Participant looks forward to 3D toads and Alex Gibney

Participant Media - the production company founded by Jeff Skoll, the first president of eBay, and known for its social action campaigns - had a winner with smash success An Inconvenient Truth, but the company isn't resting on its laurels.
October 8, 2008

Participant Media – the production company founded by Jeff Skoll, the first president of eBay, and known for its social action campaigns – had a winner with smash success An Inconvenient Truth, but the company isn’t resting on its laurels.

Instead, the company has kept very busy with two completed docs, Food, Inc and Pressure Cooker, looking for distribution and set for a 2009 release date, as well as Alex Gibney’s new doc, Casino Jack: The United States of Money, which is in post-production for a release next year. On top of that, Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure is due out on DVD on October 14 and Chicago 10 on ‘Independent Lens’ on October 22.

Courtney Sexton, director of documentary production at Participant, details the docs in production. There is an untitled film on nuclear weapons from Lucy Walker, director of Blind Sight. Mark Lewis, will also direct a doc on the Australian cane toad population that are taking over, which won’t be a re-make of his original 1988 Cane Toads, as he’ll refilm as a feature and it will be in 3D. And returning to director Davis Guggenheim, director of Inconvenient Truth, on education in the United States.

Having the successes that Participant has had with audiences doesn’t necessarily mean that the company is exempt from the less-than-stellar year for documentary audience numbers. Turning to 3D is one way to lure reluctant audiences, Sexton hopes. ‘We’re trying to find our way in this market,’ she says. ‘The market hasn’t been as open as it has been in the past but that’s why we’re looking for new innovative ways to tell stories, Cane Toads in particular. Also pushing the creative side, hoping that will help bring people in from a more entertaining perspective. We’ve got the social relevance down.’

The downturn in theatrical audiences is a problem for which Participant is still trying to figure out the solution. ‘I think it’s made us really step back and be more strategic about films we get involved with,’ says Sexton. The upcoming education film will be much more straightforward documentary in terms of approach, but the company will try to be innovative with working with distributors and marketing. ‘It hasn’t changed our level of support, we’re trying to move with it. I don’t think it’s been figured out yet, I don’t know if anyone’s figured it out yet. We’re still committed to the theatrical documentary, we hope it picks up.’

That should give hope to theatrical filmmakers. Sexton says they accept pitches, and advises that she looks for filmmakers who are cinematic and who step outside the box of traditional documentary filmmaking. ‘I look through probably 30 different proposals a month, so it’s important for people to have their own aesthetic and something that will get recognized in the marketplace,’ she says. And of course, every pitch needs to fit Participant’s mandate of having social relevance.

The social action team at Participant engages with the filmmakers and directors from the very beginning. They bring on NGOs which help support the social action campaign but also engage with the filmmakers on what they want to achieve. Sexton says that element is an integral part to how Participant sees the success of a film, that success isn’t just based on monetary return, but there needs to be social return as well.

The upcoming Food, Inc., an investigative doc exploring things people may not want to know about the food they eat, is a perfect example of tangible social action teamed with a great documentary, says Sexton. ‘I would expect it to have a very robust social action campaign because its probably, out of any film we’ve made since An Inconvenient Truth, is the one that’s the most immediate. It’s the perfect Participant film in terms of social action.’

One last thing, a hint to producers: don’t pitch your story to Participant as the ‘Inconvenient Truth of [insert project topic here].’ They may have heard that a few times too many.

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