‘Lion,’ ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ and ‘Hidden Figures’ Look Beyond Oscar Gold

Lion Hacksaw Ridge Hidden Figures
Courtesy of The Weinstein Co/Summit/20th Centiry Fox

At this time of year, industry workers talk about a film in terms of Oscars and/or box office. But there are plenty of nominees that have a life apart from those considerations: These are films that actually help people.

Lionsgate’s “Hacksaw Ridge” has been working with military veterans, Fox’s “Hidden Figures” has been doing outreach to students, and the Weinstein Co.’s “Lion” is raising funds to benefit impoverished children in India.

After each movie wrapped production, filmmakers began to realize their work might help people. Donna Gigliotti, a producer of “Figures,” says, “These things happened organically. There was no great plan. But I’m so glad it happened.”

“Lion” producer Iain Canning said that in early screenings, people asked how they could help Calcutta’s homeless children, who are depicted in the film. A team did research and “identified three charities that had a good plan to help kids in this situation,” he told Variety. “So we started this process. It was just something we needed to do.”

Canning and Emile Sherman of See-Saw Films worked with U.S. distrib Weinstein Co. and a network of the film’s global distributors to launch the #LionHeart social impact campaign. Star Nicole Kidman got the fundraising off to a start with a $10,000 donation. So far the “Lion” project has raised more than a quarter-million dollars to help more than 80,000 children in India.

The “Lion” team has been working with Charity Network, which oversees digital fundraising platforms. “Lion” ran two auctions via Charitybuzz, an online auction site; Prizeo, which offered fans such sweepstakes as “Meet Dev (Patel) and Nicole for a Champagne toast”; and Chideo, which collects donations from anywhere in the world.

Among the beneficiaries are Magic Bus, which educates at-risk children about how to move out of poverty; Railway Children, which fights on behalf of kids suffering abuse and exploitation; and Childline India, which runs a 24-hour crisis hotline for youngsters in emergency situations. The latter group is looking to install support kiosks in places where homeless kids congregate, like the train stations in the film about the life of Saroo Brierley. Other beneficiaries include UN Foundation, UNICEF, Intl. Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and ISSA (which helped Brierley in Calcutta).

The makers of “Hacksaw Ridge” started screening the film for military veterans early in 2016; they wanted to make sure everyone was comfortable with the intense battle scenes. As it turns out, the vets’ reaction was overwhelmingly positive, says producer Bill Mechanic, because the realism helped them confront their demons and to show loved ones what their experiences were like. So the film team decided to expand their outreach.

The film is about conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) and his heroic deeds during WWII; a key element is his father (Hugo Weaving), a veteran of the first World War who experienced PTSD, long before there was a name for it. The “Ridge” filmmakers continued their screenings for vets, including at the Disabled American Veterans national convention, the annual Medal of Honor ceremonies (where Doss is “a hero among heroes,” said Mechanic), and the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

The “Hacksaw” team have linked with multiple organizations, including National Center for PTSD, Veterans in Recovery, and PTSD Foundation of America, with websites and help lines. In answer to Variety‘s questions, Gibson said, “Veterans are too often sadly overlooked. They sacrificed so much, and some aren’t doing too well. It’s always good to remember these people and I hope this film helps bring attention to them.”

Mechanic added, “Doing good is not part of the job description when you’re making a film, but the benefits we’ve seen are one of the great byproducts.”

Gigliotti said the target audience for Fox’s “Hidden Figures” was originally women over 35, so they did a series of early screenings with this audience.

“None of us anticipated that those women would bring their kids. And we started seeing young girls responding to the movie and the message that math is not just for boys. Once we saw that, we thought ‘How do we take this further?’ Octavia (Spencer) was the first person to champion the idea of free screenings, realizing that not everybody can afford the price of a movie ticket.”

That resulted in a free screening on Jan. 13, the Friday of Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. The idea expanded, including a showing at USC Galen Center for 10,000 students from the L.A. Unified School District. And on Feb. 18, Fox will partner with AMC theaters to offer free screenings in 14 cities.

In addition, the filmmakers worked with Black Girls Code, a nonprofit that provides technology training for young black girls, to have BGC girls design the site FutureKatherineJohnsons.com. And in early January, the film team worked with the White House office of STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering & Math. That organization has recognized the fact that there is growth area in employment for all these fields, but too few American students are interested.

Other Oscar contenders are helping in diverse ways. “Moonlight” this past week was honored by the Human Rights Campaign for raising awareness of bullying and for shining a light on lives that aren’t usually depicted in films. On Feb. 16, “La La Land,” “Moana,” and “Zootopia” received Made in Hollywood awards, which salutes works that film in California and boost the economy; there are even unexpected side effects like the effort to reopen the historic Rialto theater in South Pasadena, after it was prominently featured in “La La Land.”

“Lion” producer Canning summed it up by saying quite simply, “Films can entertain, but they can also open doors and be an instrument for change.”