It’s been a busy 2010 already for Los Angeles-based Participant Media, with the release of four documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival and an Oscar nomination for its acclaimed Food, Inc., produced in association with River Road Entertainment and distributed by Magnolia Pictures. The seeds of success were firmly planted by Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning 2006 doc An Inconvenient Truth, and with Food Inc. standing as one of the year’s top-grossing indie films, the socially-conscious media company founded by Jeff Skoll continues to build on its foundations.
‘Since making An Inconvenient Truth, our gold-star standard, [we were] wondering if we could ever replicate it,’ says Courtney Sexton (pictured), Participant’s director of documentary production. ‘Not to say that Food, Inc. has replicated An Inconvenient Truth – they’re two very different films – but I think this has been the next film in which we felt that we’d moved the dial on the issue.’
Sexton also applauds the duo nominated for Food, Inc., director/producer Robert Kenner and producer Elise Pearlstein, and is happy that the filmmakers are being recognized for their efforts.
Every Participant Media film has a social action campaign, and one of the initiatives for Food, Inc. focuses on food access and childhood obesity. The year-long outreach program, which has a boost from a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the support of communications strategists Active Voice, includes screenings of the doc in 30 communities across the country, panel discussions and advocacy engagement. The U.S. outreach focuses on African-American, Latino and low-income communities where food-related issues are most prevalent. Materials are distributed in both English and Spanish.
‘It’s a huge accomplishment for [Participant's social action team] because it’s doing exactly what we hoped the film would be able to do, which is reach beyond the people who are interested in food issues and who already know Michael Pollan [author of The Omnivore's Dilemma] or Eric Schlosser’s [author of Fast Food Nation] work,’ says Sexton.
The film also got a shot in the arm this past January when Oprah Winfrey had Pollan on her show to discuss the documentary. Food, Inc. subsequently went to number one on the Amazon.com DVD chart. ‘For a documentary to have that placement on Amazon, I think is a testament to what the film has achieved,’ says Sexton.
The movie and its message also changed Sexton’s eating habits, even before the film was released. ‘I definitely am much more conscious of making that decision to buy organic versus non-organic,’ she says. ‘When you’re sitting in the grocery [store] or deciding to go to the farmer’s market, sometimes it’s hard to make the decision to spend a bit more money. I think what the movie taught me is that the long-term health effects of making the choice to buy organic when I can [is about] taking control now.’
Once the Oscar hoopla has died down – with or without a win – Participant will be busy focusing on its slate of upcoming documentaries, which includes Brian Hill’s Climate of Change, featuring people around the world working on solutions for climate change; Lucy Walker’s Countdown to Zero, about nuclear weapons proliferation; and Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman about the U.S. education system. There’s also Mark Lewis’ Cane Toads: The Conquest, a 3D project that Sexton says will be an innovation in the doc scene. The film is about toads that were brought to Australia to tackle sugarcane beetle proliferation 75 years ago, but wound up not eating the beetles and now number in the billions. ‘It’s being called a documentary thriller,’ offers Sexton. ‘It’s funny, scary and having it in 3D is an amazing experience.’ Food, Inc. will broadcast on POV on April 21 at 9pm, and it will be available for streaming for free on pbs.org for a week immediately after the broadcast.