“We have benefitted greatly from this industry,” says Cheryl Saban. “For us, it’s important to give back.” She and husband Haim were photographed June 17 outside the Academy Museum in Los Angeles, now set to open in 2020.
“We have benefitted greatly from this industry,” says Cheryl Saban. “For us, it’s important to give back.” She and husband Haim were photographed June 17 outside the Academy Museum in Los Angeles, now set to open in 2020.
Photographed by Damon Casarez

How to Give Away $420 Million: Cheryl and Haim Saban on Hollywood Philanthropy, Israel and 2020 Politics

The outspoken media moguls, who have pledged much of their $3.2  billion fortune to charity, reveal how they select causes like women’s empowerment, healthcare and a $50 million gift to the Academy Museum — and which presidential candidate might win their support (hint: it’s not "disaster zone" Bernie Sanders).

Haim Saban approaches a large oak table in a boardroom of his Saban Family Foundation, trailed by staffers and a security guard. Wearing a black Lacoste polo shirt and black track pants, the 74-year-old immigrant turned music and media entrepreneur turned billionaire turned philanthropist settles into a leather chair. Not the one at head of the table. That belongs to his wife of 31 years, Cheryl Saban, who serves as the president and driving force of the far-reaching foundation, which since its launch in 2000 has donated a staggering $420 million to some 1,000 causes and institutions, including Children's Hospital Los Angeles, The Rape Treatment Center, Birthright Israel and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.

"I've never been a vice president. Ever. Always chairman," Haim says with a chuckle as he nods at his spouse, equally casual in a jean jacket and black T-shirt and sporting two wrist tattoos — a snowflake and the Hebrew word L'Chaim. The only visible sign of affluence is a diamond-encrusted peace pendant draped around her neck.

Their offices, occupying the top two floors of a Century City high-rise overlooking the Los Angeles Country Club, which for years did not welcome Jewish members, prominently display a red Power Rangers helmet, a reminder of how the Sabans amassed their fortune. In 1988, Haim launched Saban Entertainment and, after a business trip to Tokyo, endeavored to bring the Japanese series Super Sentai to Western audiences, thus spawning the global TV hit Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (he has twice owned and sold the Power Rangers franchise, which has generated more than $6 billion in toy sales). Eight years after Saban Entertainment's inception, he merged the L.A.-based company with Fox Children's Productions to form Fox Family Worldwide. That joint venture with News Corp. — which included Fox Family Channel, Fox Kids international channels in Europe and Latin America, and Saban Entertainment's library of 6,500 episodes of animated and other family programs — was sold in 2001 to The Walt Disney Co. for $5.3 billion. The deal set the Sabans on their next mission: to give a big hunk of their fortune to causes, both here and in Israel.

"The basic strategy is 50-50. Meaning for every dollar we give in America, we give a dollar in Israel," he explains. "I was an immigrant twice, once from Egypt to Israel. Israel opened her arms and took me in. And America opened her arms, and I'm an American citizen now."

With an estimated net worth of $3.2 billion, which includes a major stake in Spanish-language media giant Univision, where he serves as chairman, the Sabans have given more than 13 percent of their wealth to charity, a figure that does not include tens of millions of dollars in political donations. In addition to being two of Hollywood's most active and visible philanthropists, the couple also is one of the largest donors to the Democratic Party, which is why all eyes are on who they will back in the 2020 presidential election. After the first debates, they remained undecided.

"We love all 23 candidates," Haim says, then pauses. "No, minus one. I profoundly dislike Bernie Sanders, and you can write it. I don't give a hoot. He's a communist under the cover of being a socialist. He thinks that every billionaire is a crook. He calls us 'the billionaire class.' And he attacks us indiscriminately. 'It's the billionaire class, the bad guys.' This is how communists think. So, 22 are great. One is a disaster zone."

Cheryl's position at the head of the table is not symbolic. Armed with a binder 4 inches thick that details all of their grants and how the money is being spent by each recipient, she serves as the day-to-day liaison with the foundation's full-time staff of five.

"Haim is cute. He's like at 40,000 feet with this stuff, you know. We're down on the runway," says Cheryl, 68. "If we're going to give a million dollars, then it's going to be very well calculated. We will know the impact, we will know the plan, and we will get reports. We believe in following the money and making sure that if we're going to give big gifts, there is accountability."

