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GIVING / A weekly look at those who help.

A Charitable Role

Stars always shine at Hollywood's high-profile fund-raisers. But such events aren't quite what they seem.

May 25, 1999|SEAN MITCHELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Almost every night, it sometimes seems, Hollywood's top performers, producers and moguls don black tie and Versace gown and gather in a hotel ballroom on the West Side to salute the humanitarian accomplishments of one of their own. Piles of money are raised for charity, and the image is conveyed to the public that Hollywood is generously giving back to the community some of the billions it collects for keeping the nation entertained. But the deeper truth of this scenario, as in so many movies, is not quite what it at first appears.

"The disease people started this," explains Marge Tobankin, an experienced nonprofit administrator who oversees private charitable foundations for Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg. "It works like this: You find a celebrity who agrees to be honored and attract a crowd of professional peers. Twenty-five percent of the audience will be there because they believe in the organization, and the rest are there because they feel it's part of doing business," commonly paying up to $2,500 a table. "It's a quid pro quo. Everybody knows the honoree is a shill to bring in their friends. It's just a matter of, do they care enough about the cause to let themselves be used?"

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 26, 1999 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Name misspelled--The name of Marge Tabankin, a nonprofit administrator who oversees private charitable foundations for Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg, was misspelled in Tuesday's Southern California Living section.

For thousands who work in the industry, the tidal pull of charity dinner invitations is the practical necessity of remaining in favor with anyone who might make your next movie or TV show happen. To the charity being served, the varied motives of those assembled may not matter, but to anyone assessing Hollywood's nontraditional way of giving, it's another story: the difference between true philanthropy and cause-related marketing.

"Philanthropy is underrepresented in Hollywood," says Torie Osborn, executive director of the local Liberty Hill Foundation, a progressive organization committed to "social and economic justice" that carries the slogan "Change Not Charity" and whose Hollywood donors tend to be younger writers and directors. "There's not enough long-term, sustained giving. The giving here is so often event-driven, tied to individual people's causes and trendy charities, built around a particular star."

Liberty Hill, by contrast, gave out $1.4 million in grants last year to small organizations like the Bus Riders Union and the Living Wage Coalition and sponsored briefings for its members on gang violence and "politics and spirituality."

People disagree about whether Hollywood as a whole is more or less charitable than other sectors of wealth in America (a total dollar comparison is impossible because of the factor of anonymous giving), but some would say the entertainment industry reflects the vehement individualism and undeveloped noblesse oblige of its home state, recently ranked 48th in the nation in charitable giving by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

"It's a very generous industry, though a lot of gifts you will never hear about," says Lisa Paulsen, president of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, Hollywood's answer to the United Way, a payroll-deduction agency maintained by the studios and networks that raised $14.8 million last year for 220 Southern California charities.

Yet except for Walt Disney Co.'s corporate donation, the Hollywood community was notably absent from the long and arduous fund-raising campaign for the new Philharmonic home, Disney Hall. It's hard not to contrast this with the days when Lew Wasserman marshaled his considerable resources and those of his friends in support of the "hospital to the stars," now Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

High Salaries and High Profiles

When accusations of stinginess are heard, the excuse is given that even "old" Hollywood money is comparatively new by East Coast standards and that entertainment fortunes are notoriously insecure. Still, with actors like Tom Cruise and Jim Carrey pulling down $20 million a picture and Disney chief Michael Eisner earning in one year a salary of more than $500 million, the public is apt to wonder what percentage of those sums is being earmarked for good works.

Two years ago, Eisner did divert $89 million in Disney stock to start his own family foundation with the stated goal of providing financial support for children with learning disabilities. Thus far the foundation is still in its infancy, but its president, Laura Hobart, says that in 1999 the Eisner Foundation will give away at least 5% of its assets, as required by law and the IRS.

Eisner's former second-in-command and former Creative Artists Agency chief Michael Ovitz two years ago pledged $25 million to his alma mater, UCLA, but critics have asked why he didn't just write a check after bagging a reported $100-million settlement from Disney when he and Eisner parted ways.

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