The $10 Cure for Hollywood's Gala Auction Fatigue

Chris Pratt - Guardians of the Galaxy_BTS - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Omaze

Omaze has raised nearly $100 million by democratizing access to VIP experiences, with Aaron Paul and Uzo Aduba joining in a new collaboration in support of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles.

On the evening of June 25, sitting inside Kansas City’s Arvest Bank Theatre, Meg Henley watched as the well-heeled shelled out thousands of dollars at the annual Big Slick auction to support local hospital Children’s Mercy. There went $60,000 for a chance to join hometown boy Paul Rudd on the set of his upcoming movie, Ant-Man and the Wasp. Then another $34,000 to visit Eric Stonestreet, who also grew up in Kansas City, on the Modern Family set.

But Henley didn’t bid. She’d already spent the afternoon playing softball with Rudd, Stonestreet and the rest of their Kansas City comedian crew, including Rob Riggle, Jason Sudeikis and David Koechner. The Big Slick donation that won her that opportunity? A whopping $10.

The Kansas native, an actress who manages a Sugarfina store in Glendale, is one of hundreds of people who have won VIP experiences through online fundraising startup Omaze. "It felt really meant to be," Henley says of the weekend, which included a suite at a Royals game and tickets to the Big Slick celebrity bowling tournament. "It was crazy to think you could donate $10 and then have this experience." 

In a town where the charity circuit once turned on six-figure bids for VIP experiences at industry galas, Omaze — the 5-year-old brainchild of Stanford grads Matt Pohlson and Ryan Cummins — has become a go-to philanthropy partner. Nearly every Hollywood shop, from AMC to Lucasfilm, has created an Omaze campaign (as have stars including Ben Stiller, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charlize Theron), offering fans the opportunity to donate small sums for the chance to win everything from lunch with Robert Downey Jr. on the Avengers set to a date with George Clooney. 

The almost too good to be true story about how Pohlson and Cummins turned their documentary filmmaking careers into Omaze takes place at a charity auction in which neither could afford to bid $15,000 for the opportunity to sit courtside at a Lakers game with childhood idol Magic Johnson. Why couldn't such experiences be democratized? Their first campaign, in 2012, raised less than $1,000, but a breakthrough came in 2013 when they raised $1.8 million for anti-bullying organization Kind Campaign (the prize: a screening of the Breaking Bad finale with stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul). Pohlson laughs as he recounts how he called in his mother and sister for backup after the campaign blew up on social media in its final 48 hours. "We were only four people. We were totally unprepared."

Now the Omaze team has grown to more than 70, as the Los Angeles-based company nears $100 million raised for more than 200 causes.

Omaze has struck on a formula that proves especially effective for online campaigns. Its celebrity-fronted videos often go viral (like one with Daniel Craig and dozens of puppies, or the one where Bon Jovi pranks singers at a karaoke bar) and are shared across Facebook and Twitter, helping boost awareness for fundraising efforts. 

Since the 2016 election, the platform has seen an increase in support for environmental, civil rights and women's rights issues — and now, Omaze is prepping one of its most ambitious collaborations yet. Later in August, the likes of Paul and Uzo Aduba will support the United We Plan campaign, which will offer a mix of experiences and merchandise sales to raise money for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles. This comes on the heels of Samantha Bee's recent Omaze fundraiser for PPLA, which raised more than $1 million selling $25 T-shirts — with sales jumping tenfold post-election.

"Our first and foremost goal is to provide patients with the care they need, and we're stretched pretty thin," says Dinah Stephens, senior director of public affairs at PPLA. "Omaze provides us with a platform to reach an entirely new audience."

Next up for Omaze, which is a private company and declines to comment on its financials beyond telling THR that it takes a 20 percent cut of net proceeds from each campaign, is a plan to expand on its experience in the entertainment, music and sports fields by offering campaigns in new categories such as fashion, food and gaming. "Every audience is an opportunity for impact," says Pohlson as he lays out his showman's vision. "Five years from now, I want to be able to say, for every sporting event, every television show, every concert — every time there is an audience — there is an Omaze."

Aug. 10, 11:07 a.m. Updated to correct the spelling of Megan Henley's last name. THR regrets the error. 

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.