We've Seen This Movie Before: A Big Gift Jumpstarts a Museum's Flagging Capital Campaign

photo:  Kathy Hutchins/shutterstock

photo:  Kathy Hutchins/shutterstock

David Geffen's $150 million gift to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has recently attracted a lot of attention, but he isn't the only entertainment mogul riding to the rescue of a Southern California institution as of late.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently announced a $50 million gift from Cheryl and Haim Saban to the organization’s long-planned film museum. It’s the largest donation to the ambitious project to date and a major step toward the fulfillment of the academy’s fundraising goals.

As you might expect, it's the kind of gift with a compelling narrative arc that could only come out of Hollywood. So let's begin with a familiar plotline: the capital project in duress.

"A Museum is Not In Our Sweet Spot"

The academy's $388 million capital campaign—not as large as the LACMA's $600 million "gamble," but hefty nonetheless—has been beset by repeated construction delays that, according to the Los Angeles Times, have "generated friction behind the scenes among the academy’s leadership amid concerns that its ballooning budget could drain resources from other academy programs."

Indeed, based on recent developments, not the least of which is the New York Philharmonic shelving its $500 million Geffen Hall renovation, most philanthropic prognosticators would predict that this story probably won't have a happy ending.

Cue the "reluctant donors."

Israeli-American Saban is the billionaire founder of Saban Entertainment, producer and distributor of children's television programs such as Power Rangers. In 2015, the couple made a significant donation to the television academy, which named its new Saban Media Center in their honor.

As a wealthy entertainment mogul, Saban, along with Cheryl, seemed perfectly cast as the knights in shining armor, ready to save an imperiled project. But a closer look at the Sabans' larger philanthropy reveals an unexpected plot twist.

The Sabans' grantmaking primarily focuses on Jewish causes, women's issues, health and education. Recipients include the Jewish Community Foundation, Friends of Israel Defense Forces, and the Children's Hospital of L.A. Cheryl, meanwhile, runs a separate foundation called the Cheryl Saban Self Worth Foundation for Women & Girls in Los Angeles, which focuses on women's empowerment. 

The Sabans, in other words, didn't really fit the part. Going above and beyond the 2015 gift seemed like a stretch when Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos approached Haim about giving to the museum earlier this year.

"I said to him, 'Listen, you’ve got sick kids, kids who need education—send them our way. Battered women, we’re there,'" recalled Saban, channeling his inner effective altruist. "'But a museum is not in our sweet spot, so we’re not going to do anything there.'"

Then Saban heard the pitch from friend and Disney CEO Bob Iger, who chairs the museum’s capital campaign. (See how the drama is slowly building?)

"More Than A Museum"

The Sabans walked away impressed. "Listening to Bob’s speech was extremely helpful for us to truly comprehend what this was all about," Saban said. "It’s a lot more than a museum. If you look at the plans for the activities there, you’ll see that it carries a significant educational angle about the world of film. And I think the building itself will be a big tourist attraction for our city."

And here's Cheryl: "When you consider that they’re going to be preserving and teaching about the art and craft of moviemaking and storytelling, we got very excited," said Cheryl. "There is nothing like it, and we decided, 'Yes, we want to be a part of this.'"

The Sabans' comments are telling, as the couple represents a common and often impenetrable demographic: donors accustomed to giving to "high-impact" causes without an extensive history of arts-related giving. By framing the value proposition as something far more than a capital project, Iger provides other fundraisers with a useful model for making the pitch to these kinds of donors.

Iger's feat is doubly impressive given the fact the museum was beset by ballooning deficits and construction delays. Then again, these issues didn't seem to bother the Sabans. "Have you ever done construction? You understand how there can be delays in construction," Cheryl said. "That doesn’t disturb me. It happens."

The "Hollywood Club Effect"

Other donors to the museum include Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg ($10 million each), Geffen ($25 million), and companies such as the Dalian Wanda Group ($20 million).

And so I'd argue that there was another factor at play, here, something I'd call the "Hollywood Club Effect." Hollywood's an insular town—and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense—and when the ball gets rolling, projects of this nature take on a life of their own that donors can't ignore. "We owe all our livelihood to the entertainment industry," Cheryl said. "Our whole family lives and works in this town, and the entertainment industry is what we’re about."

Add it all up, and the Sabans have provided an invigorating burst of action that kickstarted a plodding and stale narrative. 

"This gift is a big jump in the capital campaign and we’re very excited about the fact that it’s bringing us within striking distance of its completion," museum director Kerry Brougher told The Times in an interview. The museum is slated to open in 2019.