Employment assistance from the Australian government helped launch Scott Neeson on his way to becoming a successful Hollywood studio executive.
Ten years later, the founder of the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) believes his own model of assisting impoverished Cambodian families can bring hope.
Scott Neeson was a troubled 16 year-old when he dropped out of high school in the sprawling suburbs of Adelaide, Australia. Amid record unemployment, he was brought into a government-funded program for the chronically unemployed and was supported in his first job – hanging up movie posters for country and suburban theaters.
After a year, when the government stopped paying his salary, Neeson had already proved himself to the owners of the theaters in the days when movies like Jaws and E.T. were breaking box office records.
He was soon offered a job with a major production and distribution company and, at the age of 24, moved to Sydney to start a career in film distribution.
In a rags-to-riches story of success, Hollywood beckoned and in 1993 Neeson moved to Los Angeles, joining movie giant 20th Century Fox and working on films such as Mrs. Doubtfire, with Robin Williams.
Ten years later, and Neeson had become President of 20th Century Fox International, making mega-movies such as Titanic profitable all around the world.
Neeson has worked with and formed friendships with Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Johnny Depp, Al Pacino, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford and most of the Hollywood “A List”.
“Harrison Ford is exactly as you see him on screen, but smarter and funnier, a really funny guy,” he said.
By 2003, Neeson had a home in Beverly Hills, drove a Porsche 911, kept a yacht at Marina del Rey and attended Hollywood functions almost every night.
Yet, despite success, Neeson never forgot his origins as a working class kid from Adelaide.
Then in 2003, Neeson took a well-earned vacation – and visited Cambodia.
He had just signed a new contract to join Sony Pictures and negotiated a five-week break starting in Bangkok and working his way up to northern India looking for a kind of spiritual release “an antidote to all the crap of working at the top end of the film business”, he laughed.
But it was his visit to Cambodia that made a lasting impression.
“I ended up at the garbage dump in Phnom Penh and saw kids living on the garbage. It was shocking.
Children working, living, surviving in an apocalyptic environment, with an utter sense of hopelessness and resolve.
The horror of the situation was contrasted by how simple it was to help. I met with kids’ mothers and for a tiny amount of money, I had the kids going to school and the mothers living in a decent house with basic nutrition and education, and all for about $40 per month.”
Neeson looked back from Cambodia at the “rarified atmosphere” of Hollywood; fast cars, gorgeous girlfriends, first-class travel all over the world and a seven figure salary.
“Prior to that I had the classic rationales of why I didn’t give to charities: I didn’t know where the money was going; it wasn’t my problem; and the problem was too immense for me to truly make a difference.
“Standing on the garbage dump, just me and these tragic, helpless children, was a profound moment of clarity: either I was to do everything in my power to help these children or accept that my own comfort and material desires were of greater value to me than the lives of these children. It was honestly that black and white for me.
“No-one wants to see themselves as selfish and few would admit that we would put their personal material comfort before the life of a child. But we do it, indirectly, unwittingly or with rationalisation. I was dropped into an extreme situation and faced with two extremes of situations.”
Neeson returned to Hollywood, but increasingly knew that he had a choice to make: Hollywood or Steung Meanchey. Within nine months, he knew the answer.
On March 23 this year, Neeson will turn 53 years old. He has lived in Phnom Penh for just over seven years and rents a house in Toul Tompong.
He is the Executive Director of perhaps the fastest growing NGO in Cambodia.
And in some ways, he works the same way that he always has.
Two hundred emails every day and long distance travel on fundraising trips, albeit in coach class.
It wasn’t making films that Neeson was good at; it was the selling of the films around the world; creating the conditions for people to fill the theaters.
“What’s very interesting with a film is you’ve got to decide what it is going to be; it starts in a tin can. Titanic could have been a disaster movie; it could have been an action film; it could have been a romance. You write down the marketing statement: ‘an epic romance about one of the worlds’ most infamous journeys’.”
Neeson put together the release for Titanic (1997) and that film made more money than any other in history: $1.8 billion.
One of Neeson’s mentors, then 20th Century Fox Chairman Bill Mechanic, taught him: “Film marketing is very much like marketing perfume – how to get people to buy $100 perfume when they can buy $4 perfume. You’ve got to create an aura, a sense of value,” Neeson said.
“The strength was intuitive; being able to see a film from an outside perspective. You’ve got to work out your core audience, how to reach them and with what message.”
It was an insight that led Neeson to register the Cambodian Children’s Fund and establish a mission to assist nearly 1,000 children and their families to climb out of poverty.
But first Neeson had to get out of his Sony Pictures contract; to sell everything he owned and start a new life amid the garbage dump community at Steung Meanchey.
“It was brutal,” he said. “The change; the anxiety; the responsibility. But ultimately, the goal is what drove me on.”
Today, Neeson knows the name of every one of the 1180 children in the CCF program.
“It’s not a party trick. You meet with the family, you understand their plight and together you forge a plan that provides an opportunity to regain financial independence. When you make that journey with a child or a parent, you don’t forget their names or their stories. The bond comes when you come to ask the right questions of the right child.”
Neeson’s goal is to be invisible in the lives of the families.
“It’s a top down approach: I don’t want to usurp the family structure. CCF aims to support the parents, in order for them to provide a safe, sustainable family. We don’t want to jump in to save the day and become the community benefactors. That is a danger. You can’t create a sense of welfare dependency. It’s counter-productive.”
