Inside Hollywood's Billionaire Donor Class and David Geffen's $150 Million Gift to Yale

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Inside Hollywood’s Billionaire Donor Class and David Geffen’s $150 Million Gift to Yale

“Not all Hollywood donors have his kind of wealth…(they) are not Geffen wealthy. They’re not Spielberg wealthy,” one philanthropy expert says

Some Hollywood stars make a lot of money, like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s who made $87.5 million in 2020. But only a handful of entertainment industry figures rank as billionaires, able like David Geffen to donate $150 million to Yale Drama School so it could go tuition-free in perpetuity.

In fact, industry watchers say that most well-known performers and celebrities leverage their fame and influence to get other people to donate money, rather than giving huge amounts from their own bank accounts. That leaves the biggest personal gifts to those who have built their fortunes on the business side.

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Marc Pollick, president and founder of the nonprofit Giving Back Fund — a national organization that encourages and facilitates charitable giving by professional athletes, celebrities, high net worth individuals, corporations and others, said that Hollywood wealth is often significantly less impressive than that of tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. “David, of course, is in a different league as a billionaire,” Pollick told TheWrap. “You don’t (usually) see $150 million gifts from people in the entertainment industry.”

Yale Drama School dean and artistic director James Bundy told TheWrap that although Geffen is not a Yale graduate, the gift is in keeping with Geffen’s history of donations to the arts. He has “major theater chops” as an investor in Broadway productions and a donor to New York’s Lincoln Center. Geffen’s generosity to theater also include $5 million to UCLA’s Westwood Playhouse in 1995, after which the playhouse was renamed the Geffen Playhouse.

Yale hailed Geffen’s $150-million gift to the re-named David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University as “the largest on record in the history of American theater.” However, the mega-donation is hardly the largest ever from the DreamWorks co-founder.

Geffen’s philanthropy over the past few decades includes a total of $450 million to UCLA — including $200 million to UCLA Medical School — and another Yale-sized 2017 pledge of $150 million to Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) toward the museum’s new galleries currently under construction, the largest single cash gift from an individual in the museum’s history. The new Peter Zumthor-designed building will be called the David Geffen Galleries in honor of the donation.

Geffen, whose representative did not respond to repeated requests for comment, is currently worth $10.5 billion, according to Forbes, and $11.9 billion according to Bloomberg, both of which keep running statistics on the world’s wealthiest individuals. Such a large gap in estimates is unusual for the two publications — but by either calculation, that’s a whole lot more than most Hollywood performers and personalities have in the bank.Most of Geffen’s fortune comes from investments he made after selling Geffen Records in 1990. He also owns Apple Inc. stock that was reportedly valued at $6 billion in 2020 and continues to grow.

There are a few personalities who have cracked the billionaire mark, including Oprah Winfrey (worth $2.7 billion), and Tyler Perry ($1 billion), both of whom are business moguls as well as performers after building their own entertainment and media companies. And most of Hollywood’s billionaires are players on the business side. The entertainment industry’s wealthiest (as calculated by Forbes) include Steven Spielberg ($3.7 billion) and “Power Rangers” tycoon Haim Saban ($3 billion), as well as former Disney chief Michael Eisner ($2.1 billion according to Los Angeles Business Journal).

Not surprisingly, Geffen, Spielberg and Saban are all big donors to the new, $388-million Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, opening Sept. 30. Saban and his wife, Cheryl, gave $50 million, Geffen $25 million and Spielberg $10 million (along with another $10 million from Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks with Geffen and Spielberg, though Quibi-launcher Katzenberg does not rank as a billionaire with a net worth of $900 million, according to Forbes).

Another new museum celebrating cinema, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts, is slated to open sometime in 2023 in Exposition Park, but George Lucas (worth $7.1 billion ), who sold his Lucasfilm company to Disney in 2012 for $4.1 billion in stock and cash, is covering the $1 billion cost of the institution.

Pollick said celebs whose money comes mainly from performing are more likely to leverage their fame and influence to raise funds for favorite causes, rather than making huge personal donations. “They don’t really put in a lot of their own money; they use their likeness and image to be able to attract money to whatever their cause is,” Pollick said.

While some might question a mega-donation to a drama school, it’s a more noble use of money than some billionaires have shown in recent years, said Pollick. “I don’t know what it’s like to have a billion dollars, but if I had a billion dollars, I’d want to be associated with something (like Yale rather than) some of the things people seem to be doing with their billions — more than, let’s say, going into space,” Pollick said, alluding to the pricey space-bound projects of tech billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, worth $177 billion and $151 million respectively.

“If you are going to endow anything, you are going to endow the best,” Pollick added. Yale Drama School “further burnishes his name in that it is an American icon…I think overall a gift like this in perpetuity put your family name in association forever with something like that.”

Whether personal riches go to higher education or a trip to outer space, however, don’t expect to see many $150 million gifts from Hollywood anytime soon. “Not all Hollywood donors have (Geffen’s) kind of wealth,” Maria Di Mento, a senior reporter at the Washington, D.C.-based Chronicle of Philanthropy, told TheWrap. “Even famous actors, some of the top-paid actors are wealthy, they are not Geffen wealthy; they are not Spielberg wealthy. It all depends on what side of Hollywood we’re talking about, the (talent side) or the business side, which is what Geffen is.”