From ‘Reality TV’ to Real Films

A documentary by Jonathan Neil Schneider, B.B.A. ’84, tackles campaign finances.

May 08, 2010

By Menachem Wecker

Jonathan Neil Schneider is not the sort of person to let life pass him by. When the Long Island native realized there was no comprehensive guide to parking in Manhattan, he spent months biking around the southern half of the island mapping out every parking lot. His 307-page Manhattan Parking: Guide to Garages and Lots came out in 1989.

As a marketing major at GW, Mr. Schneider grew interested in politics when his roommate applied for jobs on Capitol Hill. When Mr. Schneider announced he was going to the Hill the next morning to get an internship, his roommate laughed at his political naïveté.

Mr. Schneider landed an interview with U.S. Rep. John LeBoutillier (R-N.Y.)’s chief of staff, but he couldn’t hide his ignorance of the congressman’s positions and policy. To get rid of him, the staffer gave him a large stack of papers to review, but Mr. Schneider, who had recently taken a speed reading class, returned 15 minutes later with all the key points memorized. Mr. Schneider landed the internship; his roommate did not.

It’s hardly shocking, then, that Mr. Schneider recently quit his lucrative career producing America’s Next Top Model, Tyra Banks and other hit TV shows to fund his own documentary about campaign finances, Mr. Schneider Goes to Washington.

“Frustrated by Washington and his apathy towards it,” says the film’s Web site, “Mr. Schneider is finally shaken off his comfortable couch and compelled to storm to the capital of the world’s only superpower to find out what is going on with his government.”

To help pay bills while he filmed his documentary, Mr. Schneider, who lives in Los Angeles, waited tables, and left his mark there as well. Finding that waiters often lack the necessary pocket space to carry the tools of their trade – cash, credit card vouchers, order book, computer swipe card – he is patenting and manufacturing a “waiter’s wallet.”

In 2004, after his father suffered a stroke and his beloved dog died, Mr. Schneider had experienced a “defining moment” on a vacation to Zimbabwe.

After a day spent white water rafting, Mr. Schneider was approached by a teenaged boy, who tried to sell him a figurine. Each time Mr. Schneider explained that he had no money with him, the boy lowered the price. Soon, he was willing to barter the object, several days of craftwork, for the dirty socks on Mr. Schneider’s feet. Greatly affected, Mr. Schneider returned to his hotel for money and purchased the figurine. “It’s one of the things I value the most,” he says.

“I saw firsthand how difficult Third World life is and how much we take for granted,” he says. “There should not be people who don’t know where their next meal will come from.”

After returning to California, Mr. Schneider heard former U.S. Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) talk about the “corruptive influence of money in Washington” on 60 Minutes, and he decided to go after lobbyists who pushed laws that harmed constituents. Having done “considerable research” on lobbying for a script he had ultimately turned down a few years ago, Mr. Schneider hit the books again. What he learned was not pretty.

“Most members of Congress get into office for the right reasons, but the pressures of the system affect them,” he says. “Once they get to Washington, they don’t want to leave, so they need huge amounts of money to run their reelection campaigns.” The money comes from lobbies, which benefit everyone but the constituents, he says.

Mr. Schneider e-mailed Mr. LeBoutillier, now a political pundit, asking if he would participate. Two minutes later, Mr. LeBoutillier called back, and he appears in the 75-minute documentary.

Mr. Schneider’s film was screened at GW’s Alumni Weekend, held Oct. 1 – 4, 2009. “GW is a very important experience in my life,” he says. “If I can contribute back that is important to me.”

Mr. Schneider encourages GW students to get involved politically, especially given the University’s prominent location in Washington. For students interested in documentary filmmaking, he cautions that it’s a highly challenging, if ultimately rewarding, profession.

“Working in the entertainment world is an incredible privilege,” he says. “It’s a tough way to make a living. You have to have passion. Otherwise, it is a long, hard road that is probably best not traveled by people who are not committed to it.”

Comments? Criticism? The conversation continues. We welcome reactions, commentary and story recommendations on our Facebook page.

To return to the George Washington Today homepage, click here.