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At September’s Allen & Co. media conference in Sun Valley, NBC Universal vice chairman Ron Meyer was asked how the studio went so quickly from fourth place to first at the box office. His answer was: “We hired Chris Meledandri.”
The same answer could be given for how the Oct. 23 Fulfillment Fund dinner at the Beverly Hilton raised more than $1.8 million. They got Meledandri as honoree. That brought in financial support from Universal, where the Illumination Entertainment CEO made the Despicable Me films, and from Fox, where he’d founded the animation department that brought in more than $2 billion during his tenure.
A fundraising dinner is lucky to have the support of one studio’s execs; to have two is rare. The Fulfillment Fund dinner had Universal’s Meyer, Steve Burke, Jeff Shell, Donna Langley and former film division chairman Adam Fogelson on hand as well as Fox’s Peter Chernin, James Gianopulos and former film head Tom Rothman. Other guests included Berry Gordy, Rich Ross, Ryan Kavanaugh and George Schlatter.
“Chris is the real deal,” said Meyer. “He really cares about this organization. Some people help a charity by being honored, but he really works for the organization.”
The evening began with remarks by emcee Ed Helms, who noted that 90 percent of L.A. high school students in the Fulfillment Fund’s mentoring program go onto college as opposed to 50 percent among those who are not. The fund’s founder Dr. Gary Gitnick with wife Cherna then came on stage to thank Tom Sherak, Josh Klinefelter and Sidney Poitier for the their help with the fund.
Afterward, the stage was taken over by Pharrell Williams and 25 backup dancers from Hamilton High School’s music academy who had the crowd up and singing his “Blurred Lines” hit. Meledandri had hired Williams to write songs for the Despicable Me films, and this was payback. “Chris is all about the work and the work speaks for itself,” said Williams before dinner. “Look at the execution.”
A live auction that went on a bit too long (but did raise a sizeable amount of cash) came before Meledandri was presented with his award. There was a truly clever piece of animated drawing that sketched out the honoree’s career and played before Steve Carell came on stage. He joked that he’d agreed to make the presentation out of “love, respect and an intense fear of personal retribution.”
Most of Meledandri’s speech was taken up with thanking those who’d made the evening possible, but afterward he said he’s agreed to help the Fulfillment Fund because “after 25 years of honing their system they’ve got a program that works.”
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Meledandri before the event about his work with the fund:
How did you get involved in the Fulfillment Fund?
Over the years I’ve been to a number of their events and have known a number of people who have been involved in the organization. I’ve always been interested in the model the were building. So when my friend and colleague Tom Sherack called to ask me to help build a really great event and to work on fundraising, it is something I was immediately drawn to it
Can you tell us a little bit about the annual Fulfillment Fund event and why it’s so special?
For anyone who attends one of these events, the highlight is always the speeches given by the kids in the program. Each one tells a remarkable story. They include high school seniors in the program as well as recent graduates. It’s impossible to sit and talk to these kids and not walk away with a level of appreciation for the work the Fulfillment Fund is doing.
What are the kids like in the program?
They come from all different kinds of backgrounds. They have tremendous curiosity, ambition. They all share a desire to make a difference in our world. They are very socially motivated and every student I’ve spoken to comes from families where they were the first members of the family to be going to college. The opportunity they were made aware of through the fund and the guidance and support to actually seize that opportunity has just been remarkable.
The role that the Fulfillment Fund played in their journey is absolutely essential. They would not be either about to go to college or recently enrolled in college had they had not been given this support. The Fulfillment Fund shows that you can create a system that works in unison with the existing system and drive amazing results.
Did having kids of your own change the way you view education?
Being a parent definitely contributed to it. I’m someone who places tremendous value on my own experiences at schools. I trace back significant life changing events to my own education. I’ve been involved in charter schools. I speak a lot to kids who are high school and college age. I find that the more I do it, the more I’m drawn to it. It’s clearly one of my favorite parts of what I do, spending time in and around education.
The other aspect of this that is quite striking is the role (group founder) role Dr. Gary Gitnick plays. He is living proof that one individual can make a tremendous difference in the lives of thousands. These kids are now models themselves for finding and seizing opportunities. They are inspiring those around them to do the same. It’s powerful and I’m really pleased to be a small part of it.
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