Wednesday, February 6, 2013

An Open Letter to DreamWorks


Author’s note: I know that the majority of my blog posts to date have been long-winded bouts of often overly-sentimental naval gazing, but with this post I hope to do something a little different. Along with posting this letter on my blog, I am sending it via email to as many DreamWorks contacts as I can find. If you are as angered as I am by the information I’ve presented below, I urge you to sign the petition here:

To Whom It May Concern:

First of all, let me congratulate you on the success of the most recent Madagascar movie “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted”, which, according to your most recent earnings report, has earned over $720 million at the worldwide box office. I have yet to see the newest film, but I look forward to watching it when I return to America in 2014, after my Peace Corps service is over.

It should come as no surprise to you that when I first announced to my friends and family that I would be serving my Peace Corps assignment in Madagascar, most people’s reactions had something to do with the Madagascar movies. And truth be told, when I announced my assignment on Facebook, I did so with the visual aid of a film still from the first “Madagascar” movie. Because of its massive success, your film series is responsible for many Americans’ entire perception and knowledge of the country of Madagascar.

However, once you get past that initial name recognition, most people will admit that they don’t know much about the actual country. I didn’t either, when I first got my invitation to serve here. But here is what I have learned: while Madagascar is indeed a wild and wonderful biodiversity hotspot, full of unique and colorful creatures like the lemurs and fosas shown in your films, it is also one of the most heartbreakingly, devastatingly impoverished countries in the world. According to the Malagasy government, more than 75% of people here live on less than $1 a day, an increase of 68% since the crippling political crisis of 2009, which ground local industries to a halt and caused many international donors to pull their aid funding. This is a country in which its people fight a daily battle just to survive and feed their families.

The needs here are so great yet so simple: access to clean water and reliable electricity, improved bridges and roads so that all routes are passable even during the rainy season, rehabilitation of schools so students have a proper learning environment, money to pay the teachers so that they don’t go on strike and disrupt the children’s learning, and in fact, money for children to pay the very meager school fees that they can continue to learn. These are all things that we as privileged Americans take for granted, but are veritable luxuries here in Madagascar.

And getting beyond basic human needs, there is an immense need for wildlife protection and natural resources conservation. This is a country that has already lost over 80% of its original growth forest to increasingly desperate farmers who clearcut land in order to plant food, only to exhaust the soil's nutrients within three years, forcing them to move on and clearcut even more land. Disappearing forests means the disappearance of animals that live there—lemurs, chameleons, frogs, birds, spiders, and all sorts of creatures that are found nowhere else in the world. They are dying because their forest is dying. Once they are gone from Madagascar, they will be gone from the entire world.

So as I began learning more and more about the poverty, despair, and environmental disasters that exist in this breathtakingly beautiful and unique country, I started to wonder if your company had donated any of the profits from the “Madagascar” movies to the country that they are named after. I posed the question to a State Department official here, and I was shocked to hear anecdotally from him that, aside from a token gift of around $50,000 (to which entity I am not clear), DreamWorks has not used any of the franchise profits to aid the people or the environment of Madagascar. Yet this is a franchise that, according to a June 2012 press release, has raked in over $1.1 billion worldwide. That is more than 10% of one year’s GDP of the entire country of Madagascar. Certainly the argument can be made that the success of the “Madagascar” movies increased the country’s reknown and elevated tourism revenue, but that is unfortunately not the case. (Even if a child saw the films and then begged his parents to take him to Madagascar, it’s just not economically viable as a family vacation destination when airfare from the United States costs upwards of $2,000 a person.)

I am not one to enthusiastically lobby for aid; in fact, I am serving as Peace Corps Community Economic Development volunteer because I am passionate about helping people improve their livelihoods through economic activity and business development. However, when I see something as imbalanced as a movie studio making billions of dollars using the name of one of the world’s poorest countries, I feel that there is a need for rebalancing. It’s about doing what is right. If you named a film “Haiti” and then proceeded to make millions of dollars of profit from it, surely there would be a public outcry for some portion of this revenue to be shared with the country. But because Madagascar’s poverty is not quite as visible to most westerners, the public attention is not there.