Among their biggest is the $50 million — or as Haim notes, "a shitload" — that the couple gave to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the largest donation to the complex now rising on Wilshire Boulevard and scheduled to open in 2020. They've also made similar donations to Children's Hospital Los Angeles ($50 million) and Friends of the IDF (more than $55 million).

"We're not that rich. We're not like Larry Ellison or Bill Gates or Jeffrey Bezos," he says. "We're not in that league, but we're doing OK."

***

In 2017, Disney CEO Bob Iger joined Haim for breakfast at the Sabans' Beverly Hills estate. As chair of the Academy Museum's fundraising campaign, Iger made a simple proposition: For $50 million, the Saban name would grace the envisioned facility's facade.

"I thought to myself, 'Is he out of his freaking mind?' No," Haim says. "I said, 'Well, let me think about it.' "

Iger says he realized it was a long shot given the Sabans' domestic giving has skewed more toward health care and female empowerment (like the USC Center for Applied Molecular Medicine, Girls Who Code or Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, for which they were the largest individual donors, surpassing even George Soros). But the couple did bankroll the Center for Health and Wellness at the Motion Picture Television Fund (more than $10 million) and the Media Center at the Television Academy ($5 million-plus), so Iger saw an opening. "He told me it wasn't necessarily keeping with the Sabans' philanthropic strategy, but he promised to get back to me in a few days," Iger says.

Haim discussed the proposal with Cheryl, who advised, " 'Are you crazy not to? It's your legacy.' " Haim recounts. "Then I went and I opened the dictionary to see what it means, 'legacy.' " True to his word, Haim got back to Iger quickly and said yes.

"I was actually kind of surprised," Iger explains. "We were raising a fair amount of money, but clearly a gift of this size opens a lot of people's eyes. It just gets attention."

Cheryl's mindset on the matter was simple. "We have benefitted greatly from this industry," she says. "For us, it's important to give back."

***

Cheryl and Haim met in 1986 — she was his assistant — and married a year later. It was his first marriage, her third. (The couple has a grown son and daughter plus two daughters from Cheryl's first marriage.) Though they hail from notably different backgrounds, each experienced financial hard times growing up.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, where Jews faced persecution, Haim fled to Israel as a child. His father sold pencils door to door. "Erasers, too," he jokes. "We didn't have food. Forget about giving."

But Cheryl counters her husband's characterization, offering a story told to her by Haim's late mother, who lived to be 102. As a boy, he was given a box of chocolates as a rare birthday gift. He passed the box around, and everybody got a piece but him. As Cheryl offers this anecdote, he begins to remember the day and beams at his wife.

"Hey, she likes me," he says.

Perhaps in an effort to further impress Cheryl, Haim launches into a denunciation of those who are unwilling to part with their riches. "There's a multibillionaire who will remain nameless who said, 'I'm not Santa Claus,' when he was asked to contribute to a hospital," he remarks with an air of incredulity. "I said, 'I want to be Santa Claus.' Some people, no matter how much money they have, they want to keep it for themselves. They think they're going to take it with them to the next adventure. Or, you can say, 'I know how difficult it is to be in that position, so we're going to help.' "

After high school, his fortunes quickly turned as Haim, a self-described "lousy" musician who plays the guitar and bass, began managing bands in Israel and Europe and built one of Israel's premier touring companies. In 1975, he relocated to France and established H.S. Records, which became a major player among European indies, selling more than 18 million records in eight years. In 1983, he moved to Los Angeles and launched a chain of recording studios and a production company that became Saban Entertainment.

Cheryl describes her upbringing in San Diego as "very lower middle class." Her father, a veteran, started out as a pole climber for the telephone company, making $25 a week. He worked his way up to engineer but raised his three children on a salary that never exceeded $30,000 a year. The family wasn't particularly religious but donated their time and energy to charitable works at their Lutheran church.

"We would find ways to give back to our community that didn't require money," she says.

She remains a hands-on benefactor. This morning, at the foundation's weekly staff meeting, she fields pitches from the staff, constantly asking for specifics. She sparks to Homeboy Industries, the nonprofit that helps ex-gang members move on with their lives, specifically its violence intervention program.

"I want to consider that for a big donation," she says. "We need to go to the site again and see it."

There is a guiding principle to their philanthropy, with nearly all of their causes falling into five silos: health care, Los Angeles cultural and civic vitality, female empowerment, veterans and strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.

