Academy program aids fund-raising across U.S.

Milwaukee knows how to party on Oscar night. So do folks in Atlanta, Kansas City, Omaha, Greensboro, N.C., Charlottesville, Va., and 45 other cities far removed from the starry grandeur that will be on display Sunday evening at the Kodak Theater.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has become a fund-raising godsend for dozens of nonprofit orgs around the country, most of them regional outfits, through its Oscar Night America screening parties.

The Acad screens hundreds of applications and confers the right to host the “official Oscar viewing party” status on one worthy org in each city in the top 50 or so TV markets. The Acad donates 100 programs, signed Oscarcast posters and other items for auctions and raffles. The orgs coordinate with their local ABC affiliate station to offer bigscreen viewing of the kudocast at movie theaters, auditoriums, hotel ballrooms and other locales.

For many of the orgs, Oscar Night America is the biggest fund-raising event of the year by far. Since its inception in 1994, the program has raised nearly $30 million.

A number of the participating orgs are film festivals and community theaters, endeavors in the wheelhouse of the Acad’s other philanthropic efforts. But the wealth is also spread to a range of service and assistance orgs that have seen donations drop off during the economic downturn, just as the help they provide low-income families and the homeless is needed more than ever.

“As a local organization, to have some of the Oscar Night spotlight shine on us is really a huge help to us,” said Thomas Schneider, exec director of COA Youth and Family Centers, which provides early childhood and adult education programs to about 25,000 people in Milwaukee. Last year’s Oscar Night event raised $165,000 for COA.

Atlanta’s Center for Family Resources helps poor families with basic needs including food, rent and utility bill payments. It’s been hosting Oscar Night events since 1997; last year’s drew more than 700 attendees and raised $250,000.

Beyond the ticket sales, the Oscar cachet is a magnet for sponsors and well-heeled donors that might not otherwise be aware of the presenting org. Local media coverage of the events also raise awareness that translates to increased coin.

“It’s so elegant — we have a lovely dinner beforehand at the finest hotel in town,” said Eleanor Schaffner-Mosh, a board member of the Community Theater of Greensboro. “It allows us to spend time with our most high-end sponsors,” she said.

Last year’s event pulled in $25,000 for the theater. “We’re a small town in a small (TV) market — this is very important for us,” she said.

Organizers of the Virginia Film Festival, based out of the U. of Virginia in Charlottesville, are grateful for the opportunity to draw film buffs to an Oscar fund-raiser at the city’s lovingly restored Paramount Theater is a great match. Organizers keep the ticket price low ($45) to draw a range of people.

“It has generated a lot of friends for us who become supporters,” said fest director Jody Kielbasa.

For the Acad, the impetus for starting the Oscar Night America program was to gain a measure of control over at least some of the thousands of Oscar screening parties — affairs that are in many cases for-profit ventures.

“We know we can’t control everything. We wanted there to be a way for the Academy to share that experience yet be protective of our trademarks and mark sure they’re being used responsibly,” said Randy Haberkamp, AMPAS’ director of educational programs and special projects. “It gives us a way to allow what is inevitable to happen responsibly — and with a great outcome.”

The Acad approves all media and promotional materials for each event, and it even rates the events afterward to ensure that the org is worthy of renewing for the following year, Haberkamp said.

The excitement surrounding the screening events is palpable, which is a good reminder for AMPAS staffers of the weight the Oscars carry for non-pros.

Most of the events are black-tie affairs, and the orgs usually roll out red carpets, and some bring in celeb impersonators (and, in one instance, a Cher mannequin). The events often feature talent from the ABC stations and local notables. Actor Mark Metcalf — you know him as Neidermeyer from “Animal House” — is a regular at the Milwaukee event.

“Mark walks everybody down the red carpet, we have (faux) paparazzi flashing. It’s great fun,” said COA’s Schneider. “One year we had a Joan Rivers impersonator.”

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