Pet portraits and dinner with a Better Call Saul actor: How an off-beat celebrity auction raised $200,000

 (ES Composite)
(ES Composite)

“I was terrified it was gonna bomb,” says striking writer Liz Benjamin, one of The Union Solidarity Coalition (TUSC) members who came up with the idea of an auction in support of the Hollywood writers’ strike. “The night before it went live, I was waking up in the night like, ‘I’ve let people down!’” Nearly two weeks, one strike-ending deal and tens of thousands of dollars later, it’s safe to say this was not the case.

“None of us could have ever predicted we would raise so much,” says Benjamin, who raised $200,000 (£164,000) with the auction.

With many celebrities off work during the SAG-AFTRA strikes, it provided the perfect opportunity for them to offer up their talents and raid their homes for stuff to excite bidding fans.

The list of lots revealed some unexpected niches from the stars, as well as a feeling of ‘celebs: they’re just like us’. Up for grabs were a crossword puzzle-solving sessions with Natasha Lyonne, personalised watercolours of dogs by John Lithgow and a dinner date with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross.

Many of the listings earned upwards of $5,000, including the offer of an hour-long dog walk from Adam Scott, which went for $5,300 (£4,349), and a 30-minute Zoom with Schitt’s Creek creator Dan Levy, which made $8,200 (£6,729).

This money will be used to pay the healthcare bills of film and TV crew members who have missed out on pay due to the industry-wide shutdown, which has been happening since May. After a deal was reached with the Writer’s Guild of America yesterday, the writers’ strike looks set to come to an end soon, but actors and other parties necessary for full production are still out of work.

Severance actor Adam Scott has offered to walk someone’s dog (Getty Images for The Women's Mar)
Severance actor Adam Scott has offered to walk someone’s dog (Getty Images for The Women's Mar)

The listing which made the most money in TUSC’s auction was the offer of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, of Better Call Saul and Arrested Development fame, joining the winning bidder in person for dinner, which raised $24,550 (£20,146) alone. We’d love to be a fly on the wall for that.

Achieving the second highest bid was a personalised song written by the cast of animated comedy series Bob’s Burgers, alongside a strike-themed poster of the characters, which made $13,000 (£10,668). Also hitting the five-digit mark was the offer of Brit Marling’s hoodie from the now-cancelled cult Netflix series The OA, which went for $10,700 (£8,780).

The image for one listing, entitled “Natasha Lyonne Will Help You Solve the New York Times Sunday Crossword
The image for one listing, entitled “Natasha Lyonne Will Help You Solve the New York Times Sunday Crossword" (eBay)

The idea for this off-beat auctions started small - too small - when TUSC member Andrea Savage helped to auction off a hang-out with her close pal Woody Harrelson this July via a platform called Givebutter. “It ended up closing for $5,200,” Andrea says. “We could have gotten 10 grand for that easily,” adds Benjamin, referring to their newer, more successful efforts on eBay.

The pivot to eBay made the offers more searchable for fans of the actors and creators involved, who could now stumble upon a signed Atlanta script and personalised letter from Donald Glover in their searches for regular Childish Gambino albums.

But that wasn’t the key to the listings’ success: no, that was down to the memes. After a few of the quirky, legitimate listings emerged, social media users quickly set about making their own imitations, such as “Florence Pugh tells you what happened on the Don’t Worry Darling set over boozy brunch” and “Mads Mikkelsen will ash his cigarette anywhere on your body”.

The auction listings were quickly turned into memes (Instagram)
The auction listings were quickly turned into memes (Instagram)

“That was endlessly entertaining,” Savage laughs, “and it gave us so much free publicity. I think [this auction] broke through the noise because there was this whimsical nature to the listings. I don’t think you can ever underestimate the power of humour. It was connecting people and diffusing what was quite a charged, heavy situation.”

So when can internet users expect to see paparazzi pics of Adam Scott walking some random LA resident’s dog, or Bob Odenkirk and David Cross breaking bread with a stranger? Not for a while, sadly. “The donors are being contacted now, then they pay, then they get their winning certificate and contact TUSC. Some of them have a year to use it, some of them are sooner, some of them are one-night only.”

Woody Harrelson’s hangout, which was advertised in July, for example, isn’t taking place until next year, because the donor won’t be in his area until then. But rest assured that someone out there is currently learning that he’s secured the most expensive dinner of his life. Hopefully Odenkirk and Cross pick up the cheque.