To most people, Jeff Skoll is the eBay guy. He was the first employee and first president of the online auction behemoth. With over $4 billion worth of eBay stock, he was named the third richest man under 40 in the country by Fortune magazine in 2004. What most people don’t know about Skoll is that he is also a committed do-gooder. In 1999, he founded The Skoll Foundation, which champions and invests in people who create positive changes in the world. Now, this well-heeled philanthropist is extending his humanitarianism to what some might consider the least conscientious, most bottom-line conscious of all industries: Hollywood.
Skoll started Participant Productions, a production company based in Los Angeles, in January 2004. The thing that separates Participant from other film outfits its social mandate: to make films and documentaries addressing societal injustices that are as thoughtful in content as they are boffo in box office. Successful examples the company is fond of citing include blockbusters Erin Brockovich (2000), Gandhi (1982), and Schindler’s List (1993). The plan is to generate four to six films a year, with a budget between $5–40 million each. Unlike other production companies, Participant will both co-finance and manage the productions of these projects.
Idealism aside, Skoll, the company’s CEO, knows that he’s still new to the business of entertainment. “The movie business is entirely different [from other businesses],” Skoll says. “It is a very, very relationship-driven business, and it’s pretty vital to be able to know people, interact with them, spend time with them, and really be part of the social network.” (Following his own advice, Skoll has been upping his profile in the film world—jurying for the documentary feature competition at last year’s Tribeca, and, in keeping with Participant’s mission, presenting Gandhi to a Palestinian audience in Ramallah in April.) Mindful of the industry’s culture and the company’s particular concerns, Skoll has assembled a team of players from Hollywood and beyond, including Jeff Ivers from MGM and the Motion Picture Corporation of America, erstwhile dot-comer Chris Adams, previously with Lycos and Amazon.com, former for-profit and nonprofit management consultant Joanne Wilson, and Ricky Strauss, a Hollywood veteran who was anointed president of the company in March.
Bringing to Participant his experience as an independent producer for Sony, Strauss foresees distribution as presenting the biggest challenge. “We are a brand new company, and we are doing something no one else has otherwise done before,” Strauss says. “For most mainstream Hollywood theatrical distributors these are the harder movies to make money on. They present marketing challenges. They are not as popular on a studio slate. So [we thought] finding great material would somehow be easier than finding distributors to satisfy that appetite.”
So far, finding distributors has been nearly effortless for the company, given its slate of aspirant blockbusters and choice partnerships with major studios and Indiewood outfits. Last year, Participant bought all the rights to Arna’s Children, a documentary about a Palestinian activist who opened a theater group for kids in a refugee camp, and released it in October with THINKFilm. Also last year, Participant and Warner Bros. announced a three-picture co-financing deal. The first project Syriana, a spy thriller about the international oil trade and the Middle East (written by Traffic scribe Stephen Gaghan, produced by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, and starring Clooney and Matt Damon is set to bow this fall.) The second film is yet another would-be tentpole about a group of woman mineworkers filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against the men they work with. The film, which is currently in production and untitled, stars a triumvirate of Oscar winners including Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, and Sissy Spacek. The third project is Truce, to be helmed by House Of Sand And Fog director Vadim Perelman and is still in development. Other projects in development at Participant include Clooney’s sophomore directorial effort, Good Night. And, Good Luck; the doc The World According to Sesame Street; and an adaptation of the bestseller memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran.
Not a bad roster for the company’s first year in business. But given its A-list affiliations, isn’t it easy to assume that Participant’s leanings are as correspondingly commercial? Given its social mandate, Strauss says Participant’s vision is much more in line with the world of independent filmmaking, but stresses that to achieve their goal of creating and disseminating socially conscious messages, bankability is very much apart of that. In short, meaningful (indie) films and commercial success should not be mutually exclusive.
“I think we have to be commercially viable in order to reach the widest