In 2011, David France was wrapping up his first film, How to Survive a Plague, which focuses on the HIV activist groups AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Treatment Action Group (TAG), using almost exclusively archival footage. As placeholders for music, France and the editing team used songs from Red Hot's Dark Was The Night album as sonic backdrops. The tracklist to Dark Was The Night reads like a who's who of 21st-century rock music, featuring Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, The National, and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, released in 2009.
"It was just an amazing piece of work," France said. "We played it in the cutting room all the time, and we started using parts of it as test music as we were working with this old archival video to try to tell the story of ACT UP and those early days. The sense was really so bright and so clever and so insightful and provocative. That moved us through the easy and the grueling part of our edit -- and when we started thinking about what we were going to do for a soundtrack for the film itself."
Paul Heck, Béco Dranoff, and Red Hot co-founder John Carlin met with France and his production team.
"One of the reasons I wanted to talk to him [Carlin] initially was because I knew that the very first grant that Red Hot gave away was to ACT UP," France said. "And they became one of the first major donors for ACT UP at a time when I think ACT UP didn't even really have a bank account. They certainly didn't have any 501c3 status, so there was a lot of radical philanthropy going on there. I knew that they would understand the cultural excitement and tension of this story of this period of time," France said.
In watching several extended clips in pre-production, Heck recommended incorporating music from Arthur Russell, the avant-garde jazz and disco musician who lived in New York during the early days of AIDS. Russell also died from AIDS-related complications in 1992. Russell has since garnered cult status; however, he was pretty obscure and broke in his final days.
"We should use Arthur Russell's music, because he was there," Heck suggested. "He was an artist. An HIV-positive artist at this time. … It's not about him. I mean, there's a lot of people that got left out of the story, but his musical voice should be in this film, because he had AIDS and he died. And he died before the combination therapy came along and could've possibly saved him. So, what do you guys think?"
France initially thought the idea was "high-minded" but trusted Heck's instincts. Plus, France had been a fan of Red Hot since the early albums.
"Those were so powerful at a time when pop culture and new culture was really absent from the AIDS fight. To have so many major artists being ushered into the congregation for the first time was groundbreaking. It changed everything," he said.
Heck assembled Stuart Bogie, Luke O'Malley, and Kronos Quartet to arrange and re-work the song ideas hatched in Arthur Russell's kitchen before his death.
Heck remembers what happened immediately after the first full screening of France's How to Survive A Plague.
"Two of the main people in that [documentary], Mark Harrington and Peter Staley, came up to me and said, 'I don't know if you realize, but all those things we were doing in the film, Red Hot funded.'"
ACT UP -- this was the same ACT UP that stormed the now-defunct Saint Vincent's Catholic Medical Center in Greenwich Village, the Burroughs Wellcome pharmaceutical headquarters in North Carolina, the New York Stock Exchange floor, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) offices outside of Washington, D.C., along with many more actions. The documentary highlights the pressure ACT UP waged upon the medical and political establishment, along with serving as a time capsule of when grassroots activists used a combination of strategies learned from the Civil Rights Movement and gay and women's liberation. One event in particular is remembered as "Storm The NIH," when about 1,000 protestors came to the National Institutes of Health's Bethesda, Maryland campus in May 1990. This was a national action organized by ACT UP New York, demanding AIDS treatment options focusing on opportunistic infections, increased participation of women and people of color in clinical trials, and the formation of a Women's Health Committee in the NIH AIDS clinical trials system.
"Red Hot funded 'Storm The NIH,'" Staley said.
"That [event] basically helped crack open the wall between the NIH and patient advocates. We were demanding a seat at the table on every committee that impacted our lives. And a few months after that, we finally broke down that wall and got on all those committees. They were really instrumental in helping fund this kind of birth of patient advocacy. It was huge," said Staley.
"I don't think I literally knew that," Heck said. "I knew that we had given money, but I didn't know exactly what it went to. And they were like, 'Yeah, all those trips to Washington we made, all those conferences we went to, it was the thousands of dollars you gave to us.' I was like, 'Wow.' That was a really good return on investment."
Staley, the Wall Street bond trader turned HIV activist who is prominent in How to Survive A Plague, headed ACT UP's fundraising for three years, starting in September 1987. ACT UP used many fundraising strategies, ranging from nationwide direct mailing to benefit concerts and their now-iconic Silence=Death and Read My Lips campaigns which included T-shirts, buttons, and hats.
Carlin said he took notice of ACT UP almost immediately in 1987, when it was first started. It would be quite difficult to miss ACT UP's brazen demonstrations, especially its New York chapter. His friend, David Wojnarowicz, was a member up until his death. Wojnarowicz carried a missive on the back of his denim jacket directed at the FDA in the famous photo snapped by Bill Dobbs in 1988. Carlin enlisted the artistic arm of ACT UP, Gran Fury, to design artwork for Red Hot + Blue. Gran Fury was the creative force behind Silence=Death and Read My Lips. When Red Hot's album revenue started coming in, he had ACT UP in mind as a beneficiary. But some people at amfAR -- who had helped Red Hot get set up, provided guidance, and helped it gain attention from Hollywood -- thought the funds could go elsewhere. This seemed more of a minor tiff than a large rift but was "a really strange" situation to be in, Carlin said.
