LONG BEACH, Calif. — The annual Technology Entertainment Design (TED) Conference here may be the last place one would expect to see Gucci Group president and chief executive officer Robert Polet and Gucci America president Daniella Vitale, but both were on hand to host a luncheon on Feb. 5.

As with most Gucci events, there were notables in the crowd such as Cameron Diaz, Meg Ryan, Forest Whitaker, Darryl Hannah and mogul Jean Pigozzi, several of whom were attending the five-day, invitation-only conference that took place Feb. 3 to 7.

This story first appeared in the February 13, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

But even though Polet opened the event by saying, “We are the creators of desire and design. The core of TED is creativity and innovation, which Gucci and fashion stand for as well,” the crowd was there not to toast a new accessory or clothing collection but to listen to a panel of documentary filmmakers that included Ben Affleck, Rory Kennedy and Abigail Disney.

The luxury brand funds documentaries through the two-year-old Gucci Tribeca Documentary Film Fund, which provides finishing grants to filmmakers whose work brings to light socially conscious topics often absent from mainstream media. Seven projects were selected last year from a pool of 450, and the funds were administered through the Tribeca Film Institute.

“Gucci’s heritage is interlinked with cinema and the film industry. We are inspired by every genre of film. Documentary filmmaking is a much-needed voice but is often overlooked in support, and we are fortunate to have the ability to fund several projects,” said Vitale.

Certainly cinema luminaries such as Affleck — who produced the war journalism documentary “Reporter,” which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — have acted as producers on such projects for years.

Oscar-winner Whitaker, who produced last year’s Tribeca Film Festival documentary “Kassim The Great,” said private funding is the key to getting such projects made, especially in this economy.

“Documentary a very underfunded genre. It doesn’t require the same amount of funds as a feature film, but it requires human currency. I know people who have film footage sitting around for years with no way to complete it,” said Whitaker. “These are people working with no resources, using their own money and credit cards. [The Gucci Tribeca Film Fund] allows them to finish, which is the hardest part.”

Despite the recession, Vitale said Gucci was committed to continuing its support of the arts.

“All companies are obviously being more prudent in the current climate. Gucci is no exception, but we still believe in remaining committed to causes we have supported over time. We also think this is in keeping with the general move toward greater social responsibility among individuals, corporations and institutions.”

Certainly most documentaries are not made for box office profit, though some can be megahits, like Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which grossed over $100 million worldwide and cost only $6 million to make.

But according to Tribeca Film Institute co-chairman Jane Rosenthal, a documentary’s success is usually measured on intangible levels. “Did a film teach an audience member to be more compassionate to a neighbor? Did someone learn about the struggles or triumphs of a person just like them from a place they will never get to go? Or about a culture that stereotypes had previously been clouding the truth?,” she said.

Rosenthal pointed out that with mainstream news outlets slashing funding, the topical issues that documentaries can bring to light become even more important. “The incentive Gucci provides to filmmakers is monumental. It signals our support and belief for the work that they do,” she said.

As Affleck pointed out during the panel, “It is a challenge to get people to pay attention to issues that are uncomfortable to watch. I’m trying to finesse that paradox. Documentaries can work by telling stories and communicating with people.”


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