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Meet the discreet power brokers of the talent agencies who match influential charities with guilt-ridden celebrities

The headquarters of the United Talent Agency is in a gleaming white building on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Inside, it looks and feels surprisingly like a corporate law firm. The men pacing around the glass-walled offices wear crisp white shirts and sober ties, a silvery telephone headset attached to one ear; the women could be East Coast attorneys except for their prominent décolletages. Everyone is in good shape and somehow looks like an actor playing a businessperson.

Since the 1970s, the Hollywood talent agencies have become the most powerful institutions in the entertainment industry by “packaging” clients and projects. This ability to combine writers, directors, actors and financial backers has given them tremendous leverage over weakening studios and made agency heads into power brokers. It is less well known that they also 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 programmes and films, and by exploiting their own growing clout with politicians and government officials.

The biggest talent agencies have “foundations” to direct their companies’ considerable philanthropic efforts. It is their job to match their clients – actors, directors, musicians and athletes – with suitable causes in almost the same way that the old studios arranged marriages for stars. Whenever you see a film star in jeans and a baseball cap, patting the head of a skinny, ragged child in some dry, desperate village in Africa or Asia, the chances are that the actor’s journey began in one of these shiny offices in Los Angeles.

UTA’s clients include Johnny Depp, Harrison Ford, Gwyneth Paltrow and Owen Wilson, plus film-makers like the Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Larry David, Judd Apatow and Wes Anderson. But I am here today to meet Rene Jones, the stylish director of UTA’s foundation.

 

A gorgeous receptionist takes me to meet Jones, an understated blonde who used to work as a fundraiser for a California senator and knows how the prospect of meeting a Hollywood star can magically open doors. I ask her how the process of matching charities with stars actually works, picturing fraught brainstorming sessions with “talent” who have never read a newspaper and who think that the Middle East is next to the Midwest.

“It’s mostly counselling advice,” Jones coolly explains. “You meet, get to know one another, and then you act as a matchmaker and bring credible organisations to their attention. It’s not always an instant process, but the ones that last longest are those with an organic connection.”

It sometimes seems as if even the most junior celebrity has a cause, preferably to do with Africa or saving the world from carbon emissions. Jones is all too aware that there has to be a good fit between a client and a chosen cause. “There is nothing worse than someone who may be well-intentioned but is out of their element.” An embarrassing appearance by an underprepared or unenthusiastic star will do nothing for a charity, for the reputation of the star – or for the agency that has brought them together. “It’s not just a matter of jumping on the red carpet with some talking points.”

These days, foundation heads like Jones and Michelle Kydd Lee, her counterpart at Creative Artists Agency – the biggest and most influential of them all – are familiar figures in Washington, acting as quasi-ambassadors from Hollywood at meetings with the joint chiefs of staff at the Pentagon or White House officials. They vet causes, visit projects around the world and are courted by top UN officials and heads of NGOs. Then they go back to Hollywood and inform the film industry about this crisis or that epidemic or a new kind of aid project.

Over the last decade and a half, the agency foundations have grown in influence as Hollywood has become obsessed by philanthropy and social activism. It is now all but socially unacceptable for Hollywood big shots – and wannabe big shots – not to have a cause. Yet little has been written about the foundations’ existence or the power they wield. Hollywood agencies are famously discreet, even secretive, as they must be for their clients to trust them. It stands to reason that their foundations operate in the same way.

I first came across the hidden infrastructure behind Hollywood’s embrace of Darfur, Burma and other trouble spots on a reporting trip to Central Africa a couple of years ago. While waiting for a UN plane to land on a desert airstrip, I was told by the famous peace-broker John Prendergast, the very man who took Angelina Jolie on her first trip to the Congo, how he regularly flies to LA to pitch to screening rooms packed with actors and film-makers.

As we chatted, an e-mail pinged into his BlackBerry from a British-born soap star who had been to one of his talks at her talent agency. How could she help to end the suffering in Darfur, she asked? It was then that Prendergast told me about the work of the agency foundations. “They’re a force of nature,” he said. “You can achieve a lot if you guide them in the right way.” Now I was in Los Angeles to find out more.

I grew up in LA and my father was in the film business, so I had a fairly good idea of what to expect: the token leftist politics born of guilt, the conformism, the cynicism and ruthlessness. It would not be as crass as the scene in the film send-up Brüno, in which a flamboyantly gay Austrian talk-show host asks two giggling publicists to find him a cause that could help his career: “Dar-four is a big one, so what’s next? What’s the Dar-five?” But it might be close.

As ever in Hollywood, that caricature turned out to be less interesting than the reality. At a Saturday business brunch in the high-ceilinged living-room of a Spanish colonial house not far from the Beckhams’ mansion, a thirtysomething star, his manager and agent, an expat director from Ireland, a screenwriter and a couple of producers were spreading cream cheese and smoked salmon on fresh bagels before getting down to the nitty-gritty of negotiating a deal. I said I was investigating the new Hollywood philanthropy. “It’s all guilt money, man,” the agent laughed. “Just guilt money.”

