Jewish brokers match stars with charities

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 3 (JTA) — When B’nai B’rith International needs a headliner to attract people to a fund-raising dinner, it knows where to turn. Celebrity Connection, founded 20 years ago by Barry Greenberg, is the exclusive coordinator for all of B’nai B’rith’s fund-raising dinners in the United States. Greenberg, 51, is a pioneer in the celebrity brokering business, which involves finding, matching and hiring celebrities to make appearances on behalf of organizations. While celebrity brokering is still a small industry, it’s growing fast as America becomes ever more obsessed with celebrity. Curiously, virtually all the major players in the field are Jewish. “Initially, Celebrity Connection was conceived as a clearinghouse for celebrity participation in charity,” recalls Greenberg, who previously worked for Jewish nonprofit organizations, including B’nai B’rith and the Jewish National Fund, and currently is vice president of Temple Israel of Hollywood, Calif. “In those days, celebrities didn’t charge for donating their time for charitable causes unless they were performing, and we simply charged search and acquisition fees,” says Greenberg, who also teaches a course titled “The Role of Celebrity in Public Relations” at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications. “Not long afterward, however, things changed conceptually; relationships between charities and celebrities became more complex. For example, charities fronted for drug companies, and pharmaceutical manufacturers created entities that sounded like nonprofit organizations,” he continues. “The celebrity, charity and for-profit worlds began to overlap, and we had to adjust to this new reality.” These days, Celebrity Connections brokers deals for celebrities and receives 10 percent on top of the contracted price. The company has experienced dramatic growth, especially in the last six years, with satellite offices in Germany and Spain in addition to its Los Angeles headquarters. According to Greenberg, the primary competition for Celebrity Connection — which has spun off a subsidiary, the BDI Development Group, to handle fund-raising and event management for nonprofit organizations — is “ignorance that our industry even exists.” “We spend a lot of time educating prospective clients not only about the specialized service we provide, but about the entire process of matching the right celebrity with the right client,” he says. “We ask them to tell us why they think they need a celebrity, and then we help guide them to realistic expectations” — about which celebrities they might attract and how much money a celebrity can bring in. For example, efforts to fight Parkinson’s disease saw funding increase after actor Michael J. Fox got involved, while anti-AIDS efforts benefited from the advocacy of actress Elizabeth Taylor. Some actors, musicians, comedians and sports stars may appear for charities for a nominal fee, while others charge tens of thousands of dollars for commercials or endorsements. While Celebrity Connection is the oldest and biggest firm in the industry, another key player is Celebrity Source in Los Angeles. Established in 1988 by Rita Tateel, who has a background in Jewish communal service, Celebrity Source also is a full-service firm, which often arranges video or satellite celebrity if celebrities can’t attend an event in person. Celebrity Connection and Celebrity Source have different client bases, but the nature of the business — together with the limited pool of available talent — means some personalities may be booked by several firms. Another player in the field is Mark Goldman, founder and principal of the Oxnard, Calif-based Damon Brooks, a boutique firm in the niche market of celebrities and athletes who have overcome disabilities. Goldman books them for charitable appearances, public relations promotions and motivational speaking engagements. Celebrities’ managers and agents appreciate the role celebrity brokers play in pairing their clients with worthy causes — and earning their clients some publicity to boot. Movie producer Larry Brezner, who also manages Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, lifts a stack of letters, invitations and requests that clutters the desk of his Beverly Hills office. “This is just one day’s mail,” Brezner says, shaking his head as he fans the solicitations from charitable organizations that range in size from local medical clinics to well-known national associations. For the most part, however, Brezner already knows his stars’ predilections and preferences. He also estimates that if celebrities agreed to support every worthy cause that came their way, “they would spend 90 percent of their time doing nothing else.” Crystal, for example, “throws his energy into big projects, like the planned Performing Arts Peace Center at the Hebrew University, to which he has personally donated $1.5 million,” Brezner says. “He is the recipient of the Scopus Award, and will also be the guest of honor this February at the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance annual dinner, which will be attended by every major studio head in the business.” He added: “Virtually every celebrity with whom we work has a big heart. Most of them are very grateful for the good fortune they have had in their careers, and for getting paid to do what they love to do anyway. So they feel an obligation to give back to the community.”

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