Breakfast with George Clooney

Days before their annual Oscar fundraiser, “The Night Before” party, The Motion Picture and Television Fund (MPTF) trotted out board chair Jeffrey Katzenberg and newest board member George Clooney for an intimate media breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Private Polo, a brightly lit dining room just a lush, bungalow-specked pathway from the famous Polo Lounge. A handful of MPTF’s board members and a few select members of the media assembled for smoked salmon sandwiches and cheesy scrambled eggs to hear some news: the organization has raised $238 million out of an intended 3-year, $350 million capital campaign aimed at sustaining MPTF’s provision of healthcare services into the “foreseeable future.”

It was a bright moment for the fund, a 90-year-old organization that today claims to provide healthcare options to more than 75,000 members of the entertainment industry, but which in recent years has struggled to uphold its virtuous image after a public debacle over the fate of its long term care facilities threatened its good name. After a long, drawn-out battle between fund leadership and the long term care residents and their families, the fund announced last month it would keep long term care open for good.

The breakfast set the stage for a bold comeback. “It’s alllll good,” Ken Scherer, CEO of the MPTF Foundation proclaimed from the podium during his opening remarks. “That’s never been more true than now.”

Bolstered by renewed optimism and relief, conversation was cheery and chatty. As guests strolled in, John Ptak, a former talent agent who now operates a private motion picture consulting business, held court at the entrance. A small crowd gathered as he declaimed about a recent column by the L.A. Times’ Patrick Goldstein dealing with issues of race raised by the sports documentary, “Undefeated,” which is nominated for an Oscar.

“It was really smart,” Ptak told his listeners. “He talked about the problem of telling a black story through the eyes of a white coach.” 

Like the movie, in which a group of troubled inner-city high school football players are transformed by a magnanimous volunteer coach, the MPTF sees itself as the rescuer of the underdog.

“There’s no other organization like this,” Ptak said. “Started in the 1920s by Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford—you know the history. But who knew when Jean Hersholt said, ‘I have some land’ that there’d be this?”

The bulk of MPTF’s recent success—and tsures, has occurred under the leadership of its principal industry proponent, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO of Dreamworks Animation, who was spotted in the middle of the room kibitzing with two young female reporters from the Wall Street Journal. After the fund’s troubles played out in a relentless and hostile press, MPTF has apparently learned that buttering up the media can prove a strategic asset.   

“It’s been a long, really long two years for us,” Katzenberg said when he approached the podium. “Given the challenges we’ve had, it’s a real miracle to be in a place where not only will we be able to operate long-term care, but grow and expand it.”

The new narrative touted by the fund is a radical shift from its tune a few years ago, when a financial decision forced the leadership to pronounce doomsday for long term care. Even the Wasserman Campus, normally the beautiful, sprawling site of the Motion Picture Home seemed cast in a grey gloom. Entrances and exits were blocked off, visitors were closely monitored and journalists were persona non gratta (yours truly was escorted off the campus by security during a reporting trip). MPTF’s leaders and executives were so routinely vilified by residents and the press, I half expected COO Seth Ellis, seated next to me, to expose his fangs.

Instead, he talked about visiting Jewish relatives in Miami Beach and breaking kosher laws to eat at the famed Joe’s Stone Crab.

“We used to cover our heads with napkins!” he confessed with a laugh.

His boss, Bob Beitcher, MPTF president and CEO, dropped by to say hello and excitedly added that he recently spoke at the annual conference for the Jewish Graduate Student Initiative, a network of Jewish business school graduates.

“I was on a great panel with three Jewish entrepreneurs,” Beitcher said.

The friendliness didn’t feel forced, since the fund made a little fun of itself throughout the morning. While introducing Clooney, who became involved with the fund during the height of the controversy, Katzenberg joked, “The worse our situation seemed to get, the more interested he seemed to get in us.”

Clooney cracked right back, “[Jeffrey said], ‘You think the Sudan is tough? Try the Motion Picture Home.’”

But Clooney, who is easily one of the biggest movie stars in the world, seemed to get what the fund is all about, as expressed in its motto, “Taking Care of Our Own”.

“Anyone who works on a set knows… it’s a family,” Clooney said, adding that the MPTF faces the most significant challenge of its existence as the baby boomer generation reaches retirement and will soon require the fund’s services. “Right now 75,000 industry members are getting close to their golden years,” he said, adding wryly, “I’m not talking about myself.”

Clooney is one of a handful of industry bigwigs, along with Katzenberg, Tom Cruise, Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg, Todd Phillips, Steve Bing and Barry Diller who together contributed more than $200 million to the capital campaign. Holding up a symbolic coin box that harkens back to the fund’s beginnings when a similar collection box made its way around sets, Clooney talked about the value of community.

“We are most successful when we take care of people who cannot take care of themselves,” he said.

When formalities were over, Clooney obliged reporters by mingling in the crowd. I reminded him that nearly a decade ago, my sister and I followed him out of an Orlando, Florida hotel lobby and into a basketball court where he was playing by himself. While throwing the ball around, he told us he was working on a movie about Ed Murrow, which would become “Good Night and Good Luck”.

“How’s your jump shot?” he asked.

“I was in heels that day—better in sneakers.”

And just when I thought my Clooney moment was over, I ran into Julian Schnabel, whom I last spoke to about his movie, “Miral”, and who insisted on greeting George. So back we went, and there we stood, movie star, filmmaker and journalist—and what did we have in common?

Harvey Weinstein.

It’s a small community after all.