Paris Hilton, the publicity-addicted heiress, had barely finished her 23-day prison sentence after violating her probation for drunk-driving in 2007 when she announced that she was going to Rwanda. Naturally, she would be taking cameras. “I love everything documented,” she said, presumably more in reference to her reality shows than her infamous sex tape. She added that it was important to do the trip, because “there are a lot of misconceptions about me”. Hilton never made it to Rwanda, but this year the celebutante tweeted a photograph of herself holding a child at a hospital in Guatemala.

John Prendergast gets furious when cynics bring up bandwagon jumpers like Hilton. “Who f***ing cares?” he said. “Just because this one is unserious and goes for the wrong reasons, so what? That’s not why Clooney goes. You can’t put Paris Hilton in the same category as Clooney or Angelina. It’s like confusing Bush and Obama.”

Some confusion is forgivable. Many people found it ridiculous when Gwyneth Paltrow and 16 other celebrities appeared in beads and “tribal” face paint in magazine ads proclaiming “I am an African” in an HIV/Aids campaign devised by Iman, the Somali-born model and wife of David Bowie. The inevitable parodies on the net proclaimed: “I am a Martian.”

My own somewhat cynical expectations were confirmed when I attended another brunch by the rooftop pool at the Raffles L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills. It was another boiling day. The brunch was a family affair, thrown by a music agent visiting from New York. The Hollywood people sat under a pale canopy, looking on at a trio of oil-slathered Brits roasting in the midday sun. The music agent also thought the idea of setting up an actor with a charity was a joke. “You shouldn’t need an agent to tell you about a charity,” he said. He himself donates large sums to a charity devoted to a form of cancer that afflicted his father. “You should give with your heart, from your life experience,” he said. But he admitted ruefully that agency foundations are a powerful draw for talent. He had just lost a musician client to CAA because the artist was impressed by its charitable efforts. “CAA uses it as a signing tool, and it works,” he said.

I relayed his comment to Peter Safran, a top talent manager educated in Britain. To my surprise, he defended the foundations’ matchmaking services. “If you’re a 24-year- old actor and you’re suddenly making $4m a movie and you want to do something charitable, how would you know how to do it? It’s just not part of your skill-set,” he said.

The generosity of celebrities is not always for show.

Few people know that David Arquette, star of the Scream slasher movies and husband of Courtney Cox Arquette, serves on the board of Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger-relief organisation, and goes to food banks weekly. Or that Ryan Reynolds, star of The Proposal, ran the New York marathon to raise $100,000 for the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research – Reynolds’s father is afflicted by the disease.

There is, of course, a tradition of social service in Hollywood going back to the first world war, when Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford campaigned for the Red Cross. A quarter of a century later, Edward G Robinson tried to raise public awareness of the Nazi holocaust. You could argue that cynicism and greed have always coexisted with philanthropy and public service; indeed guilt about the former has probably inspired the latter.

Still, Hollywood’s charitable activities traditionally focused on the film industry, such as fundraising for the Motion Picture & Television Fund, which supports actors and technicians who have fallen on hard times. But that began to change in the 1980s when Elizabeth Taylor became the world’s leading Aids activist after the death of her friend Rock Hudson. Bono, Angelina Jolie and George Clooney have since become international figureheads.

Hollywood charities have not only gone global, they have changed the very culture of the film business. All the main UN organisations, not just Unicef, now have “goodwill ambassadors” from Hollywood: Angelina Jolie represents the UN High Commission for Refugees, Drew Barrymore the World Food Programme. And the agencies have played a key role in this transformation. When Jolie decided she wanted to get involved in refugee issues after making Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia, she turned to Michelle Kydd Lee at CAA’s foundation.

CAA – which represents, among others, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Will Smith and David Beckham – was the first talent agency to get involved in the charity business in the mid-1990s, during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Its headquarters is a futuristic 12-storey glass-and-steel tower in Century City. Inside, it is sleek, smooth, quiet, exuding power and sophistication. This is the superpower of agencies. Talking to Kydd Lee, a brunette in her forties who runs the CAA Foundation, it is impossible not to get caught up in her enthusiasm. “When you’re at a Golden Globe dinner party,” she says with pride, “the conversation isn’t about shoes or purses or watches like it used to be. It’s about important stuff like the Janjaweed and foreign policy.”

When I ask her how she matches clients to causes, she says: “I ask them, ‘What issue means the most to you? What makes you angry? What would you get out of bed for at 5.30 on a cold morning?’ Then I give them a stack of reading and see if they are willing to do their homework. What we do not say is, ‘Come to another rubber-chicken dinner and have your picture taken.’ What we will do is help you with a long-term strategy for your philanthropy and make sure it is credible, financially solvent and has a stable infrastructure.

