"A Tool for Positive Social Change." A Funder Ups Support for Documentary Filmmaking


Last year, the University of Southern California refused a $5 million pledge from Harvey Weinstein after the New York Times published a piece documenting the producer’s decades of alleged abuse. As I noted at the time, the pledge, which was earmarked to endow grant scholarships for women filmmakers, had the potential to significantly move the needle in a cinematic arts space, as donors have been surprisingly tight-fisted on the issue of boosting diversity in the entertainment industry.

So while contemporary art gallery Hauser & Wirth’s $1 million grant to support Cal State L.A.’s undergraduate program in the Department of Television, Film and Media Studies doesn’t quantify as a “mega-gift” in the conventional sense, it’s nonetheless important. It’s a gift from an unlikely source to an unusual suspect to support an underfunded area. What’s more, by backing the idea that film can be a “tool for positive social change,” the gift aligns with one of the hottest trends in arts philanthropy right now.

In 2017, Hauser & Wirth gave the school $20,000 to launch a course called Community Impact Media, in which students create short documentary films about local nonprofit organizations. Cal State portrays the course as a way to highlight local nonprofits doing good work while supporting greater future diversity in the film and entertainment industries. Last year, the gallery gave an additional $20,000 to support the class and department. Funds went toward equipment as well as faculty and visiting instructors.

The new donation kicks off a five-year partnership between the gallery and the university, which will receive $200,000 a year. The grant funds new equipment and software, faculty support, and student mentorship. Hauser & Wirth will also make space at its Arts District complex for public screenings of student and faculty films, as well as other programming.

Grantmaking as a “Rounding Error”

To be fair, Hollywood has its share of funders working to boost diversity in filmmaking. In 2015, George Lucas and his partner Mellody Hobson made a $10 million gift to USC support underrepresented filmmakers. Two years later, the couple donated another $10 million to the same program. Sundance, the Time Warner Foundation, and the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation have also been active is in this space. But recent research suggests there’s still a lot of work to do.

In January, the UCLA College Division of Social Science released its newest UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report. The good news? Counting each year’s 200 top-grossing films, the number of women directors nearly doubled from 2016 to 2017. The not-so-good news? Even with that increase, there were just 21 women directors among the 167 English-language films from 2017’s top 200, or just 12.6 percent of the total. And an early analysis of 2018’s top movies indicates the increase was just a one-year blip.

“We’ve seen modest advances when it comes to movies and films,” said Ana-Christina Ramon, director of research and civic engagement for the Division of Social Sciences, and the report’s other lead author. “But deep-seated power systems—dominated by white male decision-makers at the highest levels—are hard to break. The kind of structural change necessary for a new order of business in the film industry has yet to happen, and pushing for it will require sustained vigilance and awareness.”

At the same time, the American film industry topped $43 billion, leading some commentators to argue that Hollywood should be doing a lot more to boost diversity in its ranks. For example, when the Walt Disney Company announced it would donate $1 million of the proceeds of Black Panther to STEM programs at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, journalist Gene Debby called the grant amount a “rounding error.”

Or consider the track record of the Academy Foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' FilmCraft and FilmWatch grant program, tasked with identifying and empowering “future filmmakers from nontraditional backgrounds.” Citing “limited resources,” the academy temporarily shelved the program in 2014. Members of the film community were not pleased. The Hollywood Reporter cited one film scholar who complained that the academy spent “more money on flower arrangements at the Governors Ball” (the academy’s Oscars after-party) than on these important programs.

The academy re-instituted the programs in 2015, but the grants range from $5,000 to $15,000—relatively paltry stuff, considering that the price tag for the entire Oscars production is $44 million.

Add it all up, and Hauser & Wirth’s gift echoes a point I made last year related to the small, Harlem-based funder Firelight Media: Some grantmakers aren’t sitting around waiting for Hollywood to do more to support underrepresented filmmakers, after years of complaints. They’re doing it themselves.

Cultivating “Community Activists”

All of which brings me to the motivations behind Hauser & Wirth’s gift to Cal State L.A., a school that has traditionally flown under the radar in the region’s cinematic arts ecosystem.

Clearly, the gallery has been impressed by the Community Impact Media course it backed at the college, which has engaged students in local nonprofits in Los Angeles and issues like mass incarceration and environmental change in California.

In a press release statement, Marc Payot, the vice president of Hauser & Wirth wrote, “Cal State L.A.’s commitment to civic engagement and public service aligns perfectly with our gallery’s desire to contribute to the communities where we work. We want to support scholarship in all forms, from art, historical research, and the preservation of artists’ archives, to the efforts of young students seeking to become community activists themselves through the art and films they are learning to make.”

Payot’s statement suggests that interest in framing the arts as a means to drive social change is no longer limited to institutional funders like the Ford, Robert Rauschenberg, and Shelley and Donald Rubin foundations or wealthy patrons like Agnes Gund. More regionally focused funders are increasingly embracing this concept and applying it to their respective fields. Examples here include SFFILM, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation’s work in the public art space, and Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation’s support for “social impact theatre.”

“It is particularly gratifying to find a partner who shares our institutional values, vision, and hopes for the future of students as both successful professionals and agents of social change,” said Cal State L.A. Assistant Professor and filmmaker Heather Fipps, who leads the university’s Student Production Unit and the Community Impact Media course.