Interestingly, two of Neeson’s biggest supporters are Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone, two global media tycoons who famously dislike each other, but who agree on supporting Neeson’s charity.
“Rupert Murdoch has been a consistent supporter. He has been unwavering. And Sumner (Redstone) is our biggest individual donor. Sumner feels that by giving up my Hollywood life, he never has to doubt my motives. No one can accuse me of being here for the money,” Neeson laughed.
“We do not rely on foreign aid money. Private donations and unrestricted loans allow us to be more nimble,” Neeson said.
“We can react. When the Steung Meanchey garbage dump was relocating, we had an urgent need for a kindergarten nursery. From making the decision to build a nursery to accepting the first infants took less than a week and under $1,000. You can do so much more if you’re not beholden to excessive reports and second-guessers.”
With funding from Credit Suisse in Hong Kong, CCF recently opened two new community-based schools. A third school will open in May, bringing a total of more than 500 new children into a quality education.
Cambodian Children’s fund (http://www.cambodianchildrensfund.org) gets most of its $2.5 million a year budget from the United States, but also raises funds in Hong Kong, Australia and the United Kingdom.
Neeson flew to Hong Kong last week for fund raising activities.
In addition to pre-schools, English schools and a free clinic in Phnom Penh’s Steung Meanchey district, there’s a CCF administrative office and residence in the vicinity of Russian Market.
Neeson identifies debt burdens as one of the debilitating factors facing poor Cambodians who end up at the garbage dump near Steung Meanchey.
“The over-arching problem here is debt. Families arrive here in the garbage dump communities from all over Cambodia.
Many were originally subsistence farmers who moved to Phnom Penh in search of work, having sold up their small farms and homes in the countryside to service debts.
In nearly all cases, they make their way here as the last ditch effort to service a crippling debt.”
Neeson recently chaired a community meeting of 130 families and asked the question: how many people have debt that is holding down their lives? Everyone put up their hand. How many of those debts were under $500? Everyone put up their hand.
“The 130 families have a debt of $25,000. That’s not an impossible amount,” Neeson said.
The answer was a simple agreement with each family: get your child to school each day and we will provide you the essential services to survive, and work with you to recover financial independence.
“I’m confident that we’ll see a community change, with higher education rates, less violence, less alcoholism and less abuse generally. The first test cases have been very encouraging,” he said.
“Traditional micro-finance institutions lend so that the poor can move up a rung or two, hopefully employing people as they grow. That’s essential for a country’s development. I see CCF’s role as assisting those to get their first foot on the ladder and that starts with dealing with generational debt and usury lending practices.”
Another of CCF’s supporters is self-help author and motivational speaker Tony Robbins. Every year Robbins runs a global youth leadership summit in San Diego, California, and CCF students represent Cambodia.
“Tony Robbins’ courses do remarkable things for kids and they come back and they look at the world a whole different way.”
Neeson says leadership is CCF’s greatest priority with kids going to camp at Kampong Cham, learning the values and principles of being community leaders.
“The kids have an inner strength that has allowed them to survive. Channeling that energy into progressive, impassioned thinking is so powerful.”
Neeson had read about the 11-year old girl Theng Souvannary whose parents had died of complications from HIV infections, in the January 26 edition of The Phnom Penh Post.
The story caused Neeson to intervene and provide assistance to her family.
Weeks later Post reporter Khouth Chakrya was interviewing Theng Souvannary’s aunt, whose eyes filled with tears as she told him the story of the relief Neeson and CCF provided to her family.
IIt was Khouth Chakrya who wrote the original story that Neeson read and acted on.
Neeson commented: “She wasn’t lacking love or care; she was lacking the material essentials. After meeting with the aunt and uncle, we decided to support them so they could provide a better life for Srey Leak.”
Neeson is proud of CCF’s garment centre, bakery program, health clinic and schools.
“You help the mothers overcome the obstacles, help them regain their matriarchal role and that’s when the magic happens. That requires providing job skills, teach counseling, education and very often rebuilding a sense of self-esteem.”
So does anything make him mad?
“There’s not a lot that gets me angry. If I find myself getting agitated, it’s usually because due to a cultural disconnect on my part. Sure, pushing for better lives for these children and families requires a strong emotional investment and I’m impatient by nature. However to be effective, I need to consciously let go of my Western judgments of situations and people.
“I do take issue with those who exploit the poor; those who are relentless in making money from the most vulnerable and impoverished. People lending money, turning a $500 loan into a $3,000 debt and pulling families apart in order to get their payments each month.
“One family, recently arrived from Kratie, now has an impossible debt of $4,000 and that’s growing by 10 per cent per month. The family needs every member of the family to work seven days a week, in the most grueling circumstances, and still the debt grows. Government intervention and mediation, either at a local or provincial level, could help if it’s applied justly.”
“What keeps me awake at night is the fear of having a child slip through the cracks. In business, a misstep can mean a significant revenue loss; here, it can change the course of a child’s life. I can’t read those kinds of stories and not take action. That’s what both drives CCF and runs me into the ground,” Neeson laughed.
“Vertically we take the child from grade three to college; horizontally we see that the family remains enmeshed and together. We help put the families back together.”
Talking about how his own background of support from a government program when he was an unemployed teenager, Neeson summed it up: “What resonates most these days is having been the under-educated kid, from a working class background, who could not see a future for himself. I know how important it is to have hope.
“If you can see a light and believe in yourself, you can do anything.”