EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEWS: Since the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020, The Actors Fund, the 140-year-old organization that offers emergency financial assistance and other support service to workers in the the performing arts industries, has distributed more than $26.8 million in emergency financial assistance – rent, groceries, medicine, health insurance premiums -.to about 17,900 individuals. The pandemic-era distribution represents more than 13 times the amount of assistance typically provided by the Fund in an average year.
With its name and services reaching unprecedented numbers of people, a rebranding might seem more than a bit counterintuitive, but that’s exactly what Fund officials announced last night: As of now, The Actors Fund the Entertainment Community Fund, a moniker designed to better reflect the entire scope of industry professionals serviced by the group.
The change was announced last night by actor and Fund Chairman Brian Stokes Mitchell at the Fund’s Annual Gala held in both Los Angeles and New York City. The evening, which was simulcasted from both coasts, raised a record-breaking $1.7 million for the organization, which celebrates its 140th anniversary in June.
“It’s a new name and a new look, with the same mission,” said Mitchell. “We recognize the dedication of technicians, camera operators, stagehands, writers, musicians, stage managers, actors and thousands more who work in film, television, radio, music, theater, dance and opera. They all contribute to our country’s cultural vibrancy. We value them. We support them. And the Fund is here for all of them.”
During the pandemic, the Fund, as it will be called for short, scaled up operations, serving more than 60,000 individuals in 2020 and 2021, a 68% increase over the preceding two non-pandemic years. The $26.8 million in emergency financial assistance to approximately 17,900 individuals has been distributed since March of 2020.
“We’ve long worked to meet the needs of those working throughout the entertainment industry, across the country,” said Joseph Benincasa, Fund President and CEO. “Now, with our new name, we can reflect the full scope of what we do and the broad range of performing arts and entertainment professionals we serve.”
In terms of health insurance alone, the Fund helped more than 5,700 people navigate and enroll in insurance plans during pandemic, yet one bit of confusion had dogged the organization even among the people it’s designed to help: When someone who needs assistance is told of the services available, there’s a more than good chance the response would be, “But I’m not an actor.”
“I remember my first week on the job,” Benincasa said in an exclusive interview with Deadline, “I think I pitched the United Way in New York City for a grant. And I remember the chairman of the allocations committee, who I knew quite well – and I had Helen Hayes on my arm at that time – said, ‘Actors don’t need help. Actors are rich.’ Of course, I had to go into the basic facts about the need for health insurance, affordable health, direct financial assistance when they hit the low period. So we did get funding from the United Way.”
“Every time I or any one of us talk about the Actors Fund,” Mitchell told Deadline, “we always have to say, ‘It’s not just for actors.’ It’s almost like a tagline – ‘It’s not just for actors’ – because people don’t understand. As soon as they hear Actors Fund all they hear is actors and then they think this is a fund for actors, even though it’s been explained in so many different ways.”
With the new name, the Fund will follow up the publicity launch with major solicitations and a goal to triple the number of people served all over the country, Benincasa said, including in markets such as Atlanta, Miami, Las Vegas and others with significant entertainment industries.
“We’ve set a goal of helping three times as many people in the next three to five years,” Benincasa said. “Very often direct financial assistance is the first way we help them, but then they enter different programs of the Fund for help. What we anticipate is, because we’ve made this transition to the digital format and this hybrid way of helping people in every state, that more people will understand that they can turn to the Fund for help.”
Both Stokes and Benincasa said a name change has been under consideration for years, with the increased visibility that’s come with the pandemic nudging the organization to postpone no longer. “We did very deep surveying of membership,” Benincasa told Deadline, “and all of the information has come back to us over four or five years that the name was an impediment to people understanding who we are, who we help.”
With its new, self-explanatory name of The Entertainment Community Fund – and a new logo and an official tagline “Supporting A Life In The Arts” – the organization seeks to clarify exactly who it services – simply, everyone working in performing arts and entertainment. The pandemic, Benincasa and Mitchell said, has made clearer than ever the full extent of the needs within the professional entertainment community in cities across the country. While employment conditions have improved since the worst of the pandemic shutdown, the performing arts are recovering more slowly than other industries, with Covid continuing to disrupt in-person programming from Broadway to regional theaters, concert halls and other entertainment venues nationwide.
With its new name and a vigorous outreach for donations and grants, The Fund hopes to triple the number of people served over the next five years, in theater, film, television and other arts, reaching workers both with public-facing roles and without. “It’s for people behind the scenes and performing,” said Benincasa. “It’s the cinematographer. It’s the director. It’s the stagehand. It’s the gaffer. It’s best boy. It is absolutely everyone.”
“We first tried to do this was about twelve years ago,” Stokes said. “When this first came up in conversation, the discussion was very lively around the boardroom and with the staff as well. We decided then that it wasn’t the right time. But with the pandemic, and more openness and more inclusivity at so many organizations and groups, it’s kind of this perfect storm of all the right elements coming together.”
Even more recently, he continued, the name change sparked “very, very robust discussion” within the organization, with some concerned that a new name would give up considerable brand equity.
“As long as everybody knows that we are formerly the Actors Fund, eventually, everybody’s going to come around,” Stokes said, adding that wording along the lines of “Formerly The Actors Fund” will follow the new name during a period of transition.
Fund partners, including unions and other non-profit organizations, back the name change, with Writers Guild of America West President Meredith Stiehm, SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, IATSE International President Matthew D. Loeb, Directors Guild of America President Lesli Linka Glatter and Actors’ Equity Association President Kate Shindle releasing statements of support. “We couldn’t think of a more fitting name to continue this extraordinary legacy than the Entertainment Community Fund,” said Tom Viola, Executive Director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “It truly expresses the broad cross section of those assisted and the breadth of the services provided to all.”
At the gala last night, actor and Fund trustee Chandra Wilson said, “If you are doing standup in Chicago or music videos in Atlanta, you need to know the Entertainment Community Fund is here for you. Performing arts and entertainment are a fundamental part of every community, large and small, throughout the country, and the Fund is here to help people in that space regardless of what they do. We recognize that it can be uniquely challenging to sustain a life in the arts. It is why we come together as a community to help each other.”
While most of the Fund’s upcoming expansions will take place in the digital realm, the organization has announced plans for the creation of The Hollywood Arts Collective, comprising two buildings that together will provide affordable space for arts and entertainment professionals to live, work and create in Hollywood.
The Fund also operates several affordable housing residences in New York and Los Angeles, as well as offers educational seminars on affordable housing options, determining eligibility and preparing for the housing application process.
Other Fund services: The Samuel J. Friedman Health Center for the Performing Arts, a program of the Entertainment Community Fund and Mt. Sinai Doctors, located at the Entertainment Community Fund’s headquarters in Times Square, and The Actors Fund Home in Inglewood, New Jersey, an assisted living, skilled nursing, short-stay rehab and memory care residence. (The Actors Fund Home will retain the Actors Fund name.)
And with the new name came new awards: At last night’s gala, the first Entertainment Community Fund Medals of Honor were presented to Emmy Award-winning actor and activist Uzo Aduba; President and CEO of Paramount Global Bob Bakish; Academy Award, Tony Award and Golden Globe Award-winning actor Mercedes Ruehl; and Chairman and CEO of The Shubert Organization Robert E. Wankel.
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