I know that DreamWorks Animation is by nature a charitable company, with a namesake foundation of your own, and that your founders Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen have also personally donated much of their wealth towards charitable causes. So what I am asking of DreamWorks is this: take some of the money you allocate for charitable giving and direct it towards an organization that is doing a lot of good work here in Madagascar, such as CARE, WWF, the United Nations World Food Programme, UNICEF, or the International Red Cross, just to name a few. Or even better, how about dedicating a portion of DreamWorks’s profits that can be attributed to “Madagascar 3”? According to your most recent earnings statement, your company posted a total of $24.4 million in profit for Q32012, an increase of 24 percent profit over the previous year. That earnings statement also noted that “Madagascar 3” accounted for 25 percent of your total Q3 revenue ($47.1 million). So how about taking a very tiny part of this small portion of the film’s total revenue, and pledging it towards good works in Madagascar? A mere 1% of the Q3 revenue would be $470,000, and this comparatively small amount of money could do such a world of good here. For example, just $20 could pay one year’s high school fees for one student. $1,500 would pay to install a water pump that would literally change the lives of the people who’d use it. Even a large-scale project such as paving an important 20 kilometer stretch of road could be achieved for under $100,000—a huge amount of money to a country as poor as this, but I am sure there are Hollywood charity benefits where reserving a table commands a more princely sum than this.

I know it will be easy enough for you to dismiss this letter and its accompanying petition as a rant from a na├»ve Peace Corps volunteer who doesn’t understand how the business world works. But you see, I do in fact understand a little bit. Prior to my Peace Corps service, I spent over 7 years in the business world in New York, working for fantastic companies such as Food Network and EMI Music, and now I am studying to take the GMAT in order to get my MBA when I finish my service.  I read The Economist whenever I can get my hands on a copy. And what I know now about modern business is this: in order to survive, a company cannot purely exist for profit and profit alone. A company must show that it has a commitment to serving its customers but also respecting the world in which it exists. How else to explain the rise of B Corps, or the fact that the State Department’s “21st Century Statecraft” agenda now includes a doctrine on corporate social responsibility? I hope that DreamWorks can evolve and grow as a company just as so many others are, too. And to do so, I am asking you to please give back to the country that has lent you its name. It deserves more than to just be a line item on your earnings report.

Sincerely,

Emily Silman
Peace Corps volunteer, Community Economic Development
Vangaindrano, Madagascar
March 2012- May 2014

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READERS: if you agree with me, please take a few minutes to sign my petition at Change.org:

  

4 comments:

  1. So happy to be catching up with all of your exploits! Really very appreciating. Keep it up Thanks

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  2. 1)According to the World Bank, Madagascar's GDP in 2011 is around $9.91 billion (not less than $1.1 billion).
    2) Madagascar has a commercial theatre, RITZ in Analakely (there used to be 3: Ritz, Rex, Roxy but that was more than two decades ago).
    3) According to Maitre Avoko (kung fu master, Malagasy movie producer), Madagascar will be "free from poverty" in 2017 (interview: http://youtu.be/zphtBOOlejQ [6 mn]) i.e. Four more years!

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    1. Andoniaina, thanks for your comments. I'm not sure where I got the GDP figure-- I believe it was given to us during Peace Corps training. However, I have corrected the error in my blog post above. We were also told that there are no movie theaters here, and I had no idea there was one in Analakely. Regardless, I am so far from Tana that it's not exactly a viable option to go see a movie. Finally, I am very curious how Maitre Avoko thinks that Madagascar will go from a 75% poverty rate to a 0% poverty rate in just four years... I will have to watch that interview when I have a better internet conneciton.

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    2. The main reason I comment on PCV Madagascar's blogs: to give information about Madagascar (custom, culture,...) as accurate as possible.
      Of course, those Hollywood movies played in Ritz are in French, not in English.

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