Awards Watch: Golden Globes preview

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Last summer, Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan had a problem. LACMA's 40-year-old weekend film program was in trouble, due to declining attendance, lack of donor involvement and a mission that seemed disconnected from the rest of the museum. Govan decided it would be best to suspend the museum's film screenings and rebuild the program so it better fit LACMA's core curatorial art program.

"My thought was maybe if I reorganized it, maybe we could get more support," Govan explains, not expecting the public outcry that ensued. "It was a program that needed attention, and we got plenty of attention."

Soon after LACMA announced it was shutting down the weekend screenings, the protests started rolling in. The local press and blogosphere decried the fact that Los Angeles' premier cultural institution was abandoning an art form so critical to the city, while LACMA pointed out support for the film series hadn't received anywhere near the patronage of other programs.

But within a week, two financial angels appeared out of nowhere; Time Warner Cable, in partnership with its cable network Ovation TV, ponied up $75,000, along with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which donated an additional $75,000. Suddenly, the film program was back in business through 2010.

"I was so touched these new sources had stepped forward so quickly," Govan says. "It not only helped the program keep going this year, but sent the message it was worth supporting."

A deep-pocketed company like Time Warner Cable getting involved is understandable, but the HFPA? It turns out charity is nothing new for the group that organizes the Golden Globes. During the past decade, the HFPA has used its nonprofit status and sizable revenue to donate more than $10 million to a host of media-related charities, including this year's first-time donation to LACMA.

"The timing was perfect," Govan says. "It didn't take six months. Whatever decision-making process they had was wonderful."

While the LACMA donation was a rapid response to a pressing need, the majority of the HFPA's donations are granted only after a formal process, according to HFPA president Philip Berk.

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Each year the HFPA president forms a subcommittee from the 14-member board of trustees. "They go through all the proposals," Berk says. "And if they have received grants in the previous year, they make sure they lived up to our expectations."

When the Golden Globes returned to broadcast television in the mid-1990s, the HFPA found itself with millions of dollars in revenue from the celebrity-laden awards show. According to Berk, a tax attorney advised the organization to form a charitable trust, which requires 5% of gross income be given away every year. "Of course we've given more than that, but that's where it all began," Berk explains, noting the HFPA doles out about 25% of its annual income to charitable giving, an amount that came to more than $1.3 million in 2009 for 30 different organizations.

The HFPA's giving breaks down into roughly five different areas: higher education; professional training and mentoring; preprofessional training; film history and preservation; and the promotion of cultural exchange through film. In 2009 the biggest recipient was the Film Foundation, which received $350,000 to help restore a film that will be approved by the HFPA.

Margaret Bodde, Film Foundation's executive director, says besides remastering Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1948 classic "The Red Shoes" (which screened this year at Sundance), funds from the HFPA during the past 13 years have helped restore a number of films, including Orson Welles' "MacBeth," Jean Renoir's "The Diary of a Chambermaid," plus two Jon Cassavetes films, "Faces" and "Shadows." Bodde calls the HFPA "an ideal partner for us. Here's a group that loves cinema, that believes film is art and believes in its preservation as a cultural imperative."

The HFPA's giving also reflects its international focus. A longtime supporter of the Sundance Institute, HFPA funds helped launch Sundance Film Festival's international documentary section in 2003, while in 2004 money went to inaugurate the first-ever Sundance world cinema competition. But since 2006 the HFPA has played a role in assisting emerging international filmmakers, according to Ken LaZebnick, the Sundance Institute's associate director of foundations. This summer, the HFPA helped bankroll an international producers summit, which brought emerging filmmakers and producers from around the world for a series of panels and workshops.

"They are very aware of individual films and filmmakers," LaZebnick says. "They are very present at the festival each year. They really do track very carefully the work their money supports."

While the HFPA donates money for fellowships at such established university film programs as UCLA, Columbia, NYU, AFI and CalArts, the group's interest in preprofessional training also opens the door to support organizations like the Ghetto Film School in New York. Each year the Ghetto Film School accepts 20 teenagers into a rigorous program that has them making six-minute, non­dialogue shorts, the best of which are then screened at Lincoln Center.

"This is a select group of kids," Ghetto Film School president Joe Hall says. "This is not for everybody, it is very demanding."

The HFPA has funded both the Lincoln Center screenings and Ghetto Film School's fellows program, which gives the teens a "complete introduction to cinematic storytelling," Hall says.

For Hall, the HFPA's involvement goes beyond financial support. "A lot of time people give you money and that's it -- which is great-- but they have definitely been able to kind of help us think strategically where to grow. They give us a platform."

In particular Hall points to the HFPA's annual August installation luncheon, where the organization celebrates the selection of new officers and board members, in addition to recognizing the different charities receiving funds for the year.

"It's great to be sitting at the table next to the new head of the Sundance Film Festival," Hall says. "I mean, we're from the Bronx."

LaZebnick remembers being at Hall's table as one of Sundance's representatives. "I had not been familiar with their organization before," he admits, adding that the annual luncheon "brings together this widely disparate group of people in a setting to meet and greet folks you might not otherwise get a chance to talk to."

For an organization that is sometimes derided by its detractors for not being legitimate, the HFPA's status within the industry gives recipients much needed credibility when it comes to their mission and additional funds. Steve Mendelsohn of Film Aid International says his group falls into that category. A nonprofit that sponsors international film screenings in African refugee camps, Film Aid also trains refugees to make their own films on subjects as varied as conflict prevention to health issues.

"Their support goes a lot further than just the money they give us," Mendelsohn says. "Whenever I give presentations to other potential donors, they are always impressed that the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. is a supporter, and a continuous supporter."

The Film Foundation's Bodde agrees, noting the HFPA serves as a bridge between her organization and the larger film audience who is interested in the foundation's work. "Just by the association, it helps us with the goal of raising awareness of film preservation," she says. "Putting out there the notion that film needs to be preserved, they are a perfect partner to get that message out to the general public."

Berk notes that in the current financial environment, the need to give is greater than ever. He says the HFPA engages in a "healthy debate" about who to give to, but there are limits. "We cannot heal all the financial problems each state or private college is going through, so we try to do our best," he says. "And we are aware there are many other worthy organizations that will be as deserving as the ones we give money to, but you have to make some choices."

Former HFPA president and board member Lorenzo Soria has been one of the HFPA members who does the detective work on potential recipients, making sure they qualify as nonprofits and have the ability to use HFPA funds wisely. A sometimes arduous task, Soria doesn't relish that element of philanthropic giving, but other benefits more than make up for all the hard work.

"The most rewarding part of the process," Soria says, "is when two years later, you receive a letter from a student at UCLA or Cal State saying, 'Thank you guys, without you I would not have been able to finish my studies, or not finish my little film, and here is a DVD of what I did.' That's the most rewarding and pleasant part of the job."
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