2020 has been a record-breaking year for fundraising in the UK. Captain Tom’s 100th Birthday Walk raised nearly £33 million, a new Guinness World record, beating the previous record by over £10 million. On top of that, despite the economic hardship being felt nationwide, the NHS Together charity received over £130 million in donations this year. It is wonderful that being charitable remains an important part of our national identity even during a global pandemic, and such generosity has never been more needed.
In a time where people are having to be more budget-conscious, many households have definitely managed to save on their cinema bills. The price, coupled with the perceived risk of infection, was enough to put people off paying for a trip to the silver screen and as such, 2020 has been brutal for the filmmaking industry. Most severely felt by the independent sector – whose sets, cinemas and workforce were frozen overnight – but also noticed by traditional juggernauts like Disney and Universal. Though the storm is being weathered far better by the likes of Netflix and other early adopters of the streaming model, remarkably, for a brief period, even the ever-churning treadmill of Hollywood was brought to a halt. In early March this year it was predicted that the global box office could lose $5 billion as a result of the pandemic. I am not mourning Hollywood’s loss in profits (I actually think there’s a collective sense of schadenfreude when a juggernaut gets kicked in the balls), but it has made me consider the immense wealth present in the film industry, and how it could be better used.
If you are now wondering what the link between charitable fundraising and filmmaking is, then good, because I am too. More specifically, I am wondering why the two aren’t linked more closely. Why do filmmakers, with such a platform, such attention and such influence in the public space, choose not to use fundraising more clearly in their film’s marketing and presentation? Production companies are extremely effective at raising funds to invest into their films, and a cinema audience is fertile ground for a donation appeal, especially if it appears after a movie that’s made them really feel something about a certain cause. What if, for example, at the end of the environmental docu-drama Dark Waters (dir. Tom Haynes, starring Mark Ruffalo), the first credit said something like “Please donate to Fidra to stop organisations dumping toxic plastics (PFAS)”? To me, that sounds like an effective fundraising tactic. It sounds like a way to facilitate your audience in supporting a cause that your film (hopefully) just made them care about. At the end of Dark Waters, if Mark Ruffalo tells me to do something: I’m doing it. At the end of your film you’ve just engaged a crowd and presented your argument; why would you not try to harness that for concrete social impact?
I find the idea of using film as an agent for community action and social change both alluring and daunting. Whether you like it or not, depending on what you’re advocating for or against, once you decide to stamp a “call to action” on your film, you are acting politically, and that decision carries an increased responsibility. Of course even the most anodyne films sit somewhere on the political spectrum, but I’m talking about films including a more obvious demand: “Donate”, “Sign”, “Protest”, “Vote”. This kind of direct appeal is common within the theatre world, near the exit of shows from fringe to West End, where collection tins eagerly await departing audiences. Recently there have been more examples of this approach in film, especially in the context of the 2020 US Presidential election. Tenacious D’s Halloween cover of the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s “Time Warp” featured a repeated “vote” message (not-so-incidentally coloured a royal Democrat blue), and at the end of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat’s Subsequent Moviefilm the first credit read: “NOW VOTE. OR YOU WILL BE EXECUTE.”
Explicitly politicising your film in this way does, however, carry the risk of isolating audience demographics and hurting your box office, and that’s a risk that many production companies are not willing to take. Several high-profile actors resist even the idea of becoming “political”. In 2016, Mark Wahlberg said celebrities should not talk about politics and that “A lot of celebrities shouldn’t [give their political opinions]”. Wahlberg’s comments were echoed in November 2020 when actor Kurt Russell said Hollywood and Politics don’t mix, and actors should “step away from saying anything”. Clearly Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell aren’t leading Hollywood’s progressive charge, but they are both nonetheless respected and influential. Their comments, however, fail to acknowledge the privilege inherent in choosing the position to “step away from saying anything”. Non-participation is not an option for those who need change, and high-profile actors are indisputably effective at mobilising the public, whether that’s to sell tickets, buy products or, as John Boyega powerfully displayed this year, march for Black Lives Matter. As such, if you’re a Hollywood actor too afraid to engage with complex issues faced by real people, educate yourself and then start participating. You have a platform, influence and affluence – don’t just use them to sell your films.
I started with the question, “why don’t filmmakers use their films to fundraise for charitable causes?”, and the answer could be extremely dull. There may be some perfectly reasonable law that prohibits this approach to fundraising, as it resembles a kind of ethically dubious and manipulative advertising tactic (and maybe that’s fair enough!), but let’s pretend the only reason that this method of fundraising isn’t happening is simply because one too many powerful actors, directors and producers aren’t convinced that it’s important enough – that it’s worth the risk – but surely that tide is changing? Surely the current need for charity is too great, and (given the price of tickets, and therefore relative wealth of cinema goers) those being asked to donate in this context do have the means to do so. Imagine a world where this spirit of fundraising was integrated more deeply into Hollywood’s filmmaking culture: The highest paid talent could commit a fraction of their immense earnings towards a cause relevant to the film; production companies would donate a percentage of their profits to relevant fundraising campaigns, and you knew that £2 of your ticket would go towards charities, not salaries. That’s a world in which I’d like to live, work and watch films.
As a new filmmaker, I wanted to stop “imagining” this approach to fundraising and start testing the concept in my own work. My most recent project – I Wanna Do Christmas With You (Again): a magical Christmas comedy music video about Santa’s dark origin story – ends with an appeal to donate to Age UK, and I have been amazed with the response so far. It’s important to note that I didn’t set out to fundraise with the music video from day one so, unlike the plan above, the charity’s cause and the video’s content aren’t really related, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to try, especially given I work with vulnerable elderly people every day. In my 9 to 5, I work as an Advocate for people who lack mental capacity. The majority of the people I work with have dementia and are staying in care homes with no friends or family willing or able to support them. Every day I see first-hand the importance of company, affection and representation for elderly people and marginalised groups, particularly this year when the usual support networks have been so devastatingly compromised. Our video is a bit of silly Christmas fun, but we want all those that enjoyed it to give to Age UK, who work to support the elderly all year round.
Outlined above are reasons for why I believe fundraising and filmmaking can be such an effective combination, I now turn to you to help me prove this theory right. At the time of writing, we have raised over £700 and I want YOU to donate too. I want you to donate because of the great things Age UK can do with your money. I want you to donate because of the direct impact it has on the people I work with, and I want you to donate because IT’S CHRISTMAS, and giving to those in need is what it’s all about. Additionally, if I do ever have a career in film, I’d like my Christmas music video to be the first of many examples where I harness the incredible power of film to generate genuine, positive social impact.
By Alex Urquhart