Victory at the MPTF: A True Hollywood David and Goliath Story

The decision to keep the hospital running could not have happened without a sustained grassroots campaign waged against the industry’s heaviest hitters

The two year stand off between some of the movie business' heavy hitters and a group of grassroots organizers to keep the Motion Picture and Television Fund longterm care facitily open has all the makings of a classic underdog story.

Rarer still, it may come with a happy ending.

Also read: TheWrap's Complete Coverage of the MPTF Closure Saga (Timeline)

An MPTF board filled with the likes of DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Fox Filmed Entertainment Co-chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos, and former MGM CEO Frank Mancuso were forced to back down under pressure from a few activists with no funding, no clout and nothing but their determination not to give up until they got what they wanted.

“We were David staring down Goliath. We were doing battle with people who are not used to reversing themselves once they have made a decision,” said Richard Stellar, a member of Saving the Lives of Our Own, the group that formed to stop the closure.

In a stunning reversal, the MPTF’s leadership announced on Wednesday that it had entered into a non-binding letter of intent with Providence Health & Services that will keep its longterm care facility and acute care hospital open. Under the agreement, which is still pending approval, Providence would sign a long-term lease for the MPTF hospital facilities and licenses for the 250-bed hospital would be transferred to nearby Providence Tarzana Medical Center.

Also read: MPTF Chief Beitcher Grilled — 'It’s a Big Win For Everybody' 

The credit for keeping the doors open to the money-losing facility lies almost entirely with the 250 member Saving the Lives of Our Own. With many members reaching deep in their own pockets, the grassroots group mounted a sustained assault on the MPTF leadership. They hosted nearly twenty rallies and fundraisers, took out ads in the trade papers and enlisted the powerful law firm of Girardi + Keese.

“I don’t think that any of us really believed that a day like this would be possible. It’s truly humbling,” Dean Butler, a Saving Our Lives Member, told TheWrap.

In the glow of hammering out a potential compromise, even the MPTF leadership is feeling generous.

“We knew that we had to go down the process of closure or risk the Fund, but did we ever give up on an alternative solution? The answer is no. Did [Saving the Lives of Our Own] do a good job of keeping the need in the forefront of our minds? Absolutely,” MPTF CEO Bob Beitcher told TheWrap.

The tentative agreement could also ultimately improve the quality of care on campus. Providence Health will take over the financial obligations of maintaining the hospital and its longterm care services — something that had been losing the MPTF roughly $10 million a year. As a result, the longterm care facility and other buildings on campus will receive substantial renovations.

Looking back, the speed with which families of MPTF residents coalesced is remarkable, particularly given that most had little if any experience with community organizing. Within 72 hours of a now infamous January 2009 letter from then CEO Dr. David Tillman, announcing that the hospital and longterm care facility would close and its patients would be moved, 150 family members met at a Marriott Hotel in Calabasas to hammer out the parameters of what would become Saving the Lives of Our Own.

Together they would learn to work the media, host tours of the soon-too-close facility for concerned industry members and meet with anyone and everyone who might be able to sway the board.

Deprived of the public support of industry A-listers (only George Clooney spoke out publicly), and limited financial backing, the group nevertheless maintained a steady drumbeat of pressure on the MPTF.

“I was crushed that we didn’t have support from those who could have really made a difference. As it turns out it was the meat and potato actors, the set dressers, the grips and the people who avail themselves of the services the home provides, those were the ones who pushed the ball forward,” Stellar told TheWrap.

Equally important to pulling off Wednesday’s turnaround was the ouster of Dr. Tillman last year. After the decision to shutter the acute care unit and displace its nearly 140 patients became a public relations fiasco, the MPTF head was pushed out in favor Beitcher. Beitcher reestablished communication with the dissidents and was seen as a more approachable leader than the aloof Tillman.

Also read: Inside the MPTF Meeting With Families

“The brazen way that Tillman approached it, the way he announced edicts from on high was infuriating,” Butler remembers. “We may not be all sold on Bob Beitcher, but we feel he is doing his job effectively and trying to build bridges.”

Whether it was Beitcher who ultimately convinced the board to change course or other industry heavyweights working behind the scenes, the MPTF ultimately was forced to come up with an ingenious way to continue to provide the costly services.

“We kept to the high road, even though it was sometimes difficult to contain some people. We tried to let the issue speak for itself and to keep reminding people that this industry cannot discard sick old people,” Andew Suser, co-founder of Saving the Lives of Our Own, told TheWrap.

The weight of moral authority, it seems, was too great a force for the MPTF leadership to withstand.