“We have all these different networks and we bring people together,” Kydd Lee explained in a gleaming conference room. Bono’s One campaign was launched at CAA, and a slide show at the agency given by the former vice-president Al Gore turned into the film An Inconvenient Truth. “Long before people knew what ‘carbon offset’ was, we were discussing climate change. We had had scientists come and talk to us about it. People come to us first.”

CAA was thus able to link various environmental advocacy groups with the launch of the film The Day after Tomorrow, to the benefit of both the film-makers and the activists.

Such is CAA’s influence that when the agency began to focus on malaria last year, this suddenly became a subject Hollywood people cared about. It was CAA that arranged for FC Barcelona to team up with the Fox soccer channel and to back Malaria No More, a charity that sends thousands of lifesaving $10 mosquito nets to Africa. “FC Barcelona is a client, and the UN rep on malaria is a friend of ours,” Kydd Lee explained breezily. Here was a classic example of packaging – using the same skills that brought together stars and movies to package their favourite causes.

This year CAA is concentrating its efforts on helping military veterans and their families. It has arranged screenings of the latest Harry Potter film for families of troops in Afghanistan – including one at RAF Halton near Aylesbury – and arranged for clients such as Christian Slater and Bradley Cooper, the new comedy star of 2009, to visit troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The day before my visit, CAA staff met in the lobby and assembled 2,500 “care packages” to be sent to Afghanistan.

Sometimes, activists who come to pitch their causes to the agency are hoping for something more than an endorsement or a spokesperson: what they are seeking is a form of product placement. “We bring in the show-runners [the people who devise TV series] and show them what’s going on in education or the environment, and maybe they can incorporate that in their shows,” Kydd Lee explains.

One of the charities she works with wants to diminish the stigma associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, so she is arranging a meeting between the charity and the writers of Grey’s Anatomy, the hospital-based series. “We hope to shape popular culture,” she adds. “That’s rocket fuel. That’s the neutron bomb.” In that particular case the insertion of a message seems benign enough. But you can imagine how, if the practice became more widely known, this charity version of product placement might infuriate those who already dislike Hollywood’s overwhelmingly liberal political bias. Kydd Lee herself is unabashed about her politics and delighted by the foundation’s influence. Her mission is to transform Hollywood, and therefore America, through the skilful, targeted use of celebrity magic.

John Prendergast first got a sense of the power of this magic when he returned with Jolie from the Congo in 2003 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,” he said.

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.”

He is convinced that the situation in Darfur would be much worse if it weren’t for the spotlight shone by the likes of George Clooney and Don Cheadle.

Although Americans in general give more to charity than citizens of any other country, Kydd Lee attributes much of the new Hollywood charitable activism to the Bush presidency, seen by Hollywood’s liberal majority as an entirely dark time. “During the Clinton presidency there was enormous give and take between the White House and this community,” she said. “That was over when Bush became president. Then, after 9/11, people began thinking about why it had happened and what is important in life.”

Hollywood’s obsession with philanthropy may also be a sign of deeper cultural shifts in the entertainment industry. The screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd, a prominent conservative, is convinced that it reflects a profound change in the way that actors see themselves. “People become actors because they want adoration and adulation,” he said. “But these days they’re surrounded by MBA types, and it often feels like being an actor is an immature thing to be. Their agents and publicists are better educated than they are. In the old days an agent was a high-school dropout too.”

Having a cause, Chetwynd ventured, is a way of regaining the specialness that movie stars once had. “It’s strictly an internal thing. They’re still glamorous to others, just not to themselves. People screaming at the Oscars don’t care if Clooney has been to the Congo.”

Michelle Kydd Lee said something similar. “I’ve been with actresses who are not even that famous and the paparazzi are swarming like seagulls on a french fry. The people with video cameras who are trying to capture something to sell on the web are even worse. They say the most disgusting things, just to get a reaction.

“If all this is coming at you anyway, you might as well try to use it in a positive way to help someone. Princess Diana was brilliant at that – you know, ‘You’re following me anyway, so come with me to the Aids hospice.'”

That night, at Dan Tana’s restaurant, a Hollywood hangout owned by the former chairman of Brentford Football Club, a British expatriate screenwriter told me that, for all its absurdities and excesses, the culture of Hollywood philanthropy was something to admire and even emulate.

“It’s easy to mock this stuff,” he said, “but compare these actors to our footballers, who spend all their money on booze and hookers and renting a f***-off house in Ibiza. Would it be so bad if Manchester United, or any place where young people suddenly came into a lot of money, had a compulsory meeting with a philanthropic counsellor? It would at least put the idea into their head.”

 

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