Participant Media: Jeff Skoll goes out to save the world, with movies

The movie trade is not just a strange, seething morass of greed and idealism, it can also prove that greed can lead to idealism. Chief hero in this magic is Jeff Skoll, who was cashed out of eBay with
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The movie trade is not just a strange, seething morass of greed and idealism, it can also prove that greed can lead to idealism. Chief hero in this magic is Jeff Skoll, who was cashed out of eBay with two billion dollars. Thank kind of money allows you to warp reality in a town where reality is bendy at the best of times.

Hollywood’s century-long history is the proof that social engineering doesn’t always bode well with the grounding rule of show business, that box office tally is the only measure of success. Yes, there always were politically inclined filmmakers and outspoken stars, but no studio ever existed for a sustained period with the single-minded mission of making the world better through socially aware movies. eBay founder and Forbes billionaire, Jeff Skoll is out there with his agenda-conscious Participant Media to prove the naysayers wrong and make a difference in the world.

He’s on Forbes’ super-rich list with a personal wealth of US$3.7 billion. As Skoll and Jeff Berk (CEO for seven years) sat down on stage at TIFF 2013 in the company of guests panelists (all of them long-term partners of Participant) in their uniforms of deliberately shabbied up jeans, I wondered what the hell they spend their fortunes on. (Sony Classics’ Michael Barker even wore an out-of-dress-code jacket, the kind that’s perfect for a windy-rainy location shoot in the Canadian wilderness).

“I once spoke to a psychologyst friend. I asked him what’s the best way to influence behavior, the way people think and act,” said Skoll. The expert told him it should be an mixture of images, words and music. “The film industry is tiny. Worldwide with TV and DVD and movies, it amounts to a $100 billion industry” annually. People generated that much in transactions on eBay in 2013 so far. That’s one company, equalling the entire movie industry. Yet there’s no denying that “the filmed entertainment industry is as powerful an industry as there is on the planet.”

From Tinsel to Silicon

Is Silicon Valley the New Hollywood? Moderator Stephen Gaydos, who asked all the right questions for an hour, quizzed Skoll about the politics of the tech hub. “We [at Participant] try to look at issues as being bipartisan. We try to take partisanship out of the issue, so that we get dialogues going. I think Silicon Valley, if you look at the demographics, probably means left.”

Participant turns ten in 2014. In its first decade of existence, it scored 35 Oscar nominations, 7 wins. With The Informant!, The Beaver, Fair Game, and TIFF opener The Fifth Estate under its belt, the company amassed a catalogue of 365 hours. Even as a kid, Skoll had an interest in telling stories about the “big issues” of the world, as he puts it. As a teenager, Attenborough’s Gandhi was a great influence on him (he later arranged for the film to be dubbed into Arabic, brought it to Ramallah, where they ran it for 3 years reaching 100,000 Palestinians who also participated in post-screening discussion groups). Then he got sidetracked by this little thing called eBay which earned him a fortune.

“All of a sudden I had more resources that I could think of.” His newly found financial independence revitalized his boyhood aspirations. In 2003, he hit Hollywood and talked to “everybody, actors, agents, directors, bankers, people on the street” about founding a company that would crank out movies “strictly in public interest.” Because of his money, they listened to him politely, but thought he was bonkers. Public interest? Sounds noble. But would the public be interested? Nah. “There was one line that people kept saying that struck me: “The streets of Hollywood are littered with the corpses of people like you”.”

Then he asked these A-list skeptics about the movies they made that they were most proud of: “Invariably, they talked about a project that dealt with an issue. Often they had their salaries cut or had things given up” to make those films happen. Noticing this disconnect, he was convinced that his new corporate vehicle would prevail. He moved to L.A. in 2004. “I had no idea what I was doing,” but a friend at CAA took him under his wings. “Looking back now, it feels pretty naive to have gone down there and hope to achieve the kind of success we had, actually making a difference in the issues of the world.”

Film viewer activism

To that end, they founded their own social media platform, Takepart.com that matches the avid viewers of issue films and docs with viewers who want to do something along the lines of those movies (mostly the docs like Food, Inc., Countdown to Zero, Last Call at the Oasis), to donate their money or volunteer.

