In its 34th year of existence, the Humanitas Prize will soon embark on an ambitious new program of script development, philanthropic partnerships and, if all goes right, actual production.
“There was a very specific objective in the establishment of the organization, and it was not simply to give away some cash every year,” says “ER” and “The West Wing” executive producer John Wells, who accepted the position of Humanitas president less than a month ago. (Acting president Father Frank Desiderio is being promoted to chairman of the board, and Cathleen Young continues as executive director.)
Founded by “Hollywood priest” and born showman Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser in 1974 as an adjunct — if not quite offshoot — of his successful Paulist Prods., Humanitas has distributed more than $2.3 million in prize money to screenwriters in both television and film who have produced stories that “affirm the dignity of the human person, probe the meaning of life and enlighten the use of human freedom,” according to the org.
Notes Wells, himself a Humanitas winner for an episode of “The West Wing” (and with nine nominations), a fund will be established to develop several scripts per year by both younger and seasoned writers that reflect the organization’s stated values.
In addition, creative partnerships with advertisers and university film programs will be implemented to nurture and challenge the writers of the future.
Beyond that, there are plans for a Humanitas Presents franchise to produce original material and serve as a de facto “Good Housekeeping Seal” for quality broadcast and cable TV entertainment. Wells, who is now working on a new show for NBC titled “LAPD,” promises details at the annual awards banquet, to be held today at the Beverly Hills Hotel, which marks both a calendar and venue change.
Although the total prize money this year will fall by more than a third, from $145,000 to $95,000, Wells claims the balance will go toward scholarships and a proposed diversity program as well as additional prizes to be named in the future. He also insists the eponymous Kieser Award, a career achievement award established upon Kieser’s death in 2000 that is not being given this year, will continue whenever consensus candidates emerge.
“Part of Humanitas is trying to remind people that there is a great deal of financial success that can come from pursuing these kinds of films,” says Wells, whose company also backs uber-indie film shingle Killer Films, headed by Christine Vachon. “You don’t have to be doing comicbook adaptations or graphic novels; there’s actually a career to be built and to be proud of within this area.”
What: The Humanitas Awards
When: Noon Wednesday
Where: Beverly Hills Hotel