Actor and comedian Nick Kroll found himself unusually emotional on May 16 when he suited up to host an annual benefit for New York hospital Memorial Sloan Kettering. His heightened state could easily be attributed to news circulating that day of the deaths of comedian Fred Willard and director Lynn Shelton, he says. Or it might have been in anticipation of the tales he would hear about Sloan Kettering cancer patients — those who lived, those who died.
“Honestly, it was most emotional being with my friends and doing something for this cause,” Kroll says. “With coronavirus, and the news about Fred and Lynn, it feels like we’re losing too many people.” Joined by guests Jon Hamm and John Oliver, Kroll helped raise $400,000 for the cause that night. It was a successful black-tie affair, but one that deviated from the norm in a notable respect — the benefit was not held in its usual venue, Lincoln Center. Instead it went up on Zoom, as so many gatherings now do amid the pandemic.
Starry galas and swanky hotel luncheons have gone dark in the time of quarantine, putting the millions of dollars that Hollywood raises for the causes attached to these social functions in jeopardy. Canceling the Cannes Film Festival, for instance, meant shelving the annual amfAR benefit that takes place at the same time, a huge blow given that it raises millions for AIDS research. Star-studded benefits set for the fall — including the annual Carousel of Hope ball, which targets diabetes, and the Race to Erase MS — are unlikely to take place as planned.
Celebrities emcee events, present awards and lend their A-list glamour to red carpets in an effort to provide the kind of glittery backdrop that convinces deep-pocketed donors to feel philanthropic. Due to COVID-19, these charitably inclined actors and filmmakers have been forced to get creative.
“Ideas about social gathering will be impacted for a long time. I can’t say when we will have that next thousand-person dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel,” says Romola Ratnam, the head of social impact at Endeavor, which owns talent agency WME.
Causes that have gone virtual include Matthew McConaughey’s annual Austin-set benefit for his Just Keep Livin Foundation, which raised nearly $1 million and saw country star Luke Combs perform a solo acoustic set from his living room. The Breast Cancer Research Foundation took its longtime live event, the Hot Pink Evening, online with Elton John and Lin-Manuel Miranda, generating more than $5.2 million in the process.
In some respects, such digital gatherings offer more bang for the buck. “Virtual events like these can lead to efficiencies, because these events are sometimes incredibly expensive,” says Ratnam. “Even though they’re raising money, 30% to 50% of funds are often being spent on production.”
In her role, Ratnam helps clients like John Mayer, Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron and Rihanna find ways to elevate their good work and connect with new causes to fund or promote. “Some of our clients have really leaned into a combination of how to provide interesting and meaningful content to fans while also raising money,” she says. Kroll, for example, arranged a live table read of his hit Netflix animated series “Big Mouth” as a benefit for Feeding America.
Another way actors are stepping up, Ratnam says, is by giving cash.
“After the first day of lockdown, our clients Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds gave $1 million off the bat to help food banks in North America and Canada,” she says. “Angelina did something similar with No Kid Hungry [Jolie donated $1 million to the campaign]. Those swift actions created a new normal, especially being that $1 million is a kind of standard gift.”
Philanthropic divisions are standard across the major talent agencies. CAA’s eponymous foundation has raised more than $1.6 million for students in need in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and created the #BeatTheVirus social media campaign with the MIT Media Lab to raise public health awareness; the platform has surpassed 2 billion digital impressions. UTA’s foundation helped client Post Malone stage a World Health Organization benefit livestream concert that raised more than $1 million for COVID-related nonprofits, and similarly helped rapper Pitbull launch a loan initiative for Hispanic small business owners. At ICM, the politics division has worked closely with the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools to secure a large donation of noise canceling headphones for students learning at home. They’re also helping the Motion Picture and Television Fund call vulnerable people in the Hollywood community for wellness checks.
“People will get used to supporting the causes that are important to them without feeling like it has to be triggered by a guest list and VIP dinner,” Ratnam says. “For now, there is comfort in these intimate Zooms and creative content that brings levity — until we can come back together.”