Here are a few statistics about the impact of Takepart.com:

– Retooled in 2010, the site sees 5 million visitors per month, which translates into 16-17 million page views, activating the engagement of the movie goers.
– So far they clocked in about “15.7 million social actions” through the website, said Berk.
– About 9,000 written articles are available on the website.
– Takepart.com works with 480 NGOs, representing about 55 million people, covering a diverse range of communities.
Looking for ’Superman’ (2010), a doc about the American school system did $7 million at the domestic box office. 700,000 people connected with it through the site. Because of the ongoing discussion, they still get supplemental materials regularly, indicating the nature of film-ignited activism: it takes on a life on its own, well after the film goes out of circulation.
-They are serious about educating the next generation as well. For Spielberg’s Lincoln, Participant—in collaboration with Disney and DreamWorks—created a companion DVD for students that they distributed to “every single middle school and junior high school in the United States, 30,000 went out,” said Berk.

Cracking the insular TV mafia

For years, Participant has been inactive in the TV arena. That came to an end with the launch of Pivot this August, a digital cable and satellite channel, the first of its kind that is described as “impact-driven” (as opposed to advertising-driven, I guess). The grand plan is to launch local language channels of Pivot in a slew of countries talking to “different demographics.”

Why the wait? “It’s actually a very simple answer: in the movie world, if you wanna get involved in a film and you have money, you get involved in a film. In the TV world, if you wanna get involved in a TV series and you have money, that doesn’t cut it,” said Skoll to the laughter of the audience. According to Berk, when you launch a TV series, you “literally take somebody else out,” [in the mafia sense] because in comparison to the 52 weekly openings in theaters, the number of primetime hours are limited, it’s a much more finite platform. That contributed greatly to Participant’s failure in igniting a TV revolution for years.

They had a TV division “but for years absolutely nothing happened. We realized, if we want to control our destiny, so we went out and we bought two existing entities, the Documentary Channel and Halogen TV, put them together and reinvented it.”

Benefiting mankind—and some folks in the movie theatre

It helped tremendously that these do gooders found in Alan Horn – President at Warners for 12 years – a U.S. distributor who could not only squeeze out every penny from the first crop of Participant’s titles at the box office (Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, North Country), but wholeheartedly support their (world-saving) mission. That relationship with a major “put us on the map,” said Skoll.

But are billionaires essentially immune to box office disasters? It’s all nice and dandy that he was willing to risk his own money (it was actually never spelled out loud during the stage talk, only that Hollywood wanted him to write out blank cheques initially), but how long could Participant have gone on, had it churned out only (or mostly) box office duds?

What if Warners weren’t championing Skoll’s products? Is there a limit to charitable investing? “I’d hate to think what would have happened, if we came out with a string of films that wouldn’t necessarily do too well. Then we wouldn’t be sitting here,” said Skoll with a smirk.

Skoll’s agenda: stronger, faster

“We’re not a traditional company. It’s not a specific genre, we have no focus on a specific type of film, we don’t focus on a specific [corporate] structure” said Berk. “So we can do a US$1 million film with an unknown filmmaker that we developed from scratch, or we can come into a project that was far long in development.”

Skoll never ceased to be a world savior at heart. He sees Participant as a company growing into a global conglomerate with operations in dozens of countries, turning out more and more local (language) content. “My dream is that Participant is producing content in every language in every part of the world,” he said with full earnestness. Berk seemed stunned, as if this grand plan hadn’t already hit the company whiteboards, and noted this sense of vision is what’s so thrilling about Skoll who always emails his colleague the morning after a perfect presentation at a meeting: “That was all pretty good, but what if you had one more million? What would you do if you tried to expand faster into a global company?”

Participant currently has offices in Los Angeles (with 40 staffers), London, Chicago and Doha in the Middle East. The list of branches is to grow in the coming years. They are working on a Pan-American initiative which would see the production of Spanish language productions. The first result of that was the rousing manifesto of a film, Pablo Larraín’s Chilean-set No(2012) starring Gael Garcia Bernal.

The company returned to the top echelon of Hollywood players with The Help, Contagion, Lincoln, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, taking in a combined US$700 million theatrically after a slump in Participant’s track record with “a string of films that haven’t done quite as well,” per Skoll.

The panel drew a big audience. I’d like to think it’s not only for the money Participant is dispensing on projects or for the fact that Skoll is a local hero, having earned his degree from the University of Toronto. Skoll’s company receives around 3,000(!) submission every year. Given that the kind of material they accept, I tend to think that (almost) full house was due to a shared sense of mission. That the industry professional in the audience, too, want to change the world through movies!

[We covered the birth of Pivot at the as described at the AIDC this year: AIDC 2013: Evan Shapiro, Participant Media and the heroic idealism of the millenial child]

More about Jeff Skoll at his website.

László Kriston
About the Author
László is a film critic and journalist, originally from Budapest, who is very active on the international festival scene.