As It Nears 100, Motion Picture Television Fund Strives to Recruit New Blood

Brian Toombs Bob Beitcher MPTF
Dan Doperalski for Variety

As the Motion Picture Television Fund approaches its 100th birthday, it is tapping Hollywood heavyweights like J.J. Abrams, Christopher Nolan, Bonnie Hammer, Peter Rice, and Kevin Tsujihara to help dispel misperceptions about the organization and promote its diverse services to a new generation of industry newcomers.

The task force, headed by John Wells, will make an aggressive push to remind young people that the fund, which supports members of the California entertainment community, is much more than the Woodland Hills Country House & Hospital for retired and ailing industry vets.

“People often associate the fund with end-of-career or retirement concerns, but it’s much more,” Wells says.

The task force — which also includes Emma Thomas, Sue Kroll, Dee Dee Myers, and Tony Goldwyn — is planning events and workplace reminders to support the fund.

Another new group, NextGen — which includes reps from Funny or Die, Netflix, Marvel, and the established studios, networks, and agencies — has the immediate goals of welcoming newcomers to the industry, providing them with orientation and networking as they start their careers, and eventually creating a generation of industry workers who make the MPTF a part of their life.

A new umbrella program, tentatively titled All In, aims to drive home the point that MPTF work — which includes outpatient clinics, assistance to military veterans, financial aid, and child care — is not just about health but about quality of life. As MPTF president/CEO Bob Beitcher says, “It’s a culture of caring.”

Last year, the fund handled 60,000 cases. As awareness spreads, so will the demands. In 2012, the MPTF announced a target goal of $350 million in fundraising; it has since increased that goal to $500 million by 2021, the fund’s 100th anniversary.

MPTF Foundation board chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg tells Variety, “We’ve almost met our original target — we’re on the five-yard line, but now we’ve moved the goal post.”

There’s a greater need for assistance from the fund due to rising medical costs and unemployment because of increased filming outside of Southern California.

In recent years, the MPTF has faced severe financial hardship, management upheaval, and public outcry, hitting a low point in 2009-10. “No question, we were in a crisis mode,” Katzenberg acknowledges. “We were challenged, underfunded, and had issues with the leadership team.”

The fund faced a PR nightmare when families protested its decision to close its long-term care facility and move patients to another site in a plan that was more cost-efficient.

“We had dark days, but we found the right leadership and restructured,” says Katzenberg. “Six years later, we have an outstanding president/CEO in Bob Beitcher, an active and engaged board, and they’ve helped put the organization on very sure footing. The fund has never been in better shape. But we must continue to be diligent in fundraising efforts. That’s essential.”

Plans have been drawn up for new construction at the Woodland Hills site, which sits on 40 acres, half of which is undeveloped. The MPTF hopes to break ground in 2019 on a senior-living community, with up to 400 units for retirees. Beitcher calls it “the single biggest transformation of our campus since we moved there 75 years ago.”

Meanwhile, NextGen is working to ensure continuity for the next 100 years. The group is co-chaired by Brian Toombs of Funny or Die and Natalie Bruss of ID-PR. They will shift into high gear in 2017, with a five-year plan to build a database of 1,000 members. “Our initial goal is to create awareness and educate peers,” says Toombs. “When you arrive in town, this should be the place where you land; it’s how to connect with people in the industry.”

Members will meet with pros such as ABC Entertainment Group president Channing Dungey. “As a longtime supporter of the organization, I’m honored to be joining a group of people who, with a shared vision, passion, and commitment, provide necessary services for those in need,” Dungey tells Variety.

Industry vet Jim Gianopulos, who’s on the MPTF board of directors, is among those who points out that the organization has many roles, including offering financial aid for people in entertainment to cover basics such as rent and mortgage payments, utilities, and groceries.

“That’s the nature of the industry: Everyone is always looking for their next job,” Gianopulos says. “And sometimes the distance between jobs can be longer than anticipated. So having support in those times is critical.”

There are also extensive programs for the elderly, including memory training, chronic-disease programs, palliative care, and assistance on end-of-life issues. Gianopulos notes that many older people prefer to live at home, so the fund has implemented projects such as Home Safe Home, which retrofits houses to add safety measures like tub railings. Showbiz workers of all generations also have access to the half-dozen outpatient clinics in which the fund has partnered with the UCLA Health System.

Dr. Eric Esrailian of UCLA says many are surprised at the concept of medical and financial aid for Hollywood. “People sometimes ask, ‘Why does anyone in show business need assistance?’ They think everyone in entertainment earns a superstar salary and has unlimited resources. The truth is, most entertainment people work extremely hard and often go through stretches without employment.”

Esrailian says his experience as a producer crystallized for him the fragile economic realities of those who work in the industry. He’s a producer on “The Promise,” starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac, which Open Road will distribute in the U.S. starting April 21. The doctor got involved through his late mentor, Kirk Kerkorian, who wanted to create entertainment with a social impact. Proceeds from the film will go to various nonprofits.

The MPTF was formed in 1921 as the Motion Picture Relief Fund by silent film stars including Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. It eventually added TV to its name (a controversial decision at the time); Toombs jokes that his goal is to become the MPTVD Fund (the “D” would acknowledge digital entertainment).

Over the years, prominent supporters have included Kirk Douglas, Samuel Goldwyn, Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, Sumner Redstone, and Katzenberg, each of whom have made multimillion-dollar donations. Two of the biggest fundraisers were Lew and Edie Wasserman.

The MPTF’s leaders realize that times are changing, and they can’t rely on a few big donors. A goal is to get workers to pledge a monthly amount. It’s a variation on the payroll pledge program that began in 1932, when workers pledged 0.5%.

As Katzenberg sums up, “We want everybody in the industry to have a sense of participation, engagement, and ownership of the fund.”