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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Tomorrow kicks off what’s been called the Cannes of documentary film festivals. The Full Frame Festival in Durham, North Carolina will show more than a hundred new documentary films. In recent years there have been more movies with heavy-hitting social or environmental messages. It’s due to a growing trend: investors with deep pockets known as “filmanthropists.” From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton has more.
SAM EATON: The film “War Dance” isn’t the kind of project Hollywood executives get into bidding wars over. It’s a documentary about child soldiers in Uganda regaining their adolescence through an African dance-off.
But former Nickelodeon president Albie Hecht, who funded the film, says he wasn’t in it for the fame and fortune.
ALBIE HECHT: This was a way now to be giving back to the world community.
Hecht, who is responsible for bringing hits like “SpongeBob SquarePants” to Nickelodeon, learned about African war refugees after leaving the corporate world. That’s when he decided to use his influence and money to affect change.
HECHT: I spent about six months sort of . . . I guess walking in the desert, looking for my next vision quest. And I knew that in doing that, part of it really wanted to make the pro-social part of my life a more consistent and formal part of it.
Hecht created a nonprofit production company called Shine Global. All the profits will be funneled back into social programs in Africa.
He’s part of a growing number of deep-pocketed media and dot com executives who are pushing for change by funding documentary films.
Take Al Gore’s Oscar-winning “Inconvenient Truth.” That was the brainchild of Participant Productions, which is bankrolled by eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll.
USC Film Professor Mark Harris says these so-called “filmanthropists” are changing the business model for documentary filmmaking.
MARK HARRIS: Philanthropists are more interested in the content of the film, the message of the film. Studios are more interested in the bottom line, the profit the film makes.
Brave New Films president Robert Greenwald, whose roster includes “Outfoxed” and “Iraq for Sale,” says by not chasing big profits, he’s able to tackle more controversial subjects.
ROBERT GREENWALD: It’s not a way to monetize, but it is a way if your goal is changing hearts and minds.
And if the film becomes a box office hit like Inconvenient Truth, all the better.
In Los Angeles, I’m Sam Eaton for Marketplace.
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