Tim Kring had made it in Hollywood and was in that rare place where his financial security allowed him to choose jobs that had meaning for him. Yet Kring, the creator of TV's "Crossing Jordan," "Touch," and "Heroes," also knew all about how Hollywood regarded programming that came with a social message. He quotes the line attributed to MGM head Sam Goldwyn years ago: If you want to send a message, call Western Union.
Hollywood has always been about the bottom line, Kring said, and shows that come bearing a social message -- well, they don't always draw the audience, or the dollars. Still, Kring recalls, he had an itch to do something more -- to use his talents for storytelling in a way that could actually help people.
For Kring, 56, the turning point came on the day after 9/11 -- 12 years ago. At the time, he was in production with the first season of "Crossing Jordan," a show about a group of misfits who work in a morgue.
Production on the show halted on the day of the attacks. "But we were asked to go back to work the very next day," he recounted. "We had one single day to absorb this tragedy. So we stumbled back to work in a fog, and I remember being struck by the sudden contrast of creating what felt like meaningless fiction when the world was plunged into such stark reality," he said.
"It was just hard to care about an episode of TV, with actors pretending to be people they weren’t," he recalled, "dealing in emotions that were only make believe, when so many people were facing the devastating truth of human suffering."
Kring knew that as a sought-after Hollywood producer, he carried a large megaphone. "But I didn’t want to preach," he said. "I had no particular cause or political statement I wanted to make. I just had a need to say something –- to respond somehow to the tragedy of 9/11 in some way." He sat down and wrote an episode of the show called "Miracles and Wonders." It was about a daisy chain of events that connected a group of people’s lives in ways that appeared to be random, but weren't random at all. The episode became his writing blueprint for the next dozen years.
"I had stumbled onto the one theme that I wanted to talk about -- our interconnectivity," he explained. "This sense that we are all connected, all facets of the same existence -- shining and reflecting in and upon each other." He knew he wanted to keep telling stories -- and to do so in a way that kept the best of Hollywood -- but he needed them to be in the service of something bigger. And so Kring created the “Conspiracy For Good," an interactive multimedia platform where the audience becomes part of the story and the end result is a real-life social benefit.
With the first "Conspiracy For Good" launch, he incorporated mobile apps and games, music downloads, Twitter, and live performance art in which people gathered in public spaces -- including London's Tate Museum. In the story plot, recording artist Nadirah X took a break from her career to devote herself to building a library in Africa. But the funds she raised mysteriously disappeared, the books shipped from London didn't arrive, a trusted friend was found dead and an evil multinational corporation emerged as the game's villain. Through tweets, puzzles, mobile games and live performance art in five countries, the audience hunted for clues to resolve the conflict.
Ultimately, good trumps evil, and the real-life corporate sponsors, including Nokia and the NGO WeGiveBooks.org, released the funds to build and stock five libraries in rural eastern Zambia, contribute 10,000 books and donate 50 scholarships to girls -- slickly blending the line between fiction and real life. Participants in the multimedia platform numbered in the millions which, in Hollywood parlance, translated into a very good box office opening.
For Kring, it was proof that Hollywood fantasy and real-life impact can coexist. He counts among his heroes Jeff Skoll, the former eBay president who went on to found Participant Media, which has produced movies such as "Syriana," "An Inconvenient Truth," and "Good Night and Good Luck." As Skoll has said of his own mission, "I just wanted to make good quality films that were about something and not worry so much about whether they were successful commercially or not. And they've done just fine commercially -- clearly there is an audience for this kind of thing."
Kring, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children, has always had a streak of social activism. And given his determination to upend Hollywood's cynical prevailing wisdom -- that programs about something are predestined for financial failure -- it's possible to see Kring himself as a character in a larger story, fighting for a vision of Hollywood that values impact alongside profit.
"The business of show business is so dominant to the whole idea of what gets made," Kring said, "that business will always be at the heart of it. You have to figure out how to sneak a message into the storytelling."
If you know of other individuals or organizations in Hollywood looking beyond box office receipts and working to change the industry's reputation, please let us know at email@example.com