For Participant Productions, this winter ’twas the season to celebrate. In January, the company’s two new documentaries – director Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth and The World According to Sesame Street by directors/producers Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins Costigan – premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Participant also collected seven Golden Globe nominations for its first movies – Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, and North Country – and Murderball was shortlisted for an Oscar. In fact, in just two years, Participant has achieved what most independent film companies hope to accomplish in an entire career.
Founded in January, 2004, Participant is the brain child of Canadian entrepreneur Jeff Skoll. He got the movie industry buzzing by giving the Beverly Hills-based startup a double bottom line: financial profit and social change. To meet its mandate, Participant looks for commercially viable movies with a message, and supports them with grassroots action campaigns.
Forty-year-old Skoll knows a thing or two about doubling returns. The creator of eBay, he stepped down from his post there in 2000 and is now worth about CDN$5.07 billion (US$4.3 billion). To launch Participant, he plunked a reported US$100 million into the company.
It came as good news to factual filmmakers, therefore, when Participant announced in October that it had hired Diane Weyermann from the Sundance Institute to become its evp of documentary production. In a corner of the industry where deep pockets are rare, the move signaled a strong commitment to documentary film by an organization able to put money where it matters – into production, P&A, and social action campaigns. ‘Documentaries are becoming more palatable for mainstream audiences, so it feels like a good opportunity to have a division in place that can maximize the potential for that experience for movie-goers,’ confirms Participant president Ricky Strauss.
Docs are ripe for half of Participant’s mandate, but they’re a risky gamble for the other half. ‘We want something that’s going to fit into the mission of the company, but also has the potential to be viable in the marketplace. That’s a tough thing,’ says Weyermann. ‘There are a lot of films made about social issues that aren’t particularly viable.’
With this in mind, Weyermann is busy developing her strategy for ramping up Participant’s doc activity. While the company’s dramas have all been theatrical releases, the same will not necessarily be true for the docs, though it will be the ideal. And while nothing was confirmed, Weyermann hinted in January that she is considering doing two or three larger films and two or three smaller films per year. ‘How we actually access films and sign them will be a combination of people coming to us, and us having our ear to the ground and pulling things in,’ she explains. ‘Preferably, we would like to be involved with films from an early stage and stay involved all the way through, but that doesn’t mean we won’t get involved late or acquire something that’s finished and help to get it out there.’
So far, Participant has backed films in a variety of ways. It fully financed both An Inconvenient Truth and The World According to Sesame Street, and it co-financed Syriana with Warner Bros., assisting with the $50-million film’s marketing and distribution costs, but not helping develop the film. Only a few months before Murderball‘s domestic release, Participant joined ny-based indie distrib ThinkFilm to aid with P&A costs and get the doc to a larger audience. And for Good Night, Participant both developed and financed the film along with 2929 Productions (owned by fellow internet mogul Mark Cuban) and Warner Independent, which came onboard as distributor. Costing only $7 million, Good Night has so far grossed more than $28 million in box office worldwide. Syriana has made more than $42.8 million worldwide, and Murderball has grossed above $1.7 million.
‘We co-finance, we co-develop, we do action campaigns. But we’re not distributors,’ says Strauss, ‘which is why we rely on the studios and the independent distribution companies for output.’
One reason for Participant’s eagerness to get involved with projects early is to ensure timely and effective social action campaigns. ‘I start very early on, as part of project selection,’ says Meredith Blake, who’s job as EVP of corporate and community affairs and president, Participant Foundation, is to develop the big picture strategy and concepts for the campaigns. ‘I’m looking for issues that appear to be at the tipping point, where if we came in we could really make a difference. Or, alternatively, where there’s been such a dearth of activism that we could really infuse new life into the issue.’
With the company’s first three documentary-related campaigns launching this year, Blake says 2006 is a pivotal year for her department. ‘We’re going to have a great comparison between those and our features to see what works and what doesn’t, and see which mediums work in which different ways.’
The first iteration of the campaign for An Inconvenient Truth was launched to coincide with its premiere at Sundance on January 24. The film is about former us Vice President Al Gore’s startling multimedia lecture on global warming, so the campaign focuses on getting people to become carbon neutral by reducing their energy use. Murderball‘s Get Into the Game campaign launched January 30, shortly after the film’s dvd release. It targets college kids, who can register online for a free copy of the DVD and a tool kit with advice about how to host a screening and fundraising event. The money raised will be used to buy adaptive sports equipment for athletes in need, in partnership with the Paralympics. Lastly, the campaign for Sesame Street will launch later in the year, and will work towards bringing the show to a region needing its messages about tolerance and children’s literacy.
Except for An Inconvenient Truth, all of the campaigns live online at participate.net, which draws thousands of unique visitors per day. Audiences are directed to the website following the movie, through the press, by bloggers, and by the campaigns’ non-profit partners. Blake says she’s also seeing people come to the site for one campaign and then get involved in the others. That’s a good sign, as it signals the formation of a community interested in activism.
‘The greatest thing is when the community starts to drive the types of action they want to see,’ says Blake. She recalls a teacher who entered the site for Good Night‘s Report It Now campaign and ended up collaborating with Participant to create a teaching guide that’s now available on the site. In that way, the model is not unlike eBay, which transcended its purpose as a place to swap goods and became a vehicle for communication.
That level of open dialog promises to be a powerful tool going forward. ‘It will be interesting to see how the campaigns play out with the documentaries we’ll be releasing,’ adds Blake. Indeed.