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Doron Weber, The Alfred P Sloan Foundation

Doron Weber talks to Jeremy Kat about the Foundation’s development grants and lab fellow grants which they distribute through their partner film schools and festivals, including Sundance.

Doron Weber is vp of programmes at The Alfred P Sloan Foundation and runs the Public Understanding Of Science And Technology programme, of which film is but one part. Weber oversees the Foundation’s efforts to educate and engage the public on matters of science and technology and oversees an annual awards pot of approximately $2m.

Weber and his team award development grants and lab fellow grants through the Foundation’s partner film schools and festivals. Sloan also awards the annual $20,000 Alfred P Sloan Feature Film Prize at Sundance, now in its tenth year.

So the Foundation isn’t just about supporting film?

No. We aim to educate and engage the public through film and television, but also in the areas of books, radio, theatre, opera, the internet and new media. We also supports selected scientific events of national concern and targeted public policy initiatives.

You’re a writer who came to Sloan when the Foundation did not cover the arts. How did you convince them to change?

Film is this common language everybody speaks – it’s a way for people to understand things. That’s the broad argument. I told them they needed to connect science and the arts. My film programme is aimed at showing this stuff can be entertaining. It’s not homework and it’s not didactic.

Care to give us some examples?

Take A Beautiful Mind. There’s very little math in there, but by getting close to a character like John Nash you might get interested in the subject. After seeing that film one million people went out and bought the book, which has a lot of math in it.

Who are your partners?

We have relationships with six film schools – AFI, UCLA, USC, NYU Tisch, Carnegie Mellon and Columbia – and our four festival partners are Sundance, Tribeca, Film Independent and the Hamptons International Film Festival.

We also liaise with the Art House Convergence, an alliance of around 450 non-profit theatres. We award mini-grants for their programmes that must include a film we have supported. So they might arrange a screening of The King’s Speech followed by a talk by a speech expert.

How do you select development grant recipients?

The trick is not to be risk-averse, but at the same time you don’t want to upset the Foundation. It’s like any development process in any art form. It’s a fun programme and I like the fact that we support a lot of up-and-coming writers and directors. I go to the six biggest film schools – our partners – and we find the next big writers. By dangling money in front of them we get a lot of students applying [for grants].

We paid for [Musa Syeed’s] Valley of Saints and that film is winning awards. It won the World Cinema – Dramatic Audience Award here [sharing the Alfred P Sloan Feature Film Prize with Robot and Frank in 2012.] Robot and Frank started out as the recipient of a $20,000 student grant I awarded back in 2003. Sloan put money into the current Sundance NEXT entry Computer Chess, which received a post-production grant at Tribeca.

What about upcoming projects?

We have a film that came out of the Sundance labs called A Birder’s Guide to Everything with Ben Kingsley that just wasn’t ready in time for Sundance. We are working on a project with Volker Schlondorff and a Hedy Lamarr mini-series project involving Diane Kruger.

What guidance do you give awards recipients?

We are not propagandising, so we tell people if they want to portray a bad scientist in their movies they can do that – just don’t make it a stereotype.

Why does it matter to connect people with science and technology?

Society is becoming more technological and I am riding a wave. People are hungry for knowledge and want to understand things like how does fracking work, genes and the environment. Science doesn’t know everything but you just want to be able to have access to that information.

The real stuff that’s happening with science is amazing and the more comfortable you can get people with this stuff, the better. Leonardo Da Vinci was a man of science and art and in a way I want everyone to look at the world like that. That’s what the programme means today – to turn us into Leonardos.

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