Let's Talk About This Wealthy Couple's "Filmanthropic" Mission

Working to change people's minds through advocacy is one of the oldest playbooks in philanthropy. But many of the wealthy individuals or charitable foundations that fund such work tend to back efforts that focus on influencing a pretty narrow set of targets -- members of Congress, say, or state-level policy officials, or leading "opinion-makers."   

Less common, even in funder initiatives for "public education" are efforts to broadly push regular folks to change their thinking on an issue or, even better, to pitch in to solve social problems. This kind of effort often makes funders nervous. After all, the public is vast and diverse, and trying to influence it can feel too ambitious and amorphous. 

Yet there is actually plenty of evidence that efforts to change public opinion writ large can succeed. We know that social movements can do this. And we also know that media and storytelling can be powerfully effective in this regard. 

Which brings us to the philanthropy of asset manager Jeffrey Tarrant and his wife, filmmaker Lilly Hartley Tarrant.

The Tarrants have a charitable vehicle called the Jeffrey Tarrant Family Foundation which gave away a little over $150,000 in a recent tax year. But a look at 990s of late reveals one sole grantee — Candescent Films, which supports documentaries that illuminate social issues.

Films are one of the most effective storytelling forms and mass-mediums the world has ever produced, and the Tarrants have joined a growing number of philanthropic- minded filmmakers — "filmanthropists" — who are producing documentary films that seek to motivate as well as inform and entertain.

Some of the films Candescent has backed include Sons of the Clouds starring Javier Bardem, a documentary which shines a light on the political and human rights issues facing the people of the Western Sahara, and Time is Illmatic, a documentary film told through the eyes of rapper Nas and his bluesman father Olu Dara. 

Jeffrey Tarrant is the CEO and cofounder of Protégé Partners, a specialized asset management firm founded in 2002. He received a B.A. in economics from UC Davis and his MBA from Harvard Business School. Tarrant was a member of the board of the Investment Fund for Foundations (TIFF), an investment advisory firm for charitable foundations and institutions, and was involved in the launch of the Absolute Return Pool (ARP), one of the first fund of hedge funds specifically designed for the charitable community. 

A driving force in the Tarrants' filmmaking is Lilly, who founded Candescent Films in 2010. Lilly grew up in the Hamptons and developed a love for theater and film. Her father was a playwright and her godfather is Screen Actors Guild President Ken Howard. Lilly participated in plays at Guild Hall as a child and went on to have a decade-long career in the film business as an actress and production executive in New York and Los Angeles.

Sons of the Clouds landed Lilly a Goya Award, the Spanish equivalent of an Oscar. When she founded Candescent, Lilly was inspired by the notion of "filmanthropy," or filmmaking that aims to raise awareness of an issue and/or money for a charitable cause. 

“Rather than just giving to a charity, we give to a film, and that helps draw an audience, bring issues up as something people want to watch and will want to get involved with,” said Hartley Tarrant.

Ted Leonsis, a venture capitalist and owner of several Washington, D.C., sports teams, is another wealthy individual in this space. Late last decade, Leonsis bankrolled Nanking, a Sundance film about the 1937 Nanking Massacre, with $2 million. Leonsis has said of filmanthropy that "it brings together philanthropy and understanding how media works. You're going to see a lot of people doing this because a studio probably wouldn't do a story like this."

Speaking of Sundance, the Tarrants' Candescent Films has also created the Candescent Award in partnership with the Sundance Institute and Tribeca Film Institute. One 2015 award winner was How to Change the World, a Sundance film which tells the story of the young pioneers who founded Greenpeace. A recent recipient on the Tribeca end was The Wolfpack, which tells the true story of six teenage brothers who spent their entire lives locked away from society in a Manhattan housing project.

So far, Tarrant and Lilly, through their family foundation, have been laser focused on filmanthropy and Candescent Films, but this wealthy couple should be watched for larger grantmaking down the line. Lilly has already been involved with charities such as Oceana, Robin Hood Foundation, Happy Hearts Fund, and NAMI.