Passion for arts and science drives Paul Allen's eclectic approach
Richard Hutton was sitting in his office near Disneyland when he got a call that would change his destiny and influence the science curriculum...
Seattle Times business reporter
Paul Allen Inc.The breadth of Paul Allen's investments:
• Vulcan Inc.
• Vulcan Productions
• Experience Music Project
• Portland Trail Blazers
• Seattle Seahawks
• South Lake Union, Union Station and other real-estate development
• Allen Institute for Brain Science
• Vulcan Capital
Allen-financed filmsFeature films:
"Where God Left His Shoes"
"Bickford Shmeckler's Cool Ideas"
"Far From Heaven"
"The Safety of Objects"
"The Luzhin Defence"
"Men With Guns"
"Rx for Survival — A Global Health Challenge"
"No Direction Home: Bob Dylan"
"Strange Days on Planet Earth"
"Lightning in a Bottle"
"Me & Isaac Newton"
"Cracking the Code of Life"
on human nature
Documentary on climate change
"Nine Mile Falls," a television series based on five novels by local author Deb Caletti and directed by Rick Stevenson.
Richard Hutton was sitting in his office near Disneyland when he got a call that would change his destiny and influence the science curriculum of many U.S. high schools. A documentary on evolution, which he had sought to make for years, had found a major funder.
"The hair on the back of my neck stood on end," said Hutton, now vice president for media development at Vulcan Productions.
The man behind the check was Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Fourteen films and almost 10 years later, Allen is embarking on two new documentary film projects, one about human nature and another about climate change.
The 54-year-old billionaire is blending his interests in science, art and education to make films with a social bent.
Like the Allen Institute for Brain Science, film is part of what Allen calls his "venture philanthropy" — investing in bold, not-for-profit projects that explore his passions and curiosities.
If the philanthropic mission of Bill Gates has become sharply focused, his former partner's brand is highly eclectic. While Gates' charity is global and huge, Allen's is local and personal. His grant-making stays close to home in the Pacific Northwest.
His causes encompass everything from rock music and science fiction to private space travel, mapping the brain and searching for extraterrestrial life, combined with his Seattle real-estate developments and ownership of the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers.
Among all those projects, Allen says documentary film is one area that draws him to participate most directly, from inception to editing.
"With documentary-film projects, you hope you highlight an area of concern people haven't thought about before," Allen said in an interview. "A lot of times I'm asking myself — this seems to be a significant problem. What can be done that hasn't been done?
"In global warming I think everyone is scratching their heads — are there technological things that can be brought to bear that can make a difference?"
Through his production company, Vulcan Productions, Allen makes feature films, documentaries and television programs related to art and science. His latest project, "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial," is scheduled to air in November as part of the PBS Nova series, telling the story of a Pennsylvania school district beset by controversy over teaching intelligent design, which holds that the universe is too complex to be explained by evolution and must have been aided by the work of some supernatural "designer."
Allen's team at Vulcan is starting work on a series about human nature that explores mental difficulties and emotions.
His personal interest drives the film's subject matter, said Hutton, a former executive at Walt Disney Imagineering. "Paul was very interested in not just the science of human nature, but what we've learned over 20 or 30 years and how that has been applied to people beset by negative feelings, anxiety and depression."
The series started out with a scientific focus, but Allen pushed the producers to take a much more practical approach, presenting solutions and resources for people who need support.
"I think Paul sees film as a way of breaking through some of the clutter and giving back," Hutton said. "He's getting information out to the public that wouldn't otherwise be accessible."
$30 million a year
Allen doesn't talk about his philanthropy very often, but he has been involved in it for about 10 years. The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, which he heads along with his sister, Jody Patton, gives away about $30 million a year.
These days Allen's public-relations team is working to remind people about his charitable side, what with all the attention given to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently. Last year the Gates Foundation gave about $212 million to organizations in the Pacific Northwest, about 14 percent of its total grants. Yet Allen says he doesn't feel overshadowed.
"No, I think Bill's efforts are amazing and he's obviously going to be dedicating all of his time [to philanthropy]," he said.
The two have worked together on small education projects and a microcomputer museum gallery in Albuquerque, N.M. (where they started Microsoft), and Allen says he meets with Gates regularly to discuss ideas.
"I tell him what I'm doing; he tells me what he's doing," Allen said. "I just really applaud his efforts."
While Allen's efforts focus on the Pacific Northwest, he says Gates has influenced him to think more about health problems and the developing world.
"If you talk to ... Bill or Bono or any number of people, the awareness of global health in Africa is certainly more in my consciousness than it was a decade ago," he said.
In 2005 Allen co-produced a documentary called "Rx for Survival: A Global Health Challenge," which the Gates Foundation helped fund.
