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Movies shoot for change

Powerful media players aren't just giving to charities, they're making documentaries that seek to spotlight causes and bring about results.

February 14, 2007|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

ALBIE HECHT is an old hand at philanthropy. The former Nickelodeon president who greenlighted such hits as "SpongeBob SquarePants" has long been generous to children's charities. He has produced public service announcements and telethons, organized community outreach projects and created the Big Help, a campaign aimed at getting kids to participate in community service.

But when Hecht became concerned about the plight of young African war refugees, he decided to try something new: He financed a documentary about Ugandan schoolchildren who are struggling with the ravages of that country's 20-year civil war while competing in a national music contest.

His film, "War/Dance," won the documentary directing award at the Sundance Film Festival last month.

"I was at Viacom for 13 years being a big producer," Hecht said. "Having gone through that, I really wanted ... to do something personal."

As it turns out, he is one of many media big shots who are trying to "make a difference" with a small, personally realized documentary.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 16, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Documentaries: An article in Section A on Wednesday about activist-backed documentaries misidentified the name of the movie production and distribution company ThinkFilm as ThinkFilms.

In the eight months since Al Gore's global-warming wake-up call, "An Inconvenient Truth," was released, the documentary film marketplace has exploded with backers like Hecht.

Call them "filmanthropists." They have deep pockets and issue-driven agendas. Rather than make high-class dramas that might carry some mild social message, these producers are turning out full-blown advocacy movies.

Although their individual aims may be different, each has used a nonfiction film to shine a spotlight on social injustices, or government malfeasance, and even to recast history in the service of human uplift and national reconciliation.

Almost without fail, filmanthropists have done well financially before deciding it is time to do good. But they are not passive about their investment. They want to control the process and the message.

AMERICA ONLINE Vice Chairman Ted Leonsis, for one, in 2005 self-financed "Nanking," which documents a group of Westerners' heroic efforts to save thousands of Chinese civilians from massacre by Japanese soldiers during the buildup to World War II.

"What I didn't want to be was dumb money," said Leonsis, who came across his subject matter while on vacation in the Caribbean. "This is my story. I'm going to put the team together. I'm going to learn the whole industry. And when the film is done, I'm going to feel like this is my movie."

EBay co-founder Jeff Skoll launched a new company, Participant Productions, in 2004 to make socially crusading films. So far it has produced "Murderball" (about hard-charging wheelchair rugby players), "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Chicago 10" (about antiwar protesters who were put on trial after the 1968 Democratic National Convention), among others.

Endgame Entertainment Chief Executive James D. Stern, better known for backing Broadway musicals such as "Hairspray" and movies including "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle," earned his film philanthropy stripes by financing and co-directing "... So Goes the Nation" in 2006. The $2-million documentary deals with the political machinations that ultimately tipped the battleground state of Ohio in favor of George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election.

"I thought the story could be incendiary," Stern said. "There are some films I do that I'm not emotionally invested in. But as a director, this is a story I was very interested in telling."

Actors turned producers Brad Pitt, Dermot Mulroney and Catherine Keener combined efforts to produce, along with others, "God Grew Tired of Us," a documentary chronicling a group of Sudanese teenagers who fled starvation and genocide in their homeland only to be shocked and bewildered by consumer culture in the United States. The film reached theaters last month.

"This came together because we're a bunch of friends who care about the world and wanted to support a project depicting reality in Sudan," Mulroney said at the film's premiere.

ACCORDING to Mark Urman, head of the theatrical division of ThinkFilms, the company that will distribute "War/Dance" next fall, filmanthropy runs contrary to Hollywood's typical mind-set that puts profits far ahead of any social action.

"While there has always been a great deal of philanthropy in the film business, this is a new iteration: relatively inexperienced people entrenched in another part of the industry making accomplished feature films," he said. "Rather than write a check, you can make a feature film exposing an ill or advancing things about human endeavor."

He added: "Fiction movies take so long to make. Documentaries can be more responsive to the zeitgeist. Look at 'Fahrenheit 9/11.' That was made to get a guy out of the White House."

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