'Filmanthropy' Coming to a Theater Near You

Thanks to an influx of money from wealthy philanthropists, there are now more film documentaries in the pipeline for release in cinemas or on pay-television channels than ever before, the Financial Times reports.

The popularity of nonfiction films has increased significantly in recent years, as evidenced by the success of filmmakers such as Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine, Sicko) and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me). At the same time, more money is being poured into the medium than ever before by philanthropists such as Internet entrepreneur Ted Leonsis and eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll, whose production company, Participant Media, was responsible for Al Gore's global warming call-to-action An Inconvenient Truth. Investing money in films with strong social messages has even spawned a new term: filmanthropy.

Although some production companies, including Participant, have experienced great success, not all filmmakers have benefited from the influx of philanthropic dollars. Steve James and Peter Gilbert, whose 1995 film Hoop Dreams was one of a handful of documentaries shown in theaters at the time, said obtaining funding from foundations has become more difficult. "While there is new money out there to do documentaries, there has also been a commensurate retreat from foundations in terms of funding films," said James. "Foundations used to be enamored of what documentaries could do. But then there was a realization that maybe their money could be better spent elsewhere."

Indeed, some critics of "filmanthropy" say philanthropists should be more practical with their money — for instance, by purchasing mosquito nets to fight malaria rather than making a film about the disease. Others, however, say it's possible to do both. Jim Berk, the CEO of Participant, and Leonsis both said they aim to produce movies that have a "double bottom line," generating profit while still having a positive social impact.

Also trying to strike that balance is Perrin Chiles, whose company, In Effect Films, produced Autism: The Musical for HBO. Chiles gave up a career in private equity to form his company, with Participant as his model. "Had I stayed in that world I would have had a lucrative career," said Chiles. "But this is a labor of love for me. I really believe in the power of film to effect change and that good storytelling can make a difference."

Matthew Garrahan. "Shooting the Message." Financial Times 04/25/2008.