On the spot in this meeting, she commits $100,000 for The Rape Foundation's annual brunch, the highest donation level available. "I was raped when I was 18, and I was revictimized by the police," she said earlier that day, perched on a chair in her office, pictures of her extended family hanging on the wall in front of her. "They knew my rapist was a bad guy because they had paper on him, but they said, 'You're wearing these jeans and these peasant blouses. You're just sort of asking for it.' Eventually, you overcome all of this stuff, and I did. It took me time. We started getting involved with the Rape Treatment Center here, and that was 27 years ago."

It's through that UCLA-housed nonprofit that Cheryl first intersected with former Paramount CEO Sherry Lansing, who had become involved after producing the 1988 film The Accused. "It's not like she just writes the checks," says Lansing, herself a major philanthropist and now one of Cheryl's closest friends. "She does the work. It's never about self-aggrandizement."

Cheryl, a trained psychologist, author of several self-help and children's books, a former U.N. delegate and a glassware designer with a studio in El Segundo, once trained to be a "cuddler" in order to hold newborn babies in the NICU at Children's Hospital.

If her area of focus could be described as maternal, Haim is more fixated on politics. In his office, he keeps 10 televisions going simultaneously that play all of the cable news channels as well as live feeds from Israel.

His unwavering devotion to Israel comes at a time when many in the entertainment industry have become more vocal in their criticism of its government's policies. Pink Floyd musician Roger Waters, The Color Purple author Alice Walker and Black Lives Matter all embraced the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which calls for artists and businesses to eschew the country until Israel withdraws from the occupied territories, removes the separation barrier in the West Bank and abides by a U.N. resolution written in 1948 that calls for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Others, like Penélope Cruz and Zayn Malik, have been critical of the country, invoking words like "genocide" and using the #FreePalestine hashtag, respectively.

Haim, a onetime IDF soldier, has only become more resolute in his support, putting his money behind Friends of the IDF, a program to help Israeli veterans, among other organizations.

"It's much more difficult to get people to support Friends of the IDF and Israel, even those who are Jewish," says Hollywood attorney and Friends of the IDF board member Marty Singer. "Sometimes people are afraid that it could have an adverse impact on them. It's not politically correct. That's why it's important to get people in the entertainment industry to attend events, even if they do not donate, and Haim works hard to bring people in."

Haim acknowledges that his mission has become more difficult in the current climate. "There is a certain tension [now], but is that tension something that was always there but not expressed? I don't know. There's a famous saying that anti-Semitism is a light sleeper, and it doesn't take much to wake it," he says.

Haim places some of the blame on Israel itself for "not doing a good job at clarifying to the American people the importance to the United States of that relationship." But he takes particular umbrage with rising Democratic congresswoman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

"AOC made a statement: 'There's a massacre in Gaza,' " he says. "She was asked a question related to what's going on between Israel and the Palestinians, and she said, 'Well, I'm going to have to study this.' So, here she made a statement that is pretty scary and pretty compelling but misinformed. Why don't you go study and then make a statement?"

With that, Haim asks a staffer to bring over a framed quotation from Alexander Haig, Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, to illustrate why Americans should support Israel. The quotation reads: "Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier and is located in a critical region for American national security."

Haim, who remains a citizen of Israel as well, explains why that quote resonates with him. "This [was] our secretary of state. Not some lover of Israel, an evangelical or a Jewish person," he notes.

Lansing, herself a supporter of Israel, says Haim is the first person she asks for advice about the polarizing debate. "He's not afraid to support things that he believes in that maybe aren't always the flavor of the month," she says.

On the subject of Israel and President Trump, who pleased some supporters when he recognized Jerusalem as the country's capital and relocated the U.S. Embassy there, all Haim will say is, "There are some steps that he took that I am very pleased with, and there are some steps that he took that could've been taken but in a broader context."

In a sign of the shifting tides within the Democratic Party, all of the major presidential candidates skipped the most recent AIPAC summit (the annual D.C conference of the pro-Israel lobbying group). Haim blames Sanders for that phenomenon.

"I can't deny the impact that Bernie has had on the Democratic Party," he adds. "I love it when Bernie says, 'I recognize Israel's right to exist.' That's how he expresses his support of Israel. Well, thank you so very much. Are you out of your freaking mind? Oh, I'm allowed to live. Hallelujah, praise the lord."

Political watchers have taken Haim's inactivity on the primary front as a sign that he might flip to the Republicans. Not a chance, he says, though there are some Republicans he admires — "We loved McCain. We love Lindsey Graham." But he insists the Sabans will remain Democrats.

