Making Change

When Michael Franzini heard news reports that a college student named Matthew Shepard had been beaten to death simply because he was gay, the film maker says, “Much like after Sept. 11, I felt this overwhelming need to do something. Everyone experiences this feeling of helplessness. We decided to do a PSA.”

Franzini, based in Santa Monica, Calif., produced two spots: one a montage incorporating footage of historical hate-crime perpetrators with shots of the fence where Shepard was killed and the other featuring Shepard’s mother, Judy, talking about how children are conditioned to discriminate with words like “fag” and “homo.”

Nearly two years after the first PSA aired in heavy rotation on MTV, public service messages have become a full-time occupation for Franzini, now president and creative director of Public Interest Productions, a nonprofit under the banner of commercial production company And his message of tolerance is still highly topical.

CBS aired a Shepard spot earlier this year during the Grammy Awards, which was fraught with controversy over rapper Eminem’s nomination and performance. This month, MTV began running 10-second Fran zini-directed spots urging youth to “take a stand against discrimination” as part of the network’s ongoing Fight for Your Rights campaign against discrimination.

Franzini is fortunate to see his work on prime-time. He and his executive producer, Douglas Allenstein, are also fortunate to enjoy the resources that provides—which also help encourage high-profile freelance agency creatives to participate. Last year a partnership was formed with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which now sponsors 90 percent of the projects that the company produces.

“This partnership helps give us some in-house capacity,” says Tina Hoff, vice president for public health information and partnerships at Menlo Park, Calif.-based Kaiser. “It has provided us with added flexibility, and it has a lot of appeal with the networks to be able to tap into new and creative expertise and perspective.”

Upcoming projects include Kai ser’s first effort with CBS, a television and outdoor campaign breaking early next year to raise awareness about health-insurance options for those who can’t afford coverage, as well as a campaign for the Elton John AIDS Foundation scheduled to break in December. Franzini is collaborating with the freelance creative team of Mark Johnson and Dion Hughes on both projects.

“In this business we try to make a consumer feel that this product is better than that one—socially, it is not going to change anything,” says co-proprietor and president Frank Scher ma. “But the fact that you can affect people in a positive way without trying to sell something to them maybe, just maybe, can make a small change in the world. … If we can make people think differently, we are accomplishing something.”

The project that originally had Franzini knocking on Scherma’s door was a TV series exploring the use of the insanity defense in murder trials, titled The Mad, the Bad and the Innocent. The show is now in development with TV production company Coote-Hayes. Still, Franzini says Public Interest remains his primary pursuit.

“I am just enjoying the fact that this is working for us,” he says. “I am in the exceptional position where I can do creative work that gets seen by a large number of people and is making a difference. At the moment, I can’t ask for anything more.”