Scott was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, before emigrating to Australia at the age 5 with his parents and older brother. "Scott Neeson never imagined much of a future for himself. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Elizabeth, Australia, where his father worked for the Department of Defense and his mother as a cleaning lady."
- People Magazine article about Scott Neeson
High School Dropout
"I was educated in Australia and was not an especially adept student. I left before finishing high school. The federal government job scheme found a job for me working as a projectionist at the drive-in movie theaters."
- Scott Neeson, BoxOfficePro interview, 2016
Foray Into Film
Scott's position at the movie company eventually lead to work as an office and marketing assistant. Scott worked his way up the ladder, becoming the managing director of the distribution arm at Hoyts in 1987.
Tinsel Town Comes Calling
In 1993, Scott’s career took him to the beating heart of the film industry – Los Angeles. In 2000, Scott’s meteoric rise from the drive-in theatre in Adelaide was complete when he was named President of 20th Century Fox International.
The Trip That Changed Everything
Before starting a new role at Sony Pictures Entertainment, Scott took a five-week trip to Asia. Asking a friend to show him the “real Cambodia”, Scott arrived at the Steung Meanchey garbage dump on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. “The smell was almost visible. There’s this sudden moment when you realise it’s people - it’s children and they’re working. There were kids everywhere. In some cases, they’d been left there by parents that didn’t want them.”
Helping From Afar
“I went back to LA and started at Sony but my heart wasn’t in it. That year, I travelled to Cambodia for one week every month, setting up my charity at the dump. I was 45 and was a bit worried I was having a mid-life crisis so I was trying to keep my two lives running side by side.”
- Scott Neeson, interview with Daily Record, 2014
The Big Move
In 2004, Scott sold his house, cars, yacht and held the “mother of all garage sales”. He relocated to Phnom Penh, and began working with the children of Steung Meanchey. From 45 students in the first year, CCF has grown under Scott’s guidance to provide education for nearly 2000 students.
15 YEARS ON
Scott has now been living in Phnom Penh, working as Founder and Executive Director of CCF, for 15 years. He remains at the heart of the organisation and the community. Scott has been there to witness the many milestones: from the closing of the Steung Meanchey dumpsite in 2009 to the university graduation of some of the first children to be accepted into CCF in 2018. His support, both in country and through international fundraising, has helped to provide a pathway out of poverty for more than 1,800 students and their families.
Not quite the Hollywood dream...
“I thought there was something wrong with me, because the more I got, the less happy I became.”
Scott spent 10 years at Fox, overseeing the release of some of the top-grossing films of all time, including ‘Braveheart’, ‘Titanic’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘X-Men’ and more than 100 other films. To many, it seemed like Scott had it all – a powerful role in the film industry, celebrity friends, a big house, fancy cars and a boat. But for Scott, there was something missing.
“It was always eating away at me. At some level I was always just a little bit discontented. I could never quite put my finger on it, but it never seemed like it was me. I’d no idea this would be the other extreme.” – Scott Neeson, interview with PBS, 2006.
“If we can get back to those values – family, love, compassion and tolerance – then we will find ourselves again. That’s my take…..the world according to Scott Neeson.”
Since then, CCF has come a long way:
Are currently enrolled in
CCF's Education Program.
Have been provided to families by
CCF and World Housing.
Of rice distributed every year to the community for free or at a heavily subsidised rate.
You now have citizenship of four countries. So are you Scottish, Australian, American or Cambodian?
How did you get your start in the film industry?
What is your guilty pleasure?
Last movie you saw?
Last book that you read?
Something people don’t know about you:
Q&A with Scott Neeson
Yeah, I would. Even if it wasn’t thousands of kids. Even if it was only 20 kids, I’d do it all over again. There are some individuals that I would do it for alone, and I’ve told them that.
It’s enormously satisfying how it has all come together now. Community leaders are feeding children, the grandmothers are helping teach values to young children, World Housing is setting up model communities, people are getting on, there’s a real satisfaction in how the interdependence between the programs works. People are taking accountability and responsibility, especially the young teens. You can see the next generation start to blossom here.