"Look, I have a fantastic relationship with my wife. If I went to a place that is pro-life, I'm toast," he says as Cheryl smiles. "I don't want to be toast."

Cheryl insists that they will open their pocketbook for the 2020 presidential election.

"We're not going to be involved until the playing field is settled down. It's too important not to be," she says. "We are just holding off for now, because there's going to come a time when somebody is going to need a lot of help."

***

In the meantime, the Sabans will continue focusing on causes that strike a personal chord. Over the years, the pair poured so much money into the Los Angeles Free Clinic, it was renamed the Saban Community Clinic (its three locations treated 21,550 patients over 111,000 visits in 2018). It's a clinic that Cheryl once visited when she was a single mother with no health insurance.

"It was before I met Haim. They treated me like a normal person, not like an outcast," she explains. "I have a visceral feeling for people, and women in particular, who find themselves without health insurance, living month to month."

Talent attorney and Saban Community Clinic board member Sam Fischer says the fact that the couple asks for naming rights has nothing to do with vanity and everything to do with inspiring others in the Hollywood community to match their pace. "Part of the reason he doesn't give anonymously is he is leading by example," says Fischer. "When [the clinic] had our 50th anniversary, Haim made phone calls to others to really step up and increase their contributions to the clinic. Haim was also instrumental in getting [Netflix chief content officer] Ted Sarandos to be our honoree. And then [Haim and Cheryl] stood up at that event and matched every dollar that people gave. It's constantly showing people the importance of philanthropy."

Jeffrey Katzenberg, no stranger to largesse given his work with the Motion Picture and Television Fund Foundation, believes the Sabans' giving is unrivaled in Hollywood. "I don't think there are two people who have done more than they've done," Katzenberg says. "There isn't a place where you turn and they haven't shown up and taken a leadership position and, in many instances, been the catalyst for extraordinary change. Haim just has a selfless humility and charm. Cheryl is just a super smart, very committed, emotionally connected person. It seems as though her happiness comes from being able to help others."

For his part, Haim wishes that some of philanthropy's biggest players — like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — would mirror his 50-50 domestic-global mandate.

"I take exception with the way they do it because there's so much need in this country," he says. "I think that the ratio between what they do in Africa and the rest of the world and this country is wrong. If I had Bill Gates type of money, I would first take care of our kids here. But they've done some remarkable things. Write down, 'We tip our hats to them' (laughs). After I criticize the ratio, put something nice. I bump into him in Sun Valley. I don't want him to give me the shiv."

***

On this late spring day, Haim is toggling his attentions between philanthropic and business work. He's reviewing a document related to a new music venture that he hopes to launch in the coming weeks.

Universal Music Group chairman Lucian Grainge, a close friend of the couple, told Haim that the music business is on the cusp of a golden age thanks to subscription streaming services. Then Lyor Cohen, who is global head of music at YouTube, made the same statement to him.

"Then I said, 'So where's my share?' " Haim says as he rises to head to a meeting about leadership at the new company. He hopes this will be his next Power Rangers in terms of its moneymaking potential.

"Until this interview came up, we never added our [total giving] numbers. When I saw the number I said, 'Hello, I gotta go back to work.' "

*** 

Three Causes, Three Answers

How does one get the attention of the Saban Family Foundation? Here are three requests that received a yes, a no and a maybe. 

YES: Stray Cat Alliance

A former accountant for the Sabans asked Haim if he would donate to help feral cats in L.A. "I thought that is completely cuckoo," he says of first hearing the pitch. "I've lived in L.A. since 1983. I have never, and I'm not exaggerating, seen a stray cat. I just came back from Israel. Everywhere you look, a stray cat. So, we gave a small donation."

MAYBE: Children Mending Hearts

During a staff meeting, Cheryl tells her team to put a charity founded by Lysa Heslov (wife of producer Grant) on their radar. She likes that she can direct her funds to specific areas the charity serves, like "fighting against bullying and cutting down on suicide in kids," she says, telling her team to start the vetting process.

NO: Israeli Lunar Mission SpaceIL

Haim was approached about backing a nonprofit program to send an Israeli rocket to the moon. "Well, we've got so many problems on Earth. Why are we going to the moon? Let somebody else go to the moon — the United States, China," he says. "Israel, forget about the moon. So, we said no. It didn't touch us."

This story first appeared in the July 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.