Like most large corporations, movie studios have a number of charities they give to ever year or engage in fundraising activities with their employees. For years Paramount Pictures has hosted the LA AIDS Walk which has raised millions for AIDS outreach in the Los Angeles area. What's more rare is for a studio to jump on board a human rights issue surrounding a film they are actually releasing. It does happen, but hardly anyone can remember the last time a Hollywood motion picture company devoted so much of their internal resources as Paramount has with their upcoming documentary "Waiting for Superman."
Directed by Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar winner behind Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," "Waiting" centers on the state of our education system and, most specifically, how difficult it is for predominantly lower income kids to get into good schools (although it she's a scary spotlight on suburban "tracking" as well). The film follows five kids -- Anthony, Daisy, Emily, Francisco and Bianca -- as their parents hold out for a lottery system that will hopefully get them into a better performing charter school. As you'd expect, not all the doc's subjects get that golden ticket.
"Waiting" debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival, but this writer was unable to catch it. Word was mixed. No one would argue with its message, but some felt there wasn't much there that you hadn't seen on well made TV news documentaries or news programs. And honestly, I have to agree. Each story was heartbreaking, but it's an incredibly complex issue to try and tackle in just under two hours. For example, the subject of school board influence and the drastic differences in standards between state education departments across the country is given only a few minutes of discussion when it is a huge part of the problem. Instead, the primary reason for our failing grades globally is given to the tenure given to so many bad teachers and how difficult it is to get rid of them because of the influence of powerful teacher's unions.
Speaking at a passionate Q&A after the screening, Microsoft founder and billion dollar philanthropist Bill Gates, who is also an interview subject in the picture, laid out the teacher's pushback to such criticism in simple terms.
"When we say, 'We want to measure you,' then they think that we don't value you as a hole," Gates says. "The valuation system is the key."
One of the educators who makes the most sense on this issue is Geoffrey Canada, a pioneer in the charter school movement for over a decade. He is so eloquent and spot on about the logistics in reforming teacher evaluations you almost wish he was working in Washington instead of running the Harlem Children's Zone in New York. Education is a "trillion dollar industry," Canada notes during the Q&A. And the idea that we don't "ask teachers what we ask of any other profession" is "laughable." Especially, when these are people looking after your kids.
Guggenheim relays a story told now many times how his inspiration for the doc came after he passed three public schools while driving his kids to private school and wondered why he couldn't count on the public education system. His crusade with this project has gone beyond the film though. Along with Paramount, Walden Media and producer Participant Media, they have created a program that will donate $5 for to a school across the country if you "pledge" to see the movie. As of this writing, over 71,000 people have done so. That's over $356,000 of value being donated to schools. So, whether Guggenheim has actually made an amazing film is sort of irrelevant. The work he and his partners are doing is providing much more reward than box office (although the studio obviously prefers to at least break even).
Gates put it best when discussing how he and his wife decided to allocate his riches for charity almost a decade ago.
'We picked education as the big thing that will make the difference," Gates says. "The message of this movie and the power of this movie is why I am optimistic we will change this issue."
It's certainly not a bad place to start.
"Waiting for Superman" opens in limited release on Sept. 24.