EXCLUSIVE: John Cena, the actor and pro wrestling champion, will be appearing on theater screens all across the country this summer in a 30-second PSA urging movie-goers to support the work of Brave Beginnings, an initiative of the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation that’s helped save the lives of thousands of premature babies.
Cena, who’s starred in Bumblebee and Trainwreck, is the latest in a cavalcade of stars – dating back to Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis and James Cagney – who have pitched in to carry on Will Rogers’ work to help sick children. Rogers, the humorist and philanthropist, died in a plane crash in 1935.
“We are thrilled to have John’s support to further our mission so that every neonatal intensive care unit has the proper life-saving equipment imperative to ensuring that premature newborns survive and go on to live healthy lives,” said Kyle Davies, president of domestic distribution at Paramount Pictures and board president of the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation. “His advocacy for children’s health and positive ‘never give up’ attitude inspires moviegoers and people everywhere.”
Cena, who has granted more than 500 Make-A-Wish requests to sick kids, “has an incredible reputation for helping children and their families,” Davies said.
“The exhibitors help the charity raise money – from cash-in-the-can donations in theaters to concession promotions where a portion of the proceeds go to Brave Beginnings,” Davies said. “The exhibitors come up with different programs to engage with the public to raise money for the charity. We work directly with the theaters to come up with these fund raising programs.”
Theater chains that participated in last year’s fund-raising campaign included AMC Theatres, Cinemark USA, Regal Entertainment Group, Bow Tie Cinemas, Galaxy Theatres, Goodrich Quality Theatres, Harkins Theatres, Malco Theatres, Marcus Theatres, Phoenix Theatres, National Amusements, Reading Cinemas, Regency Theatres, Studio Movie Grill, the United Drive In Theater Owners Association and many others.
“The exhibition and distribution community has a need to give back, and they’ve been doing this since 1936. They want to do some good. Brave Beginnings is their latest effort,” said Todd Vradenburg, executive director of Brave Beginnings and the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneer Foundation.
Vradenburg estimates that movie theaters have raised some $90 million for the charity since 1936. “Movie theaters have been raising money for this charity since the beginning,” he said.
Since 2006, the charity has contributed $7.7 million in grants for life-saving ventilator equipment to neonatal intensive care units at 160 U.S. hospitals. This, the charitable organization says, “has impacted the lives of 176,000 babies.”
Approximately 15 million babies are born prematurely in the world every year – more than 500,000 in the U.S. alone. “The United States has the sixth highest premature birth rate in the world,” according to Brave Beginnings. “Premature birth accounts for 35% of all infant deaths in the United States, more than any other single cause.”
“We’re the only charitable organization that’s helping doctors and nurses save the lives of premature infants,” Vradenburg told Deadline. “Rural hospitals across the country always need more equipment, and they need better equipment. We set a goal of giving out a million dollars in grants this year, but we could use $5 million. In the past, we have received grant requests of $5-6 million. If we raise a million, we can put that to good use.”
The charity had its beginnings in the days of vaudeville, when tuberculosis was rampant among vaudevillians, who were often forced to live in cramped quarters as they traveled around the country. To combat the deadly disease, the National Vaudeville Association started its own TB sanatorium in upstate New York – called the NVA Lodge. After Rogers’ tragic death, the name of the hospital was changed in 1936 to the Will Rogers Memorial Hospital. The Will Rogers Institute was launched in 1952 to be a research and training center, and the Will Rogers Institute Neonatal Ventalator Program was created in 2006, changing its name to Brave Beginnings in 2015.
The charity’s in-theater fundraising campaign is a time-honored tradition that dates back to 1936. Many of Hollywood’s biggest stars have taken part in theatrical PSAs, including Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney, Henry Fonda, Mickey Rooney, Errol Flynn, Paul Muni, Charlton Heston, John Barrymore, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Rock Hudson and Jack Lemmon.
More recently, stars who’ve pitched in include Barbra Streisand, Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, Shirley MacLaine, Julie Andrews, Warren Beatty, Sally Field, Jeff Bridges, Morgan Freeman, Dustin Hoffman, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Keaton, Liza Minnelli, Lily Tomlin, Sharon Stone, Liam Hemsworth, Geena Davis, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tommy Lee Jones, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan.