When Walt Disney Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Michael D. Eisner announced last week that the Burbank-based company plans to donate $25 million to the Walt Disney Concert Hall project, it marked a possible sea change for philanthropic Hollywood.
While the entertainment industry has been generous to AIDS treatment programs and universities, it often has been criticized for not supporting civic projects like Disney Concert Hall.
Prior to last week, the project’s biggest donors were Ralphs/Food 4 Less, whose foundation donated $15 million; Atlantic Richfield Co., which gave $10 million; and BankAmerica Corp., Wells Fargo & Co. and Times Mirror Co., each of which contributed $5 million.
But Disney as well as other entertainment companies had been conspicuously absent from the list of corporate donors.
“They have been involved in some of their own projects,” said Eli Broad, one of Disney Concert Hall’s chief fund-raisers and chief executive of SunAmerica Inc. “But it seems that in many cases they prefer to be with their peers and themselves rather than in a broader community.”
Broad attributed the lack of involvement to the constant change of management within the studios, but he added that attitudes may be changing.
“I think you will see Michael Eisner and others step forward as Lew Wasserman has in generations past,” Broad said, referring to the former chairman of MCA Inc. (now Universal Studios Inc.), who has been a major donor to local civic institutions.
Eisner last week said his company waited to donate money to the Concert Hall until a $5 million matching grant from Disney Vice Chairman Roy E. Disney and his wife Patty could be secured, and a performing arts space designated for the California Institute of the Arts a university started with money from company founder Walt Disney could be arranged.
“Until we got the CalArts and education piece attached to it, we thought we should wait,” Eisner said. “Now it’s all together and the time is appropriate.”
Disney’s donation is the largest for the Concert Hall since Lillian Disney, widow of Walt Disney, donated the original $50 million gift in 1987.
Eisner acknowledged that Hollywood has not been as involved as other industries in civic projects, but he stressed the industry’s philanthropic bent.
“I think the entertainment industry is unbelievably generous philanthropically in all sorts of projects, and always has been maybe the most generous of all industries I’ve been involved with,” Eisner said. “They have not been involved in a major way in downtown L.A. because they’ve had other priorities.”
Disney’s philanthropic work includes founding a non-profit athletic program for children in poor neighborhoods; helping rebuild South L.A.’s First African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which was damaged in a fire this summer; and selling light bulbs from Disneyland’s retired Main Street Electrical Parade to raise money for children’s charities.
Disney’s $25 million donation is a “challenge gift,” meaning that another $25 million must be secured $5 million of which was already given by Roy E. and Patty Disney before the company is obligated to pay.
“In a civic project like this you want not only money, but the participation of other corporations and individuals so that when it actually opens, everybody feels like they own a piece of it,” Eisner said.
Eisner himself who last week exercised Disney stock options that netted him a profit of about $565 million, the single biggest stock option ever exercised by a corporate executive has yet to make a personal donation to Disney Concert Hall.