Interview with Peter Samuelson
improves the lives of foster youth by partnering with child welfare agencies, universities, and school districts to ensure foster youth have the academic, life skills, and adult supports needed to successfully transition to higher education and adulthood. They pursue their mission through innovative college-preparatory programs, providing technical assistance to stakeholders, and advocating for policy change.
Hey Peter, could you please tell us a bit more about your work with First Star and what led to your founding the venture?
I'm Peter Samuelson, I am the founder-president of First Star. That's firststar.org. so it's a large children's charity, that aspires to get foster kids out of 12th grade and into colleges and universities, and in fact we do that with 91 percent of them. What I've done is to apply the skills I learned originally as a motion picture producer - I've made 26 films, you know - "Is this a big enough idea? What is the business plan? What's the budget? What's the timeline? Who is the team? Where does the money come from? How do we distribute it?" I've taken those skills and I've now applied them to five separate nonprofits which, thank God, are thriving. So in First Star, what we do is to partner with large successful universities and we house, educate and encourage high school-aged foster kids - throughout grades nine, ten, eleven and twelve - with the goal of getting them to want to go to college, to be able to go to college - S.A.T. and A.C.T. and whatever. But also to have the self-esteem, the life skills, the study skills and the unconditional love and support of adults. Because these are kids by definition, who have been abused or neglected, they've got no families to encourage them. We use the community of each university to do that. We, so far, have 15 academies across the United States and one in the UK. They're thriving.
How does your work with First Star intersect with your film career?
Well I've just had the most extraordinary experience on my latest film, it's called Foster Boy - you can see the trailer and the message from Shaquille O'Neal on Fosterboy.com. It is a true double-bottom-line film. I met the author of this autobiographical script when I was teaching a class in screenwriting at the University of California Riverside. Jay Deratany: he had represented, pro-bono, a foster kid in a trial for damages because he had been serially raped in a foster home and the for-profit foster care agency had knowingly placed a known sexual predator into that same placement. And Jay won, after a lot of twists and turns, an extraordinary victory against the for-profit company. I said, "This is a film." He said, "Yes, I think it is a film." He wrote it. He raised most of the money, I raised some of the money. We put a crew together: we got Matthew Modine, and Amy Brenneman and Lou Gossett Jr to star in it. We got, as an executive producer, Shaquille O'Neal. Shaq presents the film. So, we obviously would like it to be a big commercial film when it opens late this year. But in addition, we have very well-articulated goals socially with the film: you're a lawyer, why don't you volunteer - we'll get you trained up to represent foster kids. You'd like to donate, you'd like to foster, you'd like to adopt? Click on these buttons. So the film is tied to the website which is tied to the hashtag.
How has the role of producer changed since your career started? What have been some of the films you've found the most rewarding to work on?
I started as - certainly not a producer - I was the 12th assistant to the producer in 1970, on the Steve McQueen motor racing film Le Mans. I just lucked out, and in my gap year between high school and college I had good French, so I sold myself to be an interpreter on this big American film shooting in France and that was where I began. I've actually made 26 films now. The biggest single change I would say, a lot is the same, but the biggest single change is of course that everything's digital. It means not only that the devices that are recording the picture and the sound are about a tenth of the size and and of higher quality. And it's so easy to manipulate sound and image these days, without doing optical work that used to be incredibly expensive. It has ramifications for film making, one of which of course is that you can see your work instantly and that the editor can edit alongside the film and keep up with the pace of filming, so you can learn what you need while you're still filming it. The second thing is, all the lighting is tinier and LED-based in the main, it makes much less heat. It used to be that everyone stood on a film set and sweated, and now you don't really have that. So I would say filmmaking has become potentially more intimate, but really, it's not the technology. I think we've all woken up as filmmakers and said, "I have an affirmative obligation. I've been given this megaphone, I should probably try to use it to make the world a better place." And that's what I do as a filmmaker.
How do you measure the impact of First Star, Inc on your target communities? How have your key performance indicators changed over the years?
Well, not always hilariously - it's easy to measure outcome and impact for a motion picture because honestly, they either go and see it - the audience - or they don't. If you get it right, it can be the most extraordinary joy. I remember standing at the back of an auditorium after we opened Revenge Of The Nerds, and I remember hearing people laughing and thinking, "This really is the best career any human being could ever aspire to have." And when I made Arlington Road, I remember standing at the back of the auditorium and hearing the audience gasp - because they found it scary, and meaningful, and strong, and horrific and so forth. So you're trying to generate empathy, emotion, and on a motion picture you measure it that way. In my new company, which I am running with six partners - amazing people, privilege to work with them - PhilmCoMedia.com, we have to measure ourselves in an additional way, which is: did we move the needle in public awareness, in legislation, in donations, in volunteerism, in the number of people who check the box to be potentially an organ donor. Whatever it is in our social intent, our double bottom line if you like, in PhilmCo. In First Star, which is my nonprofit that helps foster kids, we have, courtesy of Deloitte, a data dashboard where our 15 academies upload the metrics - not just academically but also of self-esteem and life skills and so forth - and we crunch them together. So we have a constant way of assessing ourselves and seeing if we're doing it right. The biggest stat is that 91 percent of our teenage foster kids go to college.
What's next for your work as a producer and philanthropist? What will be your main projects focus throughout the next year?
Well, rather delightfully and extremely happily, this is the best phase of my career to date. I've made 26 films, but what I'm now doing is running a company with six partners called PhilmCo, it's the philanthropic film company. What does philanthropy mean? It means the love of mankind. So what we've set ourselves is two high hurdles: everything we do has to be commercial, but it also has to aspire and have a pretty well articulated plan, to make the world a better place. And that is precisely what we're doing. We have six verticals: our humanity, our planet, our health, our voice, our children and our inspiration. We have film and television projects in each of them, and with each project it stands up as a commercial motion picture or television show. But the aspiration is also that we will be able to use the film to move the needle socially, in legislation, in public awareness, in engagement, in volunteerism, in donations. And we always partner with between one and five nonprofits, 501c3s, so that they help us get the script right. They help us train the cast, the director and the heads of department on the crew. And then in distribution, we expect that their Twitter following and the rest of their social media will be at the forefront of the earned media that will propagate the film, because it will advance the agenda of those nonprofits, as well as being a proper grown up motion picture. So that's Philmco.com.