The Fulfillment Fund’s 20th annual Stars Benefit Gala was dedicated to the memory of Tom Sherak, who died in January after 19 years as the tenacious patron saint of this event. And as the first-ever recipient of the Tom Sherak Stars Award, Relativity founder and CEO Ryan Kavanaugh felt he had some big shoes to fill at the Beverly Hilton fete Tuesday night.
“Obviously tonight we’re missing a big component,” Kavanaugh said of Sherak, who was an ever-present mentor to Kavanaugh as he built his studio. “He’s been the driving force every year that I’ve been involved, making things happen that I’ve never seen happen at a charity event. I believe he’s here in spirit, and I want to test that.”
Sherak did indeed have an unorthodox approach to raising money for the Fulfillment Fund, which is dedicated to helping students in educationally and economically under-resourced communities earn college degrees. For instance, when Kavanaugh won a raffle for a Subaru BRZ at the event last year, Sherak convinced him to donate the car back to be auctioned off for the Fund. When Kavanaugh won the auction, Sherak once again coaxed him into donating it back for a second round of auctioning. Sherak’s zest for fundraising was unstoppable.
“Tom could break the boundary,” Kavanaugh told the crowd, which included Michael Buble, James Marsden, Teri Hatcher and Michelle Monaghan. “He brought together competitors and friends, convinced them to co-bid, to stand together to help this cause. There’s no one hopping table to table to help me get Paramount to bet against Warners to bet against Fox tonight, because if I asked any other studio for money they’d probably walk out of the room.”
Sherak’s approach was to roam the ballroom and cheekily elbow execs like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Peter Chernin and Tom Rothman with a wink and a smile, but Kavanaugh also worked the room of more than 800 guests from the stage. Standing beside quippy auctioneer Kathy Griffin and emcee John Oliver (who was notably low profile in his duties as host), Kavanaugh called out the names of those who he knew had deep enough pockets, trying to persuade fellow execs, agents and other industry figures to donate.
“I know almost everyone in the room,” he said, “so I’m going to start the auctioning off, and if we’re not getting the right price, I’ll be here to help people find what they need to do.”
“Bullying works — that’s the takeaway from this evening,” Oliver joked. “’The Wolf of Wall Street’ may have been a little light.”
“Last year, I was sitting at that table with Tom and he asked me to be next year’s honoree,” Kavanaugh explained. “I said, ‘I think you should pick someone else — I’m not exactly the least polarizing figure.’”
It wasn’t just nonstop fundraising — wallets got a break when longtime Fulfillment Fund board member Charles Fox was presented with the 2014 Founders’ Award. The Emmy and Grammy-winning composer, who is perhaps best known for composing the tune “Killing Me Softly,” told a humbling tale about a teacher who noticed his musical gifts and took him under her wing in Paris, offering him free music lessons when his Bronx, New York-based family could barely afford to pay for his food.
“She gave me a whole life of music,” he said. “I was with her for two years in Paris, but she’s been with me my whole life. That’s what the Fulfillment Fund does. It creates hope where there may be none.”
Later, Jennifer Hudson gave a performance that included her latest single, “Spotlight,” as well as “And I Am Telling You” from “Dreamgirls,” for which Hudson won an Oscar in 2006.
The event raised more than $2 million, an undeniable feather in Kavanaugh’s cap. Tom Sherak would have approved.
(Pictured: Kathy Griffin and Ryan Kavanaugh at the Fulfillment Fund’s Stars Benefit Gala)