Dialogue: Humanitas heads

Humanitas' president of the board and executive director discuss what the prize means to Hollywood.

Seeking deeper meaning hasn't ever been Hollywood's main objective in creating entertainment, which is probably why the Humanitas Prize remains ever-important in honoring writers who promote human values. President of the board Frank Desiderio, left, and executive director Cathleen Young recently spoke with Ann Donahue for The Hollywood Reporter about the impact of the Humanitas Prize and how it makes a difference in the industry.

The Hollywood Reporter: Why don't you tell me a little bit about the history of the prize?
Frank Desiderio: It was started back in 1974, around the time that FCC commissioner Newton Minow had called TV "a vast wasteland." There was a lot of negative feeling toward television and the way it formed popular culture -- there were talks of advertiser boycotts and things like that. And so Father (Ellwood) Kieser had this idea to create a prize that honors writing that exemplifies the best of human values. The short answer to your question is, we want to honor the best writing on television, (and) the best includes not only aesthetics but also ethics.

THR: What has changed in the industry since first Humanitas Prize was awarded?
Cathleen Young: Thirty-two years ago, there were three big dogs in town: CBS, ABC and NBC. Now, there is a lot more competition for eyeballs: HBO, Showtime, FX. It's easy for a great movie to get lost. Viewers are overwhelmed with choices, and if a show doesn't catch on immediately, the networks frequently yank it. We try to shine a bright light on edifying, enlightening, entertaining programming. We sincerely believe that a steady diet of reality programming is bad for us as a society. We feel passionately about doing whatever we can to stop that trend.

THR: What is the importance of pop culture, and what role can it play in broader society?
Young: Right now in academic circles, the new hot topic is "fan culture." There's a brilliant guy at (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Henry Jenkins, who makes a powerful case that Americans are now participating in their democracy by way of blogging, podcasting, chatting and sharing YouTube videos. I believe he's right. Pop culture is now the arbiter of what we talk about and what we find valuable. And pop culture is fueled by the media -- and the need to keep feeding the monkey that is the media. The natural tendency to keep lowering the bar and going for simplistic, shocking, new material is hard to resist. So, our mission at Humanitas is try to keep the bar elevated because we believe the stories and images we see shape us as a society. We recognize stories that promote key values, like the essential dignity of human beings and our need to connect with one another in a meaningful way.

Can you talk about the feature film and indie film categories? It seems that most people associate TV with the prize, but obviously there are other genres that are awarded.
Desiderio: I wasn't on the board (when those categories were created), but I think what happened was that the board recognized there was a lot of great writing that happens in features, and we were ignoring it. The first year that we gave out (a prize for) features was 1994, and what won was "Schindler's List," written by Steven Zaillian. And now, Zaillian is on our board of directors. Oftentimes, once somebody wins, they become a candidate to become a trustee or a board of directors member.

THR: So it's all in the family, then.
Desiderio: I think people who have demonstrated the kind of sensitivities that would go into a Humanitas script are the ones we want judging it.

THR: And what is your affiliation with the Sundance Film Festival?
Desiderio: If a movie has premiered at Sundance or the script has been developed through the Sundance filmmakers' lab, then it's eligible to be submitted for the Humanitas award for independents. I go to Sundance pretty regularly, and there's a lot of good work being done there. Sometimes, we give the (feature) Humanitas Prize to a big studio, but sometimes a smaller feature is going to win. "October Sky" won in 1999 -- that wasn't a big studio film; it was a really great little film. I think we do try and sift through all the features that come out in a year. We're not looking at boxoffice; we're looking at the real quality of the writing.

THR: Tell me a little bit about what the rest of the year is like with the events you folks put on that aren't necessarily related to the Humanitas Prize.
Desiderio: We started doing classes for working writers. The first year we did one in drama, and we had David Milch, and we invited people who were working on the staff of 60-minute dramas. They gathered with David for four weeks in a row, one night a week, and were able to kind of listen to a master writer and ask him questions. David's a terrific teacher. Last year, we did a comedy workshop, and it was the same thing. We invited people who were either working on pilots or already working on comedy -- it wasn't so much the showrunners but the staff writers who were trying to go to the next level. We invited Jay Tarses, Jamie Tarses and Matt Tarses to do two nights, and then we invited Jennifer Crittenden and Bill Wrubel, and they did the other two nights.

THR: What plans does the organization have for the future?
Young: We plan to put 32 years of interviews with some of the greatest writers in Hollywood on our Web site, thanks to a suggestion by John Wells, one of our board members. We plan to create workshops for teenagers that help them understand we all live and die by the nature of the stories we tell about ourselves.

THR: Have you thought about awarding content on the Internet?
Desiderio: I imagine we will eventually start talking about the Internet. But since every prize has to be endowed, we have to raise somewhere around $600,000 in order to give the prizes, so every time we talk about starting a new prize, we're talking about a new round of fundraising. So, it's not just, "Oh! Let's give a prize for the best Internet (content) and get some submissions and pick out the best and give them an award!" There's all this footwork that has to be done prior.

THR: How much of your time is spent seeking the endowments and the fundraising and on the business side of things?
Desiderio: I would say about 30% of my time is spent on Humanitas, and probably about half of that is fundraising.

THR: What is the reaction of Hollywood -- generally considered a secular, some would say godless, entity -- to Humanitas' efforts?
Young: At Humanitas, we are blessed by having a unique position within the Hollywood community. All three networks and all the cable stations have supported us financially for the past three decades. These are guys who have to answer to shareholders and the bottom line. They can't always save the socially redeeming show if the ratings aren't there. But at the end of the day, these men and women want to be proud of the projects they greenlight. Every year, once a year, 400 industry insiders come together and put aside their differences to celebrate programming everyone is proud of. And when they leave our awards luncheon, once again they turn into fierce competitors. But once a year, we celebrate the power of great storytelling together and pay homage to writers -- the engine that drives the supertanker known as Hollywood.

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