Hollywood Foreign Press’ Philanthropy Runs Both Broad and Deep

In the course of Meryl Streep’s much lauded state of the artistic union remarks at January’s Golden Globes ceremony, the screen legend made a pointed reference to her hosts, requesting “the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press, and all of us in our community, to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists. Because we’re going to need them going forward, and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.”

Drawn to the CPJ website’s grim record of Fifth Estate members killed or missing, Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. president Meher Tatna says she “connected back to Meryl’s speech and I thought, this is a no-brainer. … It’s horrifying, in this day and age, what they have to go through to get the story.”

The proposal of a $200,000 grant to CPJ was unanimously approved by her board.

Yet this was no bequest in isolation. Even as the HFPA celebrates its 75th year, many in the industry remain unaware of its annual, systematic disposition of cash, converting Golden Globes broadcast fees into aid for organizations and individuals who will “foster creativity, diversity, and careers in art and film,” as Tatna paraphrases the group’s mission statement.

HFPA support runs both broad and deep, at a time when the arts are embattled nationwide and funding, in particular, is under siege. Over the past three decades, nearly $30 million has been distributed to those working toward a more diverse, skilled and compassionate entertainment industry. This year’s grantees, numbering close to 60, will be feted on Aug. 2 at the organization’s annual Beverly Wilshire gala banquet. And fundraising professionals, it should be noted, give the HFPA application and review process high marks for thoroughness, objectivity and scrupulous oversight.

If the overseas journos were to take any exception to Streep’s words, it might be to that adverb “famously.” Tatna says, “we have binders full … in the office” of testimonials and thank-yous since the association began doubling down on serious philanthropy, which nevertheless remains one of Hollywood’s better-kept secrets.

As Tatna’s predecessor Lorenzo Soria puts it, “One of the most frustrating things about the grant-giving process is meeting prominent people who come to you and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know.’… So many years we’ve given so much money, and people still don’t know.”

Taking a peek into those binders, and hearing from those whose lives and careers have been directly affected by HFPA generosity, reveals what focused intentions and committed leadership can achieve.

A high association priority is professional and pre-professional training and mentorship. Certainly there are no more elated beneficiaries than those underrepresented in the entertainment industry — the poor, women, people of color — for whom Foreign Press funding has made possible a catapult into major job opportunities. And many are alumni of a couple of HFPA-supported organizations — Inner-City Filmmakers (ICF) and Streetlights — founded a quarter-century ago in the wake of the 1992 L.A. riots.

D.P. Bruce Logan with ICF students.
Courtesy of Oscar Munoz

ICF, which first saw life as a four-week summer workshop for 12 students, has grown to a year-round training program bringing arts education, pre-professional training and job placement to disadvantaged youth. Of its 650 alumni to date, 98% have attended college and 65% are building entertainment industry careers as they move from the program, to unpaid internships, to paid employment.

“Coming from a working class background, first generation from El Salvador, you really don’t see the arts as a career,” says Nancy Mejia (class of 2010). But hooked up with ICF after a year at UCLA, she “found an art form that can coalesce all my interests, in writing, visual composition and music.”

ICF’s daily workshops and team projects taught Mejia life lessons, not just filmmaking skills. “Having pride in your work, having integrity in your work. … That’s been the overall legacy. You feel that you’re contributing to a bigger piece. Always make a good first impression. Love what you do. And do it well.” Recently selected as a fellow in the AFI Directing Workshop for Women, Mejia says, “I trace everything back to that summer with ICF.”

Aspiring cinematographer Valentina Argueta (class of 2015) has had an internship at Panavision, traveled to Sundance and “been able to experience so much a filmmaker my age wouldn’t ever experience.” While many aspiring artists complete a helping-hand program unaware of the Foreign Press backing it, Argueta was able to communicate her gratitude at 2016’s HFPA banquet.

“An amazing experience seeing all those people come together to help the arts stay alive,” she says. “You don’t just have executives there, but people getting grants, and actors that really are there in support of the cause, to help you out. It’s so encouraging. You get the feeling you’re really a part of the community. As opposed to the high school teachers who were all, ‘You’re not going to find a future in that!’”

For its part, Streetlights offers cost-free production assistant training and job placement for minorities from L.A.’s inner city. Spectacular career trajectories have resulted. Dimitri Lacey, who was slipped a Streetlights business card while working as a day laborer for a temp agency, went on to three seasons as an assistant production supervisor on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and is now a director-level executive at TNT.

Detroit native Randy Huggins was by his own admission “the worst executive assistant ever” when his boss at Nickelodeon tipped him off to the program. Since then he’s written and produced for “The Shield” and “The Unit,” served as showrunner on BET’s “Rebel” and now sits on the Streetlights board of directors, paying it forward.

“Even in 2017, there are so many people denied the blessings and access I’ve had,” Huggins says. “Funding from generous organizations like the Hollywood Foreign Press is vital for keeping Streetlights and other programs like it alive.”

Monica Monique credits Streetlights’ “self-help” first week as a major game-changer, “to take a look inside and really help you get out of a victim mentality … that ‘not everything is attainable, don’t dream too big’ sort of thing.” Previous work experience helped her look past on-set prejudices (“I get it. When you’re trying to move stuff, you don’t necessarily want a 35-year-old girl on set”), and the program reinforced the lesson “not to take things personal. Just do your job.”

