Stepping Up: Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation Helps the Exhibition Community Make it Through COVID-19

For more than 80 years, the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation—founded in 1939 in memory of its movie star namesake, who died in a plane crash four years earlier—has been providing assistance to those in need within the film exhibition community through their Pioneers Assistance Fund. With that community more in need than ever before, Will Rogers is stepping up.

On March 30, Will Rogers announced the creation of a COVID-19 Emergency Grant, designed to provide financial assistance to theater workers laid off or furloughed by the coronavirus pandemic. “When the theater closures took place, it was instinct for us to jump in and help,” explains executive director Todd Vradenburg. NATO kicked in a cool million, matched by $1.4 million from Will Rogers’ reserves—“and just like that, we had $2.4 million available to create our Phase 1 Emergency Fund to help theater employees who were furloughed without pay.” In the weeks since, roughly 7,800 applications have been received, with close to 6,000 grants (in the form of $300 Visa gift cards) having been sent out. (A bit of relevant history: One of Will Rogers’ programs, the Will Rogers Institute, in 2011 gave a $50,000 prize to… Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for his work in the field of lung disease.)

The mission of Will Rogers’ COVID-19 Emergency Grant is simple, says Vradenburg: “We have to show these people that someone cares about them.”

Roughly 75 percent of those applications came in within the first week of the grant going live—leading to a (to put it mildly) busy few weeks for Will Rogers’ six-person “small and mighty” staff, says director of development Christina Blumer. “Every day had been brand new for us. It’s an all hands on deck situation right now.” Will Rogers’ mission, and the pure scope of the need that currently exists, requires collaboration and communication across various facets of the entertainment industry. To do its work, Will Rogers draws upon the assistance of NATO, which in addition to its initial donation is helping get the word out among their members, as well as theater HR departments that verify employment so grants can go out. 

Vradenburg is quick to note that Will Rogers is far from the only group stepping up to help the exhibition community. Other initiatives include Art-House America and fundraisers specific to theater workers in New York in Chicago; NATO of California/Nevada set up their own $1.25 million relief fund; and individual exhibitors, who “are doing their own assistance programs… AMC has AMC Cares, Regal has the Regal Foundation, Cinemark has Cinemark Cares, Marcus has an assistance program for their employees…. That’s been a big help. We’re not doing this all alone.  We may have a big chunk of it, but many exhibitors are also kicking in helping their employees.” 

“A lot of the exhibitors that we’ve spoken with are trying to, with their assistance program, tailor it to people who wouldn’t be eligible for assistance from us,” adds Blumer. Specifically, she’s talking about the provision in Will Rogers’ COVID-19 grant that recipients must have worked in exhibition for five years or more. “Some of the smaller chains are helping people who are under that five year mark… Each one is doing it a little bit differently, but they’re trying to help the sector of people that maybe don’t qualify for our grant at this time.” 

Among the most visible supporters of Will Rogers is Lionsgate, which last Friday kicked off Lionsgate Live!, a four-week screening series hosted by Jamie Lee Curtis. (Tune in tonight to Lionsgate’s YouTube channel for Dirty Dancing, and remember to eat something watermelon-flavored as a snack.) The films themselves are paired with special programming as well as a call to action to donate to Will Rogers.  “We think it’s a brilliant promotion,” says Vradenburg. “From the first phone call we received describing it to what actually ended up being put together—how they packaged it and got celebrities to do on-camera messages—is really, really smart.” 

Last week’s inaugural screening of The Hunger Games netted over 10,000 viewers and donations from over 350 people. Most of those were “donors we never had before,” says Vradenburg. “They now know about this charity, and they support it. So hopefully we bring them into the family a little bit.” 

“As a national charity goes, we’re a smaller organization,” echoes Blumer—so something like Lionsgate Live!, which gets the word out about Will Rogers to thousands of people, is a huge benefit to the organization in both the short and long terms. “To see the type of traffic that we received on social media—and the comments and the interactions and the tags—it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen even during a large event, like [Will Rogers’ annual] Pioneer Dinner or something that would generally have a lot of media around it. The social media interaction that we had was unprecedented, I would say. As well as the number of donors that night.” In general, explains Vradenburg, though the amount of each individual donation has gone down during the COVID-19 crisis, the number of donations has gone up—indicating people’s desire to contribute to a cause even as their means to do so becomes more precarious.

Weeks into the crisis, the applications have begun to die down—which means Will Rogers will begin shifting to “Phase 2” of the Pioneers Assistance Fund’s COVID-19 Emergency Grant. Due to the sheer number of people in need, Vradenburg explains, it was all but impossible for Phase 1 to take any specific circumstances—beyond “has worked for a theater for five years, has been laid off without pay”—into account when issuing grants. Phase 2 will be more based on need; even now, that “small and mighty” Will Rogers staff has begun reaching out to people who applied and asking for more details on their situation—have they received unemployment funds or their stimulus check since applying, for example, or does their need lie in a specific area, like rent or health care expenses? Even winnowing the numbers down, says Vradenburg, “we may have to restrict the dollar amount we can provide, because the volume is just too great for us. But we don’t know that yet.” 

Phase 2 of Will Rogers’ COVID-19 response, Vradenburg notes, looks an awful lot like a beefed-up version of their current assistance program. Will Rogers’ normal operations—both the Pioneers Assistance Fund and Brave Beginnings, which sends money to hospitals so they can buy equipment to help premature babies—are still going strong, since “that money was raised in 2019 and was already in the budget,” Vradenburg says. “We will likely see a decrease in our activity/spending in 2021,” since their reserves will be depleted and many of the fundraising efforts they normally rely on—like golf tournaments and the Pioneer of the Year dinner—on are currently impossible, with exhibitors not in a position to donate. All the same, assures Vradenburg, “we’ll do something to keep those programs going in 2021, because we’re not ready to let them go dormant.”

The Will Rogers Potion Picture Pioneers Foundation, like the exhibition industry itself, will continue moving on—and continue being absolutely essential—even after the current crisis calms down. Therein lives the silver lining, agree Vradenburg and Blumer. Many people’s knowledge of Will Rogers was theoretical, a general sense of “oh, they help people somehow” borne of not having a direct, immediate need for the Pioneers Assistance Fund’s assistance. Blumer likens it to the unemployment system: “So many more people now are fully aware of what they do and how it works and what the application process looks like, because they need it.” 

“The bottom line is, they get it now,” says Vradenburg. Awareness of the Pioneers Assistance Fund and its mission has increased, and he plans to keep that increase going in the future. “Once the dust settles on this COVID-19 crisis, we’ll come out with [additional] messages about who we are and how you can support us and why it’s important that the Pioneers Assistance Fund is always here for people”—hammering the message home that, even after furloughed employees return to work, Will Rogers is still needed and still there. “A lot of people found us who probably needed us before this pandemic hit. And thank goodness that they found us, because we should be able to give them some help and get them through a rough patch. That’s what we’re all about.”

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