"I believe he's interested in producing television programs on important topics that impact people's lives in science, medicine and surrounding areas, that probably would not be produced by other broadcasters," said Paula Apsell, director of the science unit at WGBH in Boston, who worked with Allen on "Rx for Survival" and numerous other projects since 1998.
Allen plays a direct role in all the documentaries he finances. "He reads all the treatments, he sees all the cuts, he makes comments," Apsell said. "He wants them done in a way that's very accurate and true to science, that doesn't dumb them down and also addresses people's real need to know."
One of the most influential was "Evolution," a seven-part series that Apsell, Hutton and Allen produced together. Apsell said many potential backers she approached before Vulcan found the topic too controversial.
"A lot of other broadcasters worried about antagonizing Americans who believe that intelligent design and creationism should be taught in schools," she said.
Since it aired in 2001, the series, along with supplementary materials online, has been used by thousands of high-school teachers as part of their biology curriculum, Apsell said.
A "blend" of interests
Besides film, Allen's philanthropic contributions and investments have varied wildly. His foundation's stated mission is "nurturing the arts and cultural endeavors, engaging children more deeply in the learning process, responding to the needs of vulnerable populations, and advancing scientific and technological discoveries that expand our understanding of the universe."
"If you think about making a difference in the community," said Allen, "my family has always had a strong interest in the arts. I'm always interested in finding ways to innovate ... . It's a blend; it's not a point focus."
In its last six-month grant period, his foundation gave 87 grants, ranging from $5,000 to the Headwaters Dance Company in Montana to $575,000 to Seattle's Intiman Theater. He gave $70,000 to Cinema Seattle for the 33rd annual Seattle International Film Festival.
Asked to name his most significant achievements as a donor, Allen mentioned modest grants to deserving community and arts institutions, work saving old-growth forests, the brain institute, and support for new children's educational initiatives.
"I think it's hard for me to name just a few points because our focus is so general," he said. "We feel really great about being able to make a difference locally and in the region. Whether it's EMP [Experience Music Project] or something else, it's about giving back. You hope that institution makes a difference."
Gauging his giving
That approach may seem more haphazard than deliberate. Hutton says it simply reflects Allen's nature as "a renaissance man with insatiable curiosity."
Some question whether Allen gives away enough of his fortune.
Last year Forbes ranked Gates as the richest American, with an estimated net worth of $53 billion, and Allen as the fifth richest, with $16 billion.
Over his lifetime Gates has already given away more than $10 billion, and he has pledged to give away most of his remaining fortune. Allen has given about $900 million over the last decade through his foundation, his nonprofit projects and individual grants to universities, according to his spokesman. Because Allen's net worth is about one-third that of Gates, Allen would need to donate about $300 million each year to match Gates' level of giving.
Allen's charity reflects his own eclectic tastes. In the nonprofit EMP museum, which he opened by smashing a glass guitar on stage, he built a shrine to rock 'n' roll and his vast collection of Jimi Hendrix memorabilia.
Allen, once described as "a boy-man who likes his toys," owns three yachts, one with a recording studio and a 40-foot-long, $12 million yellow submarine, for which he employed a decorator. And his two professional sports teams command much of his attention.
His detractors, such as John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, say Allen's contributions have to be weighed against the city resources he has amassed to subsidize his commercial ventures.
In gauging Allen's impact, it's hard to separate his philanthropy from his local business ventures, said local historian Walt Crowley, considering how much the Seahawks, Qwest Field and South Lake Union projects have shaped Seattle.
"In some ways their local impacts are more tangible — or at least more visible — than the Gates' far larger philanthropy," said Crowley, who received funds from Allen a few years ago to launch an online encyclopedia of state history.
Not among top 100
Giving away about $30 million in grants a year, Allen's foundation is below the top 100 U.S. foundations in total giving for 2005 and 2006, according to the Foundation Center, an organization that tracks U.S. grant-making. Unlike many big family foundations, Allen's has no endowment, so it earns no interest from investments.
His grants are confined to a smaller geography than many national foundations of the same size, so the impact he has on the Pacific Northwest is much greater. Allen's was the fifth largest foundation in Washington state by total giving in 2005.
"I think they've played quite an important and significant role," said Carol Lewis, chief executive of Philanthropy Northwest. Allen's foundation has excelled at supporting local arts and helping nonprofits improve their effectiveness, she said.
"Once you've identified yourself as a philanthropist, there are always critics who'll say you don't give enough," Lewis said. "It's people who never come out from under the rock and engage in the community who get away with doing less than they should."
It's still too early to judge Allen's impact, said Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.
"I remember that 10 years ago people were beating up on Bill Gates for not giving enough, not being philanthropically active enough. He said give me time," Buchanan said.
"Paul Allen has not chosen to give nearly as much away yet, but maybe he will."
Already he's making a lasting impression, at least on film.
"He is very intent that this project really be able to help people," Apsell said of the human-nature documentary. "He's not interested in just producing something that is going to come and go."
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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