I’m really glad I did the Hollywood thing, it was a great time and I could never regret it. But it was simply time to move on to the next adventure. All my time there, everything I’d done beforehand, lead to the point of coming here to start CCF. The corporate world, marketing, hard-nosed business – it all helped when I decided to start this ambitious task.
There are hundreds of highlights, but they are all individual stories. The growth of the organisation and our achievements I do love – whether its Charity Navigator, fantastic reviews, the way people applaud the way CCF is run – but the highlights are all individual stories.
Seeing one boy who had a tough upbringing and was a bit difficult – he’s now studying law, he is passionate about civil rights and he works every weekend in our Community Relations department. That’s a highlight.
Seeing our schools on a Sunday – where classes are purely optional – full of students eager to learn, and our older students are there on their own time, teaching classes. I could never have imagined that.
Seeing people helping each other out. Seeing this place heal. It was the most appalling place on earth. People ask what it was like in the beginning, and there are just no words.
The greatest joy for me is being able to see that the children who were working on the garbage dump when I first came here are now studying at university, reaching their potential. Many of those first children are working in decent jobs, and are able to support their families.
Even just yesterday, the first girl I took off the dump when she was 10, she posted a picture of her first paycheck on Facebook. She’s studying at university and working during the day.
Photography is my personal passion. Part of the reason I take so many photographs is so that every child will have memories from their childhood. If you go around the community, every home with CCF kids in it – and there are thousands – has photos of the kids that live there, and often awards from school, covering the walls. It may look dark and dismal, but there is colour and hope.
I still get out into the community at least six nights a week when I am in town. It’s never as much as I’d like – my days are filled with meetings, phone calls, emails. But the evenings are my own and I spend them down in the community, getting to know the families. There’s always a child that’s been left there, or a grandmother in a difficult situation, families facing homelessness.
Yes. It is. It’s a dichotomy in that to run the organisation well, you’ve got to spend time focusing on programs, operations, sustainability, so there is a lot more of the corporate side to manage, but the relationship with families, children, grandmothers is stronger now than ever before.
I would advise them to take a good, deep look inside. If you are looking to heal something inside yourself, don’t do it, because this kind of work can crush you, it is very, very emotional. If you are trying to get away from a problem, don’t do it, because your problems move with you. With that said, I would encourage anyone to chase after their dreams.
My biggest fear is that Cambodia loses its culture to globalisation, if our kids forgot their values and their outlook on life, their basic joys, because despite what has happened to them, they are the happiest kids I’ve seen.
If all of a sudden life became about getting an iPhone, the latest app, it would be a real shame. There is a real innocence to the joy here. It’s uncomplicated, there’s no entitlement, there’s such a rawness to life.
I never imagined myself growing old here, but there are a significant number of CCF kids that I couldn’t imagine not being here to see them grow up, or me growing old without them. It’s family.
For a very long time I haven’t been very good at getting away. I don’t have much of a social life. I live on my own, I work very long hours, and I like to stay home once I get home. But I’m learning to get away now. I plan to spend more time outside of Phnom Penh, maybe two or three months of the year, for my own health and perspective, as well as fundraising. But I won’t be going anywhere, my family is here.
I really don’t like it, and it is exacerbated by having to walk that line between the poorest people in the world and the richest. I would love for some of those with wealth to spend some time out here, because I know, in their own hearts they are good people, but they need something to spur them on.
When I set up the organisation, I worked out the budgets to be around $100,000 per year, and I figured I could personally always fund that for the rest of my days. But after three years, the need for our services grew and grew, and the money was gone. All of a sudden, I go from having lots of money to having to ask people for money, and that was very difficult. But it’s very motivational when you have kids who are hungry.
People trying to “guess” what my real motivation is. A lot of people look for alternative agendas on my part as to why I did this, but I think after 15 years, there shouldn’t be any doubt left. There is no secret motivation, it’s not anything except this desire to do something special here – it certainly wasn’t for money, it wasn’t for fame.
I want to be around to see these children thrive. I want this to become long-term, sustainable, I don’t want to have to worry about next year’s funding. I want the people who have made CCF what it is to get recognition, both CCF staff and people externally, many of whom support CCF very quietly.