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by Jaap den Haan Wednesday, Apr. 04, 2007 at 2:12 PM

The new philanthropy

In the world of powerful media figures, the latest trend is making documentary films to highlight urgent problems in the world. Albie Hecht, former president of the cable television channel Nickelodeon, is a good example. Hecht has consistently been a generous contributor to children’s’ charities, but when he became concerned about the plight of young African war refugees, he decided to try something new. Hecht financed a documentary about schoolchildren in Uganda who compete in a national music contest in the midst of the traumatic 20-year civil war in that country. The film, ‘War/Dance’ won the award for best documentary directing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

Others have followed suit. Since the release of Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, which illustrates the causes and effects of global warming, the documentary film marketplace has seen a surge of financial backers like Hecht. The Los Angeles Times calls them “filmanthropists.” Although their individual goals may vary, each has used a nonfiction film to call attention to social injustices or government corruption, or even to present a different view of historical events in the interest of forgiveness and reconciliation.

These investors are not passive about their projects; one reason for taking this route is so that they can control both the process and the message. Ted Leonsis, Vice Chairman of the online service-provider America Online, financed “Nanking” in 2005. The film documents efforts by a group of Westerners to save thousands of Chinese civilians from being massacred by Japanese soldiers during the buildup to World War II. His ultimate goal with the film is to foster a Sino-Japanese cultural détente.

Likewise, Endgame Entertainment Chief Executive James D. Stern, who normally backs Broadway musicals, financed and co-directed “… So Goes the Nation” in 2006. The documentary exposes the political machinations that ultimately tipped the key state of Ohio in favour of George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election. “I thought the story could be incendiary,” he said. “But as a director, this is a story I was very interested in telling.”

According to Mark Urman, head of the theatrical division of ThinkFilms, the distribution company for ‘War/Dance,’ this form of philanthropy runs contrary to the normal Hollywood paradigm of profits before people. “While there’s 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 cheque, you can make a feature film exposing an ill or advancing things about human endeavour.” He adds that documentaries take much less time to make than fiction movies, so they can be more responsive to pressing public concerns.

Some believe the growth of filmanthropy has much to do with the increasing profitability of documentary films. ‘The March of the Penguins,’ for example, cost million to make, but eventually made 2 million in profits worldwide. Filmanthropists, however, insist that it is their hearts that drive their decisions rather than money. Charles Ferguson, for instance, who created the technology for Microsoft Front Page software, and sold it for 3 million in 1996, says he spent a “significant fraction” of that fortune to finance his first film, ‘No End in Sight,’ an Iraq war documentary he wrote and directed. Ferguson, like other filmanthropists, hopes his film will bring policy changes.

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