Bill Gates goes to Sundance, offers an education

PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - When Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, the richest man in the United States, came to the Sundance Film Festival here this week, it wasn’t movies on his mind, it was education -- your kids’ education.

Microsoft Corporation founder Bill Gates listens to a question as he appears with investor Warren Buffett for a town hall style meeting with business students broadcast by the financial television network CNBC at Columbia University in New York November 12, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Segar

A new documentary, “Waiting For Superman,” by director Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) looks at what Gates and Guggenheim say is a U.S. public school system in shambles.

“The quality of our educational system is what made America great. Now it’s not as good as it was, and it needs to be a lot better,” Gates told Reuters after the film’s premiere on Friday.

“Many of these high schools are terrible, and this film, ‘Waiting for Superman’ by Davis Guggenheim, which I have a very minor part in, tells this story in a brilliant way,” he said.

If that last part makes Gates sound like a movie pitchman -- he got the title of the film, its Oscar-winning director and “brilliant” in the same sentence -- he knows it, and he’s not ashamed.

“Well, I used to try and sell software,” Gates said with a laugh, when told he sounded very Hollywood. “We sold a few, so now I got to give it (the money) all away.”

Gates, whose net worth was estimated at $40 billion by Forbes magazine in 2009, is no stranger to education. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gives away millions of dollars to improve schools in America.

But Gates’ involvement with “Waiting for Superman” -- he is among the many people Guggenheim interviews -- is a first for him.


Gates, 54, sees it as a way to teach Americans just how far the U.S. system has fallen and how to redeem it.

“There aren’t many movies about education, and it’s a complex problem to explain. So Davis, by taking some students and letting you get to them and their desire to go to a good high school, makes it really emotional, and that’s what only a great storyteller can do.”

Guggenheim focuses on everyday students who want a better education but can’t seem to get it. He talks to experts like Gates and Geoffrey Canada, chief executive of community organization Harlem Children’s Zone, and challenges the roles of administrators, teachers’ unions and others directly involved in U.S. education.

“This movie is a controversial movie because it deals with some uncomfortable truths about public schools. It doesn’t pull any punches ... and it attacks even some of the progressive ideas,” Guggenheim told Reuters.

“Waiting for Superman,” to be released by Paramount Pictures this year, is backed by Participant Productions, which also made the Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

“Truth” helped put global warming squarely on the U.S. political map, but will “Superman” do the same for education?

“That would be the goal,” said Gates.

Reporting by Bob Tourtellotte; Editing by Xavier Briand