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The Season of Giving in Hollywood

Movies * In the fall, Tinseltown players open their hearts and wallets at A-list fund-raisers. Making people happy with the seating chart is another story.

October 18, 2000|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Filmmakers Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich ("The Patriot") have been generous contributors to the Dinner of Champions, the yearly fund-raising banquet for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. But Tom Sherak, the Hollywood executive who is the driving force behind the dinner, noticed last year that for some reason the pair had made less than their usual donation.

A longtime 20th Century Fox executive who recently left the studio to join Joe Roth's new Revolution Studios, Sherak is not someone who takes no--or less than a gung-ho yes--for an answer. He called Devlin, who told him he was looking forward to seeing Sherak at the dinner.

That's when Sherak, a master fund-raiser who's not afraid to use his clout--he has a huge photo from "The Godfather" on the wall behind his desk--baited the hook. "Actually, you won't be seeing me," he said. Why not? asked Devlin. "Because from where you'll be sitting," Sherak replied, "you'll need binoculars to see anything near the stage."

Devlin laughed and quickly agreed to increase his contribution. He got the message.

In Hollywood, a town dominated by golden-tongued hustlers and artful deal-makers, raising money for charity involves just as much moxie, arm-twisting and salesmanship as persuading a movie studio to greenlight a downbeat drama without a bankable film star.

Money is a big story in Hollywood, but usually only when it comes to $100-million budgets, opening-weekend box-office receipts and sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom. But the entertainment industry also provides significant support for a wide array of charities, contributions often schmeared with the grease of longtime personal relationships. And because it's Hollywood, every aspect of the fund-raising game--be it recruiting honorees and soliciting money or plotting seating arrangements--is practiced with as much zeal and competitive spirit as a bidding war for a hot new script.

Many of the industry bigwigs chosen as honorees are not only willing to solicit contributions, but eager to raise more money than an industry rival did the year before.

"Their reputations are on the line," says Adlai Wertman, chairman of the board of Chrysalis, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping economically disadvantaged people gain employment. "We've found that our honorees get very involved. They don't want to be the person whose fund-raising effort fell short."

While charities raise money all year long, fall is the hot season for entertainment industry-oriented charity dinners: From late September to late October, the industry calendar is crowded with five major events, all including honorees with A-list show-business pedigrees.

Chrysalis held its awards dinner Sept. 28, honoring film producer Marc Abraham. The MS Dinner of Champions, held Oct. 3, honored Sony Pictures Chairman Amy Pascal. The Fulfillment Fund, a mentoring program that provides college scholarships for at-risk youth, had its dinner Oct. 7, the honoree being Disney President Robert Iger. The music-industry chapter of the City of Hope, an organization dedicated to preventing, treating and curing cancer and other diseases, honors Frances Preston, president of BMI, a leading music performance rights society, on Thursday. And on Sunday, Universal Studios Chairman Stacey Snider will be honored by the Special Olympics.

It's no secret that the honorees are largely chosen for their ability to attract sizable contributions. In show biz, clout counts, which in the past occasionally led to questionable award selections. One low point was the 1973 Man of the Year award given by the United Jewish Appeal to the late record mogul Morris Levy. Though he was a tireless fund-raiser for the charity, Levy was also a longtime frontman for the mob in the music industry who eventually went to prison after being convicted on two counts of conspiracy to commit extortion.

At the end of the UJA banquet, emcee Joe Smith, then a top executive at Warner Bros., thanked the audience for coming, quipping, "I just got word from two of Morris' friends on the West Coast that my wife and two children have been released."

Today's charities put a higher priority on good citizenship. In fact, Hollywood is such fertile fund-raising territory that some charities have redirected their focus to take advantage of the entertainment industry's deep pockets and energetic attitude. Many national charities have entertainment industry "chapters" that specialize in show-biz fund-raising.

"You go to Hollywood because it's where the money is," explains Wertman, a longtime investment banker now in private investment. "This is a town where one industry is so dominant that it's almost a breach of your fiduciary duty not to get that industry involved in your cause. But you also look to Hollywood as a place to help us market ourselves and tell our story."

When Giving Money, It's Who You Know

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