How Hollywood’s Favorite Charity Went Broke

How Hollywood’s Favorite Charity Went Broke

On Oct. 24, the head of Hollywood’s most beloved charity, the century-old Motion Picture & Television Fund, warned of its “imminent demise” if it didn’t raise at least $10 million by the end of this year. CEO Bob Beitcher wrote in an open letter sent to industry members the next day that, since the onset of the pandemic, the organization, which provides social services and residential options for currently employed and retired entertainment workers, had incurred a massive operating shortfall largely stemming from COVID-related expenses and lost earnings from philanthropic events. 

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“Never sufficiently endowed, MPTF has always survived year to year and deficit to deficit,” he explained in the letter, which also ran as an ad in The Hollywood Reporter. “We are now operating in dangerous territory, rapidly depleting our cash reserves.” Beitcher argued that the organization’s capacity to help the thousands it serves — through offerings like its retirement community in Woodland Hills, financial assistance grants and behavioral health services — “literally hangs in the balance” and that without a “dramatic” boost in donations, “we will not be able to take care of our own much longer.” 

How did such a well-resourced charity, which has housed the likes of Hattie McDaniel and Stanley Kramer and welcomed donations from some of L.A.’s deepest pockets, get to this point? After all, the nonprofit — known for its annual power-packed Oscar event — features a collection of heavyweight boardmembers including Casey Wasserman, Bonnie Hammer, George Clooney, Channing Dungey, J.J. Abrams, Byron Allen, Nina Shaw and Ann Sarnoff. More to the point, not too long ago the MPTF made headlines touting eight-figure bequests from the likes of Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. However, Beitcher reminded his readers, several recent pledges are “to be paid out in the future, upon the death of the donors.”

The MPTF, verging on insolvency, is fighting for its life in large part because Hollywood is now a different place. The industry that birthed it has transformed, structurally and culturally. Generations of corporate and individual leaders created and then sustained the organization because they were passionate about the cause — or at least they felt they owed it to their progenitors not to let it down. 

Now, as the business undergoes its latest convulsions, and the MPTF has its hands out, it’s an open question whether it’ll make good on its ongoing commitments to its lender, Northern Trust. (According to the organization’s latest publicly available financial statements, the charity had over $58 million in net assets in 2021, around $52 million of which was restricted by donors either temporarily or permanently; that year the organization had an operating deficit of $10.4 million.) “We’re caught in the midst of generational change,” Beitcher tells THR. 


Mary Pickford, 1932

Mary Pickford, 1932 Everett

Founded in 1921 by Mary Pickford, what was then called the Motion Picture Relief Fund sought to provide aid to industry members in need not long before the movie business transitioned to sound, jeopardizing the earning ability of many who specialized in the silent medium. The unofficial motto: “We take care of our own.”

In the century that followed, everyone from Judy Garland and Humphrey Bogart to, more recently, Jodie Foster and Kirk and Anne Douglas bankrolled the organization. They helped the fund build out its “Wasserman campus,” a retirement community and healthcare complex named after key supporters Lew and Edie Wasserman at the then-pastoral western edge of the San Fernando Valley in Woodland Hills near Calabasas. 

Beyond its on-campus offerings, the MPTF provides, among other services, financial assistance for entertainment workers in need as well as health insurance in collaboration with the Entertainment Community Fund.

Providing services has been pricey, and until recent decades, one stable revenue stream was a “payroll pledge” arrangement with the studios. The brainchild of Pickford during the Great Depression, the pledge ensured that studio workers making more than $200 a week funneled half a percent of their wages to the fund. (Later, workers were able to contribute larger percentages of their paychecks and the program expanded to include unions and talent agencies.) While the payroll pledge still exists, the funds it raises have dwindled in tandem with the erosion of the studio system, as below-the-line Hollywood workers who used to be employed by studios have largely transitioned to gig work, moving from job to job.  

“I can tell you that in the ’70s and ’80s that payroll pledge amounted to $10 million a year in 2021 dollars — and in 2021 that was under $400,000,” Beitcher explains. The amount that was collected in 2021 originated with “for the most part pledges that were made 30 or 40 years ago,” rather than new funds. 

Recent years have seen other financial difficulties. In 2009, the MPTF nearly closed its long-term care facility in the face of spiraling health care costs. At the time, the fund said operating deficits from that program and its acute-care facility had mounted to around $10 million a year. The then-chair of the board of governors, Jeffrey Katzenberg, explained at the time that the obligations could’ve bankrupted the organization “in a very few years.” 

The plan prompted an uproar from residents of the long-term care facility and their loved ones, several of whom went so far as to enlist Girardi & Keese, the now-defunct firm of lawyer Tom Girardi, then a star plaintiffs’ attorney. (Girardi, the former husband of a castmember of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, was disbarred in June following claims that he stole millions from clients; the scandal has been the focus of several seasons of the Bravo reality show.) Eventually, the MPTF backed down. In the years that followed the initial outcry, the CEO resigned (Beitcher was the replacement) and the organization sold its primary care practice to UCLA Health, as well as two health center buildings. 

Still, while these days the MPTF provides off-site social services to thousands of community members, the brick-and-mortar care it offers to its roughly 220 residents has only become more expensive since. Sighs one longtime fund insider, “This is the most emotional issue.” (The organization noted in its 2019 annual report, the last before COVID hit, that residential care costs amounted to more than $10 million, the most expensive category measured.)  


