Over the last decade Hollywood has become obsessed by philanthropy and social activism. Has a day gone by when you did not see a celebrity promoting a cause in the media? It is very vogue, like a highly coveted accessory. It is now all but socially unacceptable for Hollywood A-list stars and even B-list stars not to have a cause.
Hollywood’s obsession with philanthropy may also be a sign of deeper cultural shifts in the entertainment industry. Some cynics believe that having a cause is a way of self-validation or regaining the movie star luster that movie stars once had. With the onslaught of the paparazzi and instant media and internet coverage, many celebrities simply understand their potential to generate attention and want to use this platform or attention for good.
Hollywood philanthropy picked up momentum in the 1980s when Elizabeth Taylor became the world’s leading AIDS activist. Bono, Angelina Jolie, and George Clooney have since become almost defacto leaders in global charity work. All the main UN organizations now have Hollywood goodwill ambassadors: Angelina Jolie represents the UN High Commission for Refugees, Drew Barrymore the World Food Program.
Celebrity association with a cause or charity is a big draw. John Prendergast, the famous peace broker, who took Angelina Jolie on her first trip to the Congo shared that when Jolie returned from the trip and “posted an online diary called Ripples of Genocide on the website of the Holocaust Museum. It received so many views that the servers crashed. When the actress Lucy Liu went on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006 after visiting the earthquake zone in Pakistan, UNICEF received tens of thousands of telephone calls and there was a 240% spike in donations. But, said Prendergast, I don’t think the money raised by celebrities is transformative. The biggest assistance they give is raising public awareness and driving political action.”
Hollywood philanthropy is a big and serious business carefully craved out by talent agencies, Hollywood’s power brokers, for their celebrity clients. They map out “long-term strategy for philanthropy and make sure it is credible, financially solvent and has a stable infrastructure,” according to Michelle Kydd Lee, Creative Artist Agency’s (CAA) foundation director. Talent agency’s roles have expanded beyond simply matching celebrities to film projects, they now match celebrities to charity projects to the extent of packaging charitable causes. “They have the power to transform any cause or charity and make it fashionable by packaging it with the right spokespeople, inserting its messages into television programs and films, and by exploiting their own growing clout with politicians and government officials.”
Charitable organizations often come to pitch their causes to the agency. What are they looking to get out of Hollywood philanthropy? Some are hoping for more than an endorsement or a spokesperson, they are looking for a form of product placement and to shape popular culture. Now that — to shape popular culture — is indeed powerful and a huge, incalculable capital! Charities going at it alone could probably never command this global platform to shape culture. That may be the best thing Hollywood philanthropy can do for a cause or charity.