"I basically had to say, 'Well, fuck you. We raised this money. This was done by artists. We're radicals. We like what ACT UP is doing,'" Carlin said. "I had to figure out how to give money directly to ACT UP, which was very difficult. They weren't really an organization. They were like anarchists. It turned out that there wasn't even like a central ACT UP entity."
ACT UP was a series of local city-based chapters. Most major cities had chapters spring up --from New York to San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, and San Juan (ACT UP Philadelphia is still going strong). Carlin directed monies to separate ACT UP chapters throughout the U.S., including the chapter in Red Hot's backyard.
"Overall, we gave about a million dollars to ACT UP in the early 1990s," Carlin said. "Some of that money went through directly to a group of people who were advocating and then eventually pushing the government and Pharma to bring the drugs to market that let people live with HIV."
amfAR's Sally Morrison said, "I think that an organization like ACT UP is almost like the conscience, or the spirit, or the soul of a movement -- that there always has to be this kind of pressure group on the edge that is taking the most extreme and loud and vigorous and sometimes controversial positions on things. But it's important to inspire a movement, to inspire a community, it's important for people like Larry Kramer and Peter Staley to shout very loud about civilization and its terrible inequities."
Though ACT UP's fundraising strategies brought in quite a bit, Staley said, grants were hard to come by.
"Getting the normal foundation support was slim pickings, to say the least," Staley recalled. "It's like, we were considered these scary, radical queers that even most of the A-gays, that the queer intelligentsia or whatever were horrified by us and scared of us."
"But to my surprise, Red Hot stepped up and became a major donor group," he said. "And that's a real testament to their forward thinking. Because now everybody looks back and says ACT UP saved the world. But I can assure you they weren't thinking that at the time. And Red Hot wasn't intimidated by our radicalism and saw that we were doing great things and changing the conversation and moving things in the right direction, and they stepped up. They were huge for us. They made our job much easier."
Carlin didn't realize that at the time. "We just thought that ACT UP was really interesting," he said.
Sam Avrett was also on ACT UP's fundraising committee in 1990. Avrett kept asking fellow ACT UP member and journalist, Ann Northrop, how he could further fundraising efforts. She connected him with Red Hot, and they began divvying up funds from Red Hot + Blue sales proceeds to other U.S.-based ACT UP chapters.
Mark Kostopoulos and Avrett were the co-chairs of the process, and they put out a call. They scheduled phone calls every two weeks to devise their grant strategy in allocating monies to ACT UP chapters and other AIDS activist groups around the country -- Kostopoulos based in Los Angeles, Avrett based in New York.
"We knew of a lot of ACT UP chapters, and there was no email at that time," Avrett said. "It was just phone and fax. So, we made phone calls and sent mail and fax to everybody we knew who was involved in doing AIDS-related demonstrations anywhere in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. And said, 'If you know of anyone else that's doing this stuff, let them know. We're going to start convening some calls to talk about this money coming from Red Hot and how to allocate it. And, we want to do it in an open, democratic, consensus process.'"
This was far from the typical way of doing these things: Any organization that believed themselves to be doing AIDS activism had to send documentation of their existence. They didn't have to be a registered organization. They had to send documentation of their existence by sending newspaper clippings of at least two different demonstrations and notes from at least one open meeting of multiple people. So, they had to show that they were doing activism and they had to show that they were a group of people.
That was the proof needed for eligibility. From there, Kostopoulos and Avrett solidified a formula in which one-third of the money coming from Red Hot to ACT UP would be distributed equally to every eligible organization -- about $5,000 per organization. The two remaining thirds were determined by the HIV prevalence in a specific geographic area and documented number of people that you had at two consecutive meetings. ACT UP LA, which Kostopoulos led, had HIV prevalence and high membership numbers, along with ACT UP Chicago, ACT UP Puerto Rico, and Stand Up Harlem. No reporting required, either.
"We're just like, 'We're distributing this money where we trust you all are doing this work, we go with it,'' Avrett said.
"It was the most wild process I've ever been into to this day," Avrett said. "If you just exist, you get a $5,000 check sent to you."
Avrett said, "They're a small grant, they're generally unrestricted grants, they're frequently the first grant that organizations are able to access. And, so they're vital for the vitality. The vitality of the HIV movement depends on small, unrestricted funding coming from these types of funders and fundraising efforts. For some groups, it was the first money they had gotten, but it was significant for a lot of organizations just to be able to pay for ongoing demonstrations. So, there's a lot of examples of ways that people were able to just rent a megaphone or buy materials or various things."
Stand Up Harlem used grant money from Red Hot to put a down payment on a brownstone on West 130th Street to provide housing for people living with HIV. Residents of Stand Up Harlem make appearances in Red Hot's 1994 Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool film, aired on PBS. The ACT UP chapter in Shreveport, Louisiana, became an AIDS service organization. Red Hot's impact intersects with its contemporaries -- some still in operation, others defunct. Housing Works, Partners in Health, Advocates for Youth, Moveable Feast, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, SisterLove Inc., Minority AIDS Project Los Angeles, Out Youth, and many others in the U.S. received grants from Red Hot.
Years later in 1997, Avrett helped distribute grants again following the Red Hot + Rio album. This time, the U.S. funds were going to mostly Portuguese-speaking communities. Avrett recalls Red Hot giving grants to several Cape Verdean communities in Fall River, Massachusetts, and groups in Rhode Island conducting HIV education.