Members of the MPTF’s two boards. Top row, from left: Bonnie Hammer, Jim Gianopulos, Bob Beitcher, John Wells, J.J. Abrams, Peter Rice. Bottom row, from left: Betsy Beers, Casey Wasserman, Byron Allen, Ann Sarnoff, Channing Dungey, George Clooney. Getty

Under Beitcher, who arrived in 2011, the MPTF embarked on a high-profile, $350 million endowment campaign led by Jeffrey Katzenberg, its board of governors chair. It netted five widely publicized $30 million gifts: the aforementioned pledges from Katzenberg along with his erstwhile DreamWorks partners Spielberg and Geffen, as well as pledges from Steve Bing and Barry Diller, who when his own bequest was announced said that it “seems impossible to me to have had success in the entertainment industry and not strongly support the MPTF.”

All these were “legacy” donations, in the parlance of the nonprofit sphere. Which is to say the MPTF would receive the money after the philanthropists passed on. So, the assistance has yet to arrive. “God bless them, they’re very healthy people, and they get great medical care,” observes one longtime supporter. Now, adds longtime MPTF board member and producer Hawk Koch of the MPTF’s legacy donations in general, “We’re hoping that some of those legacy gifts will come through sooner,” meaning that some supporters might be willing to donate at least some portion of their promised funds before they pass away. One benefactor who has since died — Bing, who died by suicide at age 55 in 2020 — had a reported $300,000 in remaining liquid assets, and his estate has since been the subject of a protracted family feud in probate court. The MPTF has yet to see the promised appropriation. 

These large posthumous gifts, never paid out, have been a dilemma for the organization. They’ve collectively created a Potemkin village impression of security (further underscored by the MPTF’s signature, starry Night Before parties ahead of the Oscars) which may disincline potential givers who think the charity isn’t in need of help. 

Securing new donations has become increasingly difficult. The MPTF’s century-old mission — assisting down-on-their-luck and elderly entertainment workers — isn’t the donation magnet it once was. These days, on an individual level, those inclined to give away their wealth are more often drawn to climate and hunger initiatives. In even-numbered years, the activity around town bends toward left-leaning political campaigns and causes. “You throw in a pandemic and other issues that are happening in the world and it’s only made it more challenging [to raise funds],” explains MPTF chief development officer Courteney Bailey. 

In the meantime, corporate giving has withered. A few big firms, most notably Comcast, have maintained their commitment of significant giving, but a generation of Hollywood’s management turnover, belt-tightening ethos, institutional consolidation and Silicon Valley domination have left the MPTF without a robust patron class willing to dig into its pockets. One problem in particular has been the recent series of entertainment megamergers and acquisitions that has whittled the number of corporate donors. 

Explains one board member, “I think all the major corporations in our business should be giving. Only a few are giving, and we need all of them to give.” While the organization declines to call out the tightfisted, THR has learned an emblematic case is Amazon Studios, which completed its acquisition of MGM, a founding industry studio and a longtime MPTF donor, earlier this year. (Neither entity responded to inquiries about its donations to the MPTF in recent years.)

Still, the MPTF’s boards of directors and governors — the former focused on its administration, the latter on fundraising — also have a fiduciary duty to “act in the best interest of the nonprofit that they’re overseeing,” says Laurie Styron, executive director of nonprofit watchdog CharityWatch. The boards’ collective membership ranges from George Clooney, Jim Gianopulos and Christopher Nolan to DGA national executive director Russell Hollander and IATSE international president Matthew Loeb. (New arrivals this year include Greg Berlanti and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.) When asked what responsibility the board bears for the charity’s financial precarity, Koch responds, “The board [of directors] is always aware, and we’re always trying to find a way.” He adds, “COVID and the pandemic is what really pushed us over the edge. We were doing OK, we were fighting the good fight all the time.” 

A concerning aspect of the MPTF’s predicament, notes Styron, is that it “has made some pretty serious operations obligations for ongoing care of people,” and that retracting any services in the face of financial difficulties would be tricky. And, with inflation still high and the specter of a potential recession and major labor talks looming (some WGA West members are already talking up the possibility of a strike), more members of the rank-and-file may soon be in need of the MPTF’s services.

MPTF insiders contend Beitcher’s letter, which he circulated to members of both boards prior to its public release, is a play to scare up dollars from the industry at large during the final fiscal quarter, when holiday-season giving decision are made. Just as important, the gambit is meant to spur those posthumous givers, who Beitcher and his like-minded MPTF allies hope will now ante up financial assistance immediately, rather than after they’re dead. 

While some believe Beitcher’s strategy is risky, alienating perhaps his most crucial backers, the CEO says it’s already working. “Major donors have stepped up and are also involved in advocacy among their peer group,” he explains. “We are not ready to name names yet but will in the next few weeks once we give others an opportunity to join this generous cohort.”

One name to watch will be Katzenberg, for three decades the MPTF’s chief arm-twister on donations, who left the organization and the board in 2021, the same year the charity celebrated its 100th anniversary. Following the collapse of his shortform video firm Quibi, and his subsequent business shift away from Hollywood, the mogul has been spending more time pursuing other philanthropic interests, chiefly a focus on homelessness. Katzenberg declined to comment.

For now, the MPTF hopes to avoid curtailing or canceling services and will focus its efforts on satisfying its bank covenants by the end of the year, hoping to raise up to $20 million, according to Koch. While those close to the organization don’t believe Northern Trust, its lender, is going risk the blowback of playing hardball with one of the nation’s most storied old-age homes, they don’t want to test the proposition. 

“This situation is real,” insists Beitcher. “It’s time for everyone in the industry to know that we’re only here due to the generosity of our donors. People can’t sit on their hands hoping that three or four people will solve this problem. That’s not a long-term solution.”