Now she’s a Clio Award-winning director of production at Mob Scene, a major trailer/featurette/commercial house, and “if you come on any of my sets, you’re going to find women, Asians, Middle-Easterners, African-Americans, everybody! And I have great crews, it’s not like I’m picking them because of that. But I also am trying to work it so that people will see there are great crew members who happen to be minorities.” She lauds the Streetlights mindset that “you can do anything. … The industry doesn’t care what your background was. If you work hard, if you have good ideas, there will be a place for you.”

The HFPA will direct over a half million dollars to formal institutions of higher education this year, in funds largely earmarked for fellowships, project production costs and equipment. Another quarter of a million dollars will take the form of one-time equipment grants to the likes of CalArts (for new LED lights and wiring); Mount San Antonio College (a first phase of modernizing its TV studio lighting); and the Motion Picture and Television Fund (upgrading its program and theater).

“Funding from generous organizations like the Hollywood Foreign Press is vital for keeping Streetlights and other programs like it alive.”
Randy Huggins

And beyond all that, when the board’s interest is particularly piqued — often by the promise of increasing minority industry participation — additional significant support has been solicited and approved.

The cinema and television arts department at Cal State, Northridge, for instance, is midway through a three-year grant of $2 million, much of it aimed directly at financially needy HFPA Scholars from underrepresented communities.

“Everybody talks about diversity in the entertainment industry, but the HFPA is actually doing something about it,” says chair Jon Stahl, “and something big … the single largest gift to our program in its history.”

It has made possible full modernization of CSUN’s post-production facilities, with a state-of-the-art TV studio upgrade in the works. Stahl lauds HFPA members as “magnificently big-hearted people who care passionately,” and they’ll be saluted in September when Manzanita Hall’s south wing on campus is formally named the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. Wing.

Elizabeth Daley, dean of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, is no less grateful for the $2 million creating the HFPA endowed Intl. Student Support Fund, described as the single most substantial endowment ever targeted to qualified scholars from overseas. “It’s an extremely important gift for us,” she says, given international students’ often uncertain financial aid eligibility. USC will be able, in perpetuity, to respond to the needs of those already on campus and attract promising HFPA Intl. Scholars from abroad.

“Walter Murch once said, ‘Filmmaking is the collision of intelligences,’ ” Daley says. “The more different perspectives you put together, you come out with something much richer and important — aesthetically, artistically, whatever criteria you want to put — than if you have a homogeneity in the production.”

The new endowment will push back against the globe’s becoming what Daley calls “a read-only culture. We don’t want to get into a situation where we speak and everybody else in the world listens. … We need to hear their stories.”

International storytelling is enhanced through HFPA gifts to organizations promoting both cultural exchange and film history. Asked for a bequest close to their hearts, both Soria and Tatna instantly respond “FilmAid” — a group that brings to refugee camps in East Africa, Jordan and elsewhere not just entertainment, but also education in sanitation, health and women’s rights.

As for the commitment to the cinematic past, HFPA funds have helped to restore nearly 100 Hollywood classics and film noir rarities. The American Cinematheque has received close to $3 million over the years, including $2.3 million to restore Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater and equip a safe projection booth for 35mm nitrate.

Writing to Soria on behalf of the Film Foundation, Martin Scorsese has identified the Egyptian as “one of the few public venues in the country with the ability to project these rare, fragile and stunning prints,” insisting “the film community owes a great debt to the HFPA for their longstanding support for preservation.”

Finally, the board’s special projects category permits specialized help for those who need it most. This year’s recipients include the Los Angeles LGBT Center to encourage youth empowerment through filmmaking; the Lollipop Theater Network bringing screenings and film stars to hospitalized young people; and the Pablove Foundation, which offers a photography program for children battling cancer.

Creative self-expression, an often underrated component of patient recovery, remains squarely in HFPA’s sights. Children’s Hospital Los Angeles received support in each of the past two years for its Mark Taper and Johnny Mercer Artists program, in which expressive arts therapists, per corporate partnerships VP Dawn Wilcox, “address the unique physical and emotional challenges faced by hospitalized kids — from infants to young adults.” She points to 39,649 encounters to date among artists, patients and families.

“HFPA grants have helped us expand our reach and share of voice within the entertainment community,” Wilcox says, noting that year’s grant will partly be allotted to create opportunities for greater industry financial support in these belt-tightened times.

“A lot of what we do is very much related to who we are,” says Tatna as she leads her association into a new year of accomplishment. “Since we cover the entertainment industry, if we encourage the next generation of young filmmakers, the industry will thrive. And,” she adds, “our jobs will continue!”

If industry glamour and hype are inescapable for anyone covering the town, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. does seem to manage to keep its priorities straight in its ongoing philanthropic outreach. Soria admits, “It’s cool to hang around movie stars and go to premieres. But it gives us all an amazing joy to get a letter from a student saying, ‘Thanks to you guys, I am now in development somewhere,’ or ‘I was able to realize the dream of finishing my documentary.’ That’s really something that fills our day.”

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