Anonymous Hollywood Exec Describes the "Dread" of Charity Events (Guest Column)

Illustration By Rafa Alvarez

Over the past 20 years, charity dinners have "lost their mojo" as corporate tables go empty and the best item in the gift bag is a "trial subscription to Netflix," write a studio exec in THR's annual Philanthropy Issue.

The old lotus-eater Oscar Wilde once wrote, "Nothing annoys people so much as not receiving invitations." It's clear Wilde never witnessed the Hollywood charity-party circuit, where the receipt of an invitation often induces dread as it signals another season of lackluster parties aimed at doing God's work. These events have become so, well, boring and rote, you could make the case that they are doing their causes a disservice. Still, you or, more likely, your company will feel compelled to buy a table and fill it with executives wishing they were anywhere but there.

Over the past 20 years or so, Hollywood charity events have lost their mojo, with each organization hiring the same few party planners to honor executives from the same companies, in the same three or four venues, with the same guests eating the same pollo de goma dinners.

The only suspense is guessing who will be lauded. Who am I kidding? Invariably each year's honorees will include the most recently appointed CEO of a studio or network (see Jeff Shell), an eminence grise taking a victory lap (Jeffrey Katzenberg, anyone?) or some hot new money who has insinuated him- or herself into the establishment (think Netflix's Ted Sarandos or the Ellison offspring, or even Ryan Kavanaugh, at one point). You can be sure ABC's Channing Dungey, Fox's Stacey Snider and STX's Adam Fogelson are in many charities' crosshairs for upcoming honors. While these honorees all have some charitable side to them, they rarely have any connection to the cause, other than having their number called.

Even the jostling for the best tables has decreased. Companies talk to each other and know what each is spending, so usually the big studios and networks all spend about the same and sit near each other. (Or they buy tables but, due to lack of interest, turn them back to the charities.) The real politics come at the individual tables: Never, ever leave a seat with its back to the stage for your CEO — it can be a career killer.

It seems most of these charities still make money from these soirees. And to bastardize a Churchill quote: There are still those bright-eyed optimists who go from event to event without a loss of enthusiasm — perhaps because the sameness of the events offers a comfortable and familiar setting during a tumultuous time in our business.

And there are charities that attempt to stir up the formula, like the MPTF Night Before Oscar and Emmy events, or the Milk + Bookies event for kids, and surprisingly, the Will Rogers Motion Pictures Pioneer Foundation dinner at CinemaCon in Vegas. The Pioneer event, while more traditionally structured and attended mostly by distributors and exhibitors — not exactly Burning Man — tends to be one of the more fun events of the year, owing to the fact that everyone is pretty sauced by the time the ceremony starts; the entertainment is usually actually entertaining; and perhaps most importantly, the charity seems to allow the honoree’s team to script and program the show, so each year you are getting a fresh perspective.

But these and a few others are exceptions; more often you'd be hard-pressed to notice much variation between events, other than the tones of spray tans. And gone are the days when billionaire wives came to blows over top-tier swag. Gift bags, if they even are offered, mostly are stuffed with remainder rack DVDs, drugstore shampoos or three-month trial subscriptions to Netflix.

All this said, while I miss the days of Hollywood exceptionalism and want us to get our groove back, I am a hypocrite: The only thing worse than these events is not receiving invitations to them.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.