This story first appeared in the August 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Ask an insider and they’ll tell you that relationships are the fuel that propels Hollywood’s film and television industries. But those businesses are as impersonal as a credit-card call center compared to the town’s frenetic charity scene. Hollywood’s fantastically busy — and generous — fund-raising sector knows no season and supports everything from cancer research to Afghan women’s rights with an intricate web of reciprocal invitations and obligations. Galas and premieres are the social nexus around which Hollywood’s charities and activism are organized. But they are always works in progress until the black-tie crowd begins entering the hall. These tips from Hollywood’s most experienced organizers explain the etiquette behind doing good in L.A. and how to ensure a successful — which is to say, lucrative — event.
1. Pick the Right Honoree
Like casting the right star for a film, selecting the honoree for an event involves chemistry — or at least a connection — between the charity and the individual. “You don’t want an honoree who’s not involved in what you’re doing, because then it’s crystal clear how insincere that is,” says Judy Levy of Levy, Pazanti & Associates event planners. “Worse, if someone bumps into them and asks about the event, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I’m doing it, but if you don’t want to participate, it’s OK.’ ” Some charity organizers say that they’ve often found that honoring TV execs as opposed to film folks can ensure more celebrity participation at an event. After all, TV series stars are more beholden to their network pay masters while a boldface film producer or director can often count on just the two or three stars working on their current project. And keep in mind your audience’s appetite for speechifying. “You need to keep your guests happy,” says Barbara Davis, who chairs the biennial Carousel of Hope Ball. “At that first ball for children’s diabetes, we had a wonderful doctor as our speaker. He would still be talking if he hadn’t died by now.”
2. Congrats, You’re An Honoree. Now Get Over It
It’s not about you, yet it’s on you to call in favors. “I take it with a grain of salt,” says Leonard Goldberg, former Fox chief. “Sure, they think you’re a decent fellow, but they’re also assuming you can sell a lot of tickets.” Expect to be flooded with requests, adds CBS CEO Leslie Moonves: “I get asked twice a week and I’ve done a few, but it’s hard to do. You don’t like asking for money, and as much as people think I have a huge ego, I don’t like being honored.”
3. Manage Expectations
Egg on the face for a philanthropic organization can be defined as “overly optimistic projections” for what an honoree can do. Says Levy: “I’ve never found anyone who has a magic phone — someone who can pick up the telephone and the money flows in. God knows, I’ve been looking for it.”
4. Just Say No to the Wrong King of Support
When it comes to attention and fund-raising, more is more, right? Not even close, especially if an individual will bring the wrong kind of attention to the cause. Case in point, says Bonnie Abaunza, who runs composer Hans Zimmer‘s foundation but who has a long connection to Amnesty International: “An actress got into a physical altercation at a club, and a representative called me the next afternoon and said that this client would like to be a spokesperson for our Stop Violence Against Women campaign,” she explains. “We turned her down. They were doing damage control and I didn’t want Amnesty used that way.”
5. Work the Tables, or They’ll Be Turned Against You
The social stakes can be high for any seating plan even at your house, but at a fund-raiser you have orphans in China or clean drinking water riding on your ability to separate enemies and maintain the status quo. Social complications inevitably arise in a town where divorce and business schisms are rampant. Recalls Abaunza: “A Hollywood couple that supported Amnesty for years had split up, but both wanted to attend an event. We worked with their individual reps to make sure they felt as comfortable as possible: They were photographed and interviewed separately and seated at different tables.” Veteran fund-raisers know to make sure that when studios buy tables, Fox, for example, should never feel it’s seated less prominently than Disney or Paramount. But invariably some guests will complain. Davis advises, “The people who complain about their tables are always the people with no right to complain because they didn’t pay as much as they should have.” And everybody already knows who they are.
6. The Best Gift (Bag) Is Time
Get ’em in, get ’em out, and get ’em swag. “Keep it short and get people home for the 11 p.m. news,” says Davis. “I’ve been to evenings where the biggest star goes on last and has a half-empty room.”
7. Be Prepared For Disaster
Abaunza recounts how Nicole Kidman, who was to host a premiere of Rabbit Proof Fence at the Museum of Tolerance, had to bail due to bad weather while filming Cold Mountain in Romania. “The event was completely sold out. Nicole’s name was on the invite,” she says. “It’s always tricky to ask someone to step in at the last minute, but we contacted another Aussie Oscar winner, Geoffrey Rush, and he flew in on two days’ notice. Nicole had just finished doing The Hours, where she wore that distinctive prosthetic nose, and Geoffrey quipped, ‘I’m not Nicole, but my nose and hers in The Hours are a perfect match.’ It brought down the house.”
8. What To Do With Crashers
A surprising number of security experts say leave them be. The ruckus that happens when one gets frog-marched out of a ballroom isn’t worth the trouble.
9. Know Who Must Get Paid
Food and drink, transportation and venue, even flowers can be sponsored or donated. But it’s a not-well-kept secret that A-list performers often get paid (and seem to have no problem cashing those checks). Charities can feel more virtuous if they can get a corporate sponsor or individual donor to cover the costs of a singer. “Nobody has ever asked me for money to perform at a gala,” asserts Davis, “but I’ll tell you who you’ve got to pay — the orchestra.” Celebrities don’t get paid to attend, but comping their tickets is a fact of life. “At the end of the day, their photos get out there and provide awareness about the nonprofit,” says a veteran benefit thrower.
10. The Unwritten Rule of Quid Pro Quo
If you only know one thing, know this: “When you ask somebody to buy a table at your event, you’re agreeing to buy one at theirs,” says an anonymous fund-raiser. “As soon as you attach your name to a cause, you’re signing up to support a hundred other causes. I wish we had a polite way to decline, but we’re now in the business of having to say yes to everything.”