MIPCOM ’16: Participant, Steve James ramp up TV production

After shuttering cable network Pivot, Participant Media is shifting its focus to content by expanding TV production and “aggressively” moving into short-form digital video, CEO David Linde said during a ...
October 18, 2016

After shuttering cable network Pivot, Participant Media is shifting its focus to content by expanding TV production and “aggressively” moving into short-form digital video, CEO David Linde said during a keynote talk at MIPCOM on Tuesday (Oct. 18).

“We’re doubling down on content across all formats,” he said, adding that the Spotlight, An Inconvenient Truth and Citizenfour producer is still committed to producing feature-length docs and narrative films.

Linde, who joined the social impact-focused company 11 months ago, also announced Participant’s documentary division has begun production on its first unscripted series, America To Me, with filmmaker Steve James (pictured) and Kartemquin Films.

The series will follow a year in the life of Chicago’s suburban Oak Park and River Forest High School as students and staff deal with racial and educational inequalities in addition to the everyday challenges of teenage life.

In a statement, James said Participant “made it possible for us to do a series I’ve wanted to do for over 10 years. I truly believe the story of Oak Park and River Forest High School can be, in many ways, the story of race and education for young people in America today.”

Participant has worldwide rights for the show, which is partially funded through a grant Kartemquin received from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. James is exec producing along with Kartemquin’s Gordon Quinn, Betsy Steinberg and Justine Nagan and Participant’s Jeff Skoll and Diane Weyermann.

Linde also announced two scripted series. One is based on the doc Zero Days, which is being produced with the UK’s Carnival Films, and another is being produced with the journalists that inspired the Oscar-winning film Spotlight.

The moves into TV and digital content come after a period of reorganization at Participant. In April 2015, founder Jeff Skoll took the reins of his 11-year-old company after long-serving CEO Jim Berk exited. Just before that, the media mogul admitted in an candid interview with Variety that he was disappointed with the company’s direction and had ordered consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to conduct a strategic review of operations.

COO Jeff Ivers and CFO Bob Murphy later departed, with Sam Neswick promoted from within to replace Ivers and former Weinstein Company CFO Andy Kim replacing Murphy earlier this month.

Following his keynote talk, Linde characterized the decision to close three-year-old Pivot, which ceases broadcasting at the end of this month, as a response to the difficult market upstart cable networks face in the U.S.

“We were immensely proud of the people at Pivot,” he said during a sit-down chat with Neswick and Deadline international editor Nancy Tartaglione. “But you always have to make tough decisions.”

The long-time film financier and former Universal Pictures chairman said he was in Cannes at MIPCOM ’16 to position Participant as a partner for producers that share the company’s socially conscious mandate.

He cited Discovery, Vice Media and Anonymous Content has companies he views as potential partners, but clarified that Participant has no intention of retaining a roster of producers.

“You can put into a contract that you have an option for somebody but unless that person likes you, that piece of paper is worthless,” he explained. “We’re not looking to force contractual language on someone.”

Linde has also made a bigger push into digital short-form video by acquiring The Office star Rainn Wilson’s digital shop SoulPancake. Wilson appeared during the talk in a pre-recorded Snapchat story asking viewers to create stories using emojis.

The increasing importance of SVOD platforms such as Netflix and Amazon in creating new opportunities and setting content trends has also had an influence on Participant’s new strategy.

“We’ve moved beyond the point of looking at these platforms as an opportunity and looking at them like a strategic imperative,” Neswick said. “Being able to tailor content for each platform is going to be key in this expansion.”

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