How Hollywood Insiders Hatched ‘Think It Up’ Roadblock Telecast

EIF Board Photo 2015 - H
Courtesy EIF, Larry Busacca

Entertainment Industry Foundation board chair Sherry Lansing, CAA president Richard Lovett and top broadcast network execs were instrumental in the national education initiative that will receive a star-studded launch Sept. 11.

Though it was announced less than a month ago, tonight’s broadcast network roadblock telecast for the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s Think It Up education initiative (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC all will air the hour-long fundraiser at 8 p.m. ET and PT/7 p.m. CT) was seven years in the making.

"In 2008, after we got Stand Up to Cancer off the ground, our board unanimously decided that they wanted to have education be our next initiative,” says EIF president and CEO Lisa Paulsen of the effort, which will be celebrated on the telecast by stars including Stephen Colbert, Scarlett Johansson, Matthew McConaugheyGwyneth Paltrow, James Corden, Big Sean and Stevie Wonder

A movement to support and inspire the country's public school students, Think It Up — in partnership with the nonprofit Donors Choose, which since 2000 has provided teachers with an online platform to raise money for classroom projects — will empower 7th  through 12th graders to develop their own learning projects (with guidance from their teachers) and seek online crowdfunding to bring their ideas to life.

As with Stand Up to Cancer, which has raised more than $370 million for cancer research since 2008, EIF started by consulting the experts: “We brought the top thought leaders on education to the table,” says Paulsen of a November 2013 summit convened to focus the mission. It was a crowded and high-powered table: Participants included, among others, Ted Mitchell, then-CEO of the NewSchools Venture Fund and now under secretary at the U.S. Department of Education; Dr. John E. Deasy, then-superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District and now superintendent-in-residence at The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems; Vicki Phillips, director of K-12 education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and David Coleman, president and CEO of the College Board. Representing Hollywood and media in the room, along with the EIF board, were Stacey Sniderthen-DreamWorks co-chairman & CEO and now co-chair of 20th Century Fox; Starz CEO Chris Albrecht; CAA chief innovation officer Michelle Kydd Lee; Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos; and Twitter head of commerce Nathan Hubbard.

“There wasn’t a consensus,” recalls EIF board chair Sherry Lansing. For the former Paramount CEO and chair, now CEO of her own foundation, education is a personal passion and a onetime profession — Lansing worked as a math and English teacher before launching her career in entertainment. “We were listening and we were getting input,” she recalls of the 2013 summit. “There were many opinions, and we explored many of the actions that were suggested.” But a partnership with Donors Choose, an organization Lansing has supported and advised since 2004 (“It’s wonderful to sit at your desk on a Friday afternoon and look at what the teachers need and choose a project to fund,” she says), wasn’t one of them.

It was the idea of giving students a voice that ultimately led EIF to pursue the Donors Choose partnership, Paulsen says — and once that was in place, CAA president Richard Lovett, a Donors Choose board member, also joined the effort. Like Lansing, Lovett comes to Think It Up with personal experience as an educator. “I taught at Venice High School for 10 years, a life-skills curriculum that I created for at-risk kids,” he says. “I came to deeply appreciate how challenging it is to be a teacher and what amazing and talented people they are."

Along with Lovett, CAA's Alice Ann Wilson, a creative director, Naseeb Gill, an executive in the motion pictures department, and Kydd Lee came on board. "We continued to help with fundraising and with shaping the larger strategy," says Lovett. And crucially, it was the CAA team that thought up Think It Up. A larger group of stakeholders had spent an entire day brainstorming a name that would capture the guiding principles of the mission, "but we didn't have it yet," Lovett recalls. "The next day Michelle Kydd Lee and Alice Ann Wilson went down to one of our conference rooms — what we call 'the tank' — and basically worked all day long to come up with the language and visual language to support this big idea."

To give this big idea a big entrance, Paulsen and Lansing wanted to replicate the Stand Up to Cancer model: an attention-getting live roadblock telecast on the major broadcast networks (SUTC launched on the Friday after Labor Day in 2008 on ABC, CBS and NBC; its fourth biennial telecast in 2014 was carried by 44 broadcast and cable networks in the U.S. and Canada). Four EIF board members smoothed the way: NBC president of programming Jeff Bader, Disney/ABC TV group executive vp and CFO Peter Seymour, CBS executive vp of specials Jack Sussman and Fox Networks Group senior strategist Preston Beckman (who retired Aug. 28). 
EIF got the green light in January from the four networks, which provided the primetime hour at a negotiated rate (air time for the 2014 SUTC telecast was donated) as well as offered promotional and production support. Beckman also recruited Fox digital pros to give critical guidance on reaching tweens and teens, a key target audience for the broadcast, says Paulsen.
"There'd been no previous gathering of attention and support and acknowledgement and appreciation and cheerleading when our country goes back to school," says Lovett. "There are plenty of shopping messages, but here now is a message that is really about our kids and our teachers."

A potentially polarizing issue like education may not draw cheerleading from every quarter, but Paulsen and Lansing both say Think It Up is "apolitical." Adds Lovett, "I understand that people have various points of view about how to best help schools succeed. But this is not a political movement. We're trying to help kids right now, support teachers right now." Partners and supporters of Think It Up include the Gates Foundation, XQ Institute, ExxonMobil, Ashoka and Staples.

Broadcasting from Barker Hangar at the Santa Monica Airport in front of a live audience that will include about 600 students and teachers from around the country, the telecast (produced by Den of Thieves) will feature musical performances, comedy sketches and personal testimonials about the importance of teaching from stars like McConaughey, whose mother was a kindergarten teacher. 
"This is the very beginning of a years-long effort," says Paulsen, who notes that Think It Up isn't aiming for the high fundraising bar set by SUTC. "We have no idea how much we'll raise, we just want to see more people giving to education, more foundations joining the effort and more students coming up with great ideas."
For Lansing the appeal of Think It Up is that its core idea — student-powered, teacher-led learning — is simple, unique and original ("just like a movie," she says). "Our kids are really smart and they want to learn," she says. "They have ideas and needs that we can't think of because we're not in their shoes." Adds Lovett, "We can help students have what we hope is that one moment, that one project that excites them and can change their lives."
Watch the promo for the telecast below.