definitely said we would support them," she continued. And in a powerful quid pro quo, they helped put together the "Ghostbusters" premiere five years ago--featuring the Columbia film that starred several of Ovitz's clients from Creative Artists Agency.
This year, the ticket price has gone to $300--the same as that for the Dec. 15 premiere of MGM's "Overboard," which will benefit Cedars-Sinai Women's Guild. That group got charities into the premiere-and-supper party business back in 1957, when they netted $50,000 from "Kings Go Forth."
What studios will underwrite for a charity depends on several factors--the power of the film and the potency of the charity involved being two major parts of the decision. It can cost what one experienced party-giver said could be as low as a $30,000 event at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. (There was one such benefit set for Tuesday night's "Baby Boom," for Tripod, a nonprofit organization committed to helping families raise their deaf children in an informed and positive way.)
But the cost can go up from there, to a $75,000 bash at the Palladium to a giganda gala re-creating the environment of the film and costing from $125,000 to $200,000. (Another Saint John's benefit, that for "Out of Africa," turned the Century Plaza Ballroom into a setting similar to that of the men's club in the film, while the party following the premiere of "Ishtar" last spring, benefiting Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times, saw a Mid-Eastern bazaar grow up in the middle of Century City.
Rarely do the studios pick up the whole tab--but for the bigger films, they can be very generous. One Cedars-Sinai Women's Guild board member explained that the studio could usually be counted on to cover everything from the lighting and decorations to the red carpet--but frequently not the food itself.
For the "Empire of the Sun" party, Judy Ovitz said, the theme of the party, to be held in a tent on a UCLA parking lot, would reflect the Shanghai of the early 1940s--"an Oriental atmosphere, but very British."
Ovitz this year serves also as party co-chairman for the Women's Guild's Dec. 15 event--and a longtime board member said she was very helpful in getting the Goldie Hawn-Kurt Russell film to be shown then.
Some studios, like Disney, do only a few premieres--and usually there is a tie-in to the studio, like the June, 1986 party for California Institute of the Arts with the premiere of "Ruthless People." According to Arleen Ludwig, West Coast director for publicity for Disney, there is a "basic company policy that we don't do a lot of benefit screenings." She pointed to the benefit premiere of "Color of Money," which went to the Scott Newman Foundation--a likely choice since it was Paul Newman's film.
When "Leonard Part Six," Bill Cosby's film, comes out in mid-December, there will be a series of premieres, maybe as many as 15, across the country--all benefiting the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. "The goal for Columbia is obviously to earn as much money for the charity as is possible," Hollis David, director of special events for the studio, explained. In some cities, like New York, a lavish event is planned. In some others the studio will make a print of the film available, but do little else.
This past year, the American Film Institute Associates premiered "Roxanne" (they had earlier done "Silverado") and, again, the board was and is composed of those with strong ties to the film community. At "Roxanne" and "Ishtar," a vineyard donated the champagne. "It was visibility for them with the kind of crowd they were looking for," David explained, "and again, it's a way to have the dollars go where they should go."
The connections that put together charities and films are not new. When "Funny Girl," one of the most anticipated films of all times, came out in 1968, it was natural that it would be premiered by the Women's Guild, since board member Fran Stark is the daughter of Fanny Brice and her husband, Ray Stark, produced the movie. "We do make use of the people who know their way around the film industry," said board member Ruth Fox, who pointed out that founding members of the Guild included Rosalind Russell and Anita May. She also pointed out that a certain kind of film was needed--"A big film. A happy film, so that when people come out of it, they are in the mood for a party."
Richard Attenborough has a particular fondness for UNICEF, so when Columbia premiered "Gandhi" several years ago, that charity was involved. And that connection will be revived later this fall, when Attenborough's film for Universal, "Cry Freedom," is premiered.