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Do the Right Thing

Hollywood's newest rich kid is financing movies, a magazine and other ventures he thinks can make a difference. Douglas McGray hangs out with Ben Goldhirsh.

July 23, 2006|Douglas McGray | Douglas McGray is a contributing writer for West and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

"For a long time I thought I'd go into politics," he says now. "But who really has more influence: a congressman or Rupert Murdoch?" As much as anything, it is a comment on his generation--ambivalent about Democrats and Republicans, but likely to volunteer, buy socially responsible goods and be steeped in media. Bristol came to Hollywood with similar ambitions. Al too: "I didn't want to work in government," Al says, "but I wanted to effect change. The cultural arena provides just as good an opportunity." Ben, though, had the cash to act on that impulse. "There's an emerging culture of giving a damn among young people," he says. "We just want to offer a platform for that."

He dropped out of USC, and soon he and his professor were budgeting $30 million of his inheritance. At the last minute, Ben balked. "It was a harebrained number," he admits. And hiring a bunch of old guys to make movies with his dad's money? "This wasn't earning it." Instead, he hired his classmate Chris, and the two of them moved into an office on Sony's lot. They reviewed a lot of scripts that seemed unlikely to change the world. And they got bored. So they took one of Ben's political science papers from college and recast it as a documentary about the global condition--race, poverty, religion, gender, violence, celebrity--told through the story of six World Cup teams. They started coming in earlier and sleeping at the office. And Ben set to work convincing his skeptical trustees that this movie business was serious, and expensive. "Here's a kid who inherited a [expletive] of money," Ben laughs. "And he lives in Hollywood. Working 16 hours days and sleeping on the couch is probably not what came to their minds."

After months of hustling, Ben persuaded Michael Apted, creator of the "7-Up" documentary series, to direct the soccer picture, which is now shooting on five continents. "They were very savvy in choosing Michael," says Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich's producing partner, who sought out Ben to talk about collaborating in the future. "Or as they put it, 'an old guy,' which I thought was completely adorable." The film, still unnamed, may premiere at Sundance next year. Then comes "Marching Powder," a Don Cheadle movie about drugs, prison and community, coproduced with Brad Pitt's company, Plan B, and more than half a dozen other projects, from a gang film about civil rights to a comedy about globalization.

But films take forever to produce, and Ben gets restless in a long meeting. Take "Marching Powder": "It's shocking how long we've been working, and we don't have a script yet," he says after marking up a draft with the writer and a guy from Plan B. "I'm about to kill myself." And after spending so much time making movies, he began to see their limitations, at least as his sole vehicle to do good. He can manage to release only a few films a year, and that makes it pretty hard to sustain any kind of public conversation, much less push a Reason Pictures worldview, especially because nobody outside the film industry pays attention to production credits.

"I was like, Good magazine," he says. "That's dope!"

That was it--he called his college roommate and his best friend from high school, who brought in another guy from their teenage crowd, and a few months later, Reason Pictures had a spinoff. They hired designers and consultants, and recruited smart young writers such as James Surowiecki, Gary Shteyngart and Minna Proctor for a September launch. Good magazine will offer a hipster take on the world of energy, organic food, sweatshop-free fashion, politics, indie culture, do-gooder business and green living. All subscription fees will go to one of 12 Good-approved nonprofits--the subscriber gets to choose--including Ashoka, which gives micro-grants to promote social entrepreneurs around the world; City Year, a sort of domestic Peace Corps; and UNICEF. The donation scheme will cost Ben $1 million, but he hopes it will reduce his publicity expenses. (And if it doesn't, oh well, it's charity.) That kind of bold altruism is winning him powerful admirers and protectors. "He's passionate and deeply concerned about the world," says television legend Norman Lear, a kind of mentor to Ben and, along with author David Halberstam, a board member at Good. "I don't know where it comes from, but I marvel at it."

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