Aviva Kempner, '76 in Washington Post
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Posted by: Joe Libertelli
Pays Off in Fundraising
By Thomas Heath, The Washington Post
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Aviva Kempner drives me crazy.
The 62-year-old documentary filmmaker -- "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" -- phoned me every week or two a few years back when I was covering the events leading to the Washington Nationals' arrival in D.C.
A big baseball fan, she would tell me what was missing in my stories. Or e-mail me to complain that the evildoers at Major League Baseball were trifling with Washington. Or to tell me that the city's bozo leaders were blowing it.
I would nod into the phone and say, "I know, I know."
Now I realize there is a small-business lesson in her methods.
Kempner is just as relentless in her search for money to fund her films as she was in her determination to bring baseball to town. It pays for what she calls her mission in life: turning the spotlight on little-known Jewish heroes, the latest being "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg," which opens in New York July 10 and at the Avalon Theater ("which I helped save") in Northwest Washington a week later.
The movie is about Gertrude Berg, who was the creator, principal writer and star of "The Goldbergs," a popular radio show and one of television's first situation comedies.
"My fundraising is based on the last line of a 'Streetcar Named Desire' -- 'I depend on the kindness of strangers,' " Kempner said.
She aims big.
"All In the Family" producer Norman Lear, billionaire David Geffen and film executive Jeffrey Katzenberg -- even HBO -- have helped bankroll her movies. Steven Spielberg's foundation gave her an $85,000 grant for "Yoo-Hoo." New York businessman Joseph S. Steinberg gave her $101,000 -- the most she has ever received. Barbra Streisand and Ed Asner have also contributed.
Kempner was born in Berlin, where her father was stationed with the U.S. military. Her mother grew up in Poland, where her blond hair and green eyes allowed her to pass as a non-Jew and avoid the Nazi death camps. Kempner became interested in stories about Jewish heroes from Leon Uris novels.
She chose to be a filmmaker after failing the D.C. Bar exam. She knew some people in the documentary film industry from her days as a human rights activist, and they introduced her to attorneys who helped her start a foundation to fund films. Thus was born the Ciesla Foundation, named for her The nonprofit allows her to solicit tax-deductible contributions and apply for government grants. Asking is only the first step toward receiving, and she is always hustling to raise money. Without a patron to provide substantial and ongoing support, she is always looking for the next buck.
For her first film, "Partisans of Vilna," about a Jewish uprising in a town in Lithuania, Kempner received a $500,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. For the rest, she went stalking, especially among the Jewish community that she cultivates. She would go to the offices of businessmen, like the late Leo Bernstein whose family came from Vilna, and make her pitch.
"It was tribal. I would go to people whose family was from [Lithuania] or were survivors of the Vilna ghetto. You do your research. I stalk the business pages," she says proudly.
(I know. Kempner calls me not infrequently with this question, "I see you wrote a story about FILL IN THE BLANK. Do you think he would donate?")
She calls her life "a walking fundraiser."
"I hit up a lot of Washington families. My own relatives. Any plane I'm on, any train I'm on, any party I'm at, I tell people I have a charity that makes movies."
Every check that comes in is copied and filed into a folder. She also keeps a "secret, copious, well-guarded" list of her 368 donors on a computer spreadsheet, which includes their addresses and the amounts they have donated. There are 54 donors who contributed $5,000 and above for "Yoo-Hoo" whose names will go on the credits at the end of the film.
Benefactors have included the Theodore Lerner family (owner of the Washington Nationals); developers Sonny Abramson; Arlene and Robert Kogod; Robert and Clarice Smith and their son, David; AOL mogul Ted Leonsis; Washington Sports owner Abe Pollin; and local real estate investors Ted and Jim Pedas.
She also throws parties, where you can visit and view her work-in-progress. They generate anything from $200 to $10,000.
Kempner works out of her home in Northwest Washington, where she has a film editing room and a small staff. She has three interns who get $100 a week plus expenses. A post-production coordinator who helps secure footage rights is part-time at $15 an hour. She employs a fundraiser who earns $400 a week. Kempner hasn't taken a salary in years, although the foundation pays rent to her for the house and its utility costs. By her own estimate, she is owed about $2 million in deferred salary.
So do her films make money?
"Hank Greenberg" grossed $1.7 million, which might not cover a single special effect in an extravaganza like the latest "Star Trek" installment. Kempner saw less than $200,000 of that after the theaters, distributor and marketers took their share.
"Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg," will cost about $1 million to produce. That's pretty expensive for a documentary. But Kempner said she spends a lot. She shoots way more footage than she needs, which can be expensive when filming costs $10,000 a day. Research, writing, filming and editing came to around $500,000. Archival and feature film rights footage will run another $150,000. Film processing will cost $50,000. Her staff and publicity costs will eat up the rest.
When I caught up with her recently, Kempner was crowing how she persuaded CBS to give her a break on costs for some footage from "The Honeymooners" and Lucille Ball programs. As always, Kempner was in need of money and asking me if I knew someone "who wants to be an executive producer" for $200,000.
Like I said, she's relentless.