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Movies / Television

Amnesty's New Cause

In a bid to recruit younger members, the rights group seeks to buff up its image through Hollywood links.

January 06, 2002|DANA CALVO | Times Staff Writer

"For him, it's a real channel for getting out his message of hope for people oppressed everywhere," Ramos-Horta's spokeswoman, Mary Wald, said by phone from outside New York City. "Bonnie also hooked us up with HarperCollins, one of the four big publishers. We're looking into film rights too. Martin Sheen and Emma Thompson have been involved in a project about him before, and he spoke with Andy Garcia about possibly playing him.... This is what Bonnie's getting started here--introducing Jose and East Timor to Hollywood. We're anticipating that great things will come out of it. It's been a really interesting networking thing, where a lot of us have hooked together our East Timor contacts."

Abaunza's campaign, Artists for Amnesty, which will be launched in the next few weeks, is a rebranding of the organization in response to a member survey commissioned three years ago. That research revealed that Amnesty's typical member is much like "ER's" Dr. Carter, except much older--a big problem for a member-supported organization.

"We need to get our message out to people who are not doctoral students," said Dennis R. Palmieri, spokesman for Amnesty International USA. "This outreach is about visibility--about casting that net wider."

For Amnesty folks, that means hanging out with popular young Hollywood stars whose very association with the group will spur high school and college-age students to participate in Amnesty events and send in donations. (Eighty-five percent of Amnesty's budget comes from individual donations of about $50 each.)

Amnesty's membership woes are well known among heads of liberal and progressive nonprofits, said Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a 500,000-member civil rights organization that opened its doors in Montgomery, Ala., in 1971. According to Dees, the typical center member is now almost 60.

"It's been a constant for the past 15 years to try to enlarge the universe you can go to to try to enlist new supporters," he said. "There are a few ways that we bring in new people. The biggest way we try is the Internet.... Unfortunately, the average Internet gift tends to be small."

But Amnesty executives say that they're more than amenable to an influx of modest donations. In fact, one of their new goals is to attract young people through the Internet and through independent film projects that deal with themes of human rights.

Amnesty International began in 1961 as a modest letter-writing campaign to free two Portuguese students who were wrongly imprisoned. By 1977 it had won the Nobel Peace Prize, and by the mid-'80s, students on college campuses across the country were writing letters in protest of South Africa's apartheid policies and the U.S. support of freedom fighters in Central America. Amnesty had tapped into star power, with Susan Sarandon, Sting and Bruce Springsteen anchoring rallies and outdoor concerts. In the 1990s, Amnesty embraced the power of e-mail as a way to blitz human-rights violators, from world leaders to local officials.

But by the late 1990s, when data from the member-profile survey came back, Amnesty executives began to wonder if its logo of a lone candle wrapped in wire could inspire a new crop of activists. There were 1 million members worldwide and a full-time office at the U.N., but it seemed the membership was composed increasingly of the Kent State generation, people whose children seemed to care more about Napster than the plight of women and children smothered by the Taliban.

"We're about building a culture of human rights," spokesman Palmieri said. "And in order for us to do that, we have to be at the epicenter of pop culture."

In February, the Artists for Amnesty campaign will bring to West Hollywood a version of the film festival that is already popular in Seattle.

"These buzz cultivational events work both ways. The studios get a lot out of it. We have definitely enjoyed strong support from the artistic community for a long time," Palmieri said. "What we have not had until now is a structured program to sustain their involvement and meet their needs. In the past, we've done big promotional concerts and screenings to reach out to our celebrity supporters to come out and support our work.... It's been more ad hoc in the past. It's always important to be reaching out to a new generation of artists and a new generation of members. We have to roll with the times."

Abaunza is also putting together Amnesty's first post-Oscar party. Held in conjunction with the city of West Hollywood, the party faces stiff competition from long traditions such as the Governors Ball; the Vanity Fair Oscar party at Morton's; the Spago party (a tradition initiated by literary agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar); Elton John's party; and Miramax's party at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel with host Harvey Weinstein.

"The focus of the guest list is socially conscious, interested, hip people," said Fran Solomon, deputy to West Hollywood Mayor John Heilman. The venue has not been locked down, although Solomon and Abaunza have been meeting with the manager of a popular restaurant-nightclub on Sunset Boulevard to work out a donated space for the evening.

The Amnesty party theme will be "Young Hollywood," and the motive is member recruitment through glitzy press.

There's no telling if these strategies--the prime-time product placement, the film festival or the Oscar party--will have a dramatic effect on Amnesty's membership, but Amnesty is aware it needs to gain ground in a city where almost every A-list actor is already associated, if only for public relations reasons, with a noble cause.

The group will look for an edge Hollywood-style, with good-looking people doing good deeds before well-positioned cameras.

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