The Humanitas Prize, funded by an endowment, provides $145,000 annually to writers of “stories that communicate values, motivate behavior and can help bring about change in an individual.”
Past winners comprise a virtual who’s who of scribes in both television and films — David Milch, David Kelly, Cameron Crowe, Tom Fontana, Gary Ross, Akiva Goldsman, Stephen Gaghan, ad gloriam — many of whom have an ongoing involvement with the community programs Humanitas sponsors. (This year, Milch conducted a four-week seminar for the first 25 one-hour TV writers who showed up).
The prize was established in 1974 by Paulist Father Ellwood E. Kieser, a Catholic priest who produced the syndicated TV show “Insight,” beginning in 1960, and would go on to produce the feature films “Romero” and “Entertaining Angels.”
Yet director Chris Donahue, who worked with Kieser on “Entertaining Angels” and has run the Humanitas Prize since Kieser’s death in 2000, is careful to play down the prize’s religious origins.
He claims its connection to the Paulists stretches no further than Kieser’s successor, Father Frank Desiderio, who serves as president of Humanitas, and the stunning headquarters on Pacific Coast Highway the groups share — a former speakeasy once owned by actress Thelma Todd in the 1930s that she exited moments before her untimely and still-unsolved demise.
“We learn from stories,” says Donahue by way of explaining the Humanitas Prize’s mandate. “We gather around fires to tell stories. Stories give meaning to our lives; it’s how we understand. (The Humanitas Prize) would never presuppose to tell someone what to write, but rather to think about what they’re writing. We say what’s right about film and television — ‘Light a candle rather than curse the darkness.’ It’s too easy to criticize.
“To be a writer, you have to go deep inside yourself, so you need to understand the human condition — with all its sins or faults or shadow side. And whether it’s the hero, the antihero, it doesn’t matter: Stories must carry a sense of redemption.”