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Of all the A-list Zoom parties that have taken place since the COVID-19 pandemic began, producer Scott Budnick organized one of the most unorthodox — a group call with Common and 130,000 California prisoners in their cells.
The hour and 45-minute Zoom call, which took place April 13 and is now being shared in prisons in five other states, was intended to serve as a combination information session and pep talk for the prisoners and prison staff.
“The idea was, let’s do something for them to bring in hope and inspiration,” says Budnick, who produced Just Mercy and the Hangover movies. “Let’s actually educate them on what’s happening out here with the virus and what their families need to be doing and what they need to be doing, but also let them know that they’re not forgotten.”
Budnick, who launched the prisoner advocacy nonprofit the Anti-Recidivism Coalition in 2013, had previously partnered with Common and his nonprofit Imagine Justice in mounting a concert tour for prisoners. When the pandemic hit, the duo were concerned how prisoners in particular would be affected by COVID-19, not only their physical health but also their mental well-being.
“All of their visits with their family members have been taken away,” says Budnick. “All of their positive activities. Volunteers, people who usually bring hope and encouragement, aren’t able to access the facilities. All the college programs and high school programs are stopped right now.”
During the Zoom call, recently released prisoners whom Budnick and Common had met during the concert tour shared stories from their new lives. Charles Anderson, a former gang member who learned coding in prison, talked about his life as a software engineer; Jon Grobman, who had run a dog-training program while incarcerated, discussed his post-prison job training dogs for veterans with PTSD. Common also spoke to the prisoners about meditation, therapy and breath work that have been helpful to him, and led the group in a breathing exercise.
“It was just a deeply moving, inspiring call,” says Budnick, who largely left the entertainment business after the Hangover movies in order to focus on his nonprofit work. In 2018, he created the production banner One Community, and its first project, Warner Bros.’ Just Mercy, opened in December. The producer has spent recent months promoting the Michael B. Jordan movie about attorney Bryan Stevenson, who defends the wrongfully convicted, including hosting screenings for Gov. Gavin Newsom and 11 other governors that have sparked policy discussions around criminal justice reform.
In addition to his advocacy work, Budnick is developing a film adaptation of King Leopold’s Ghost, a history book about the Congo, with Ben Affleck set to direct and Martin Scorsese to produce. He says he expects the entertainment industry to emerge from the current health crisis “with more empathy.”
“To have more empathy for the homeless, to have more empathy for those struggling with mental health and addiction, to see that women and girls don’t have equity and to figure out how to make sure we have equal pay for everybody,” Budnick says. “All of these issues are now going to be magnified and it’s going to be so necessary for all of us, whether it’s film, whether it’s theatrical when that comes back or streaming television, docs, digital podcast, etc., really to continue to beat people over the head and remind them of the lessons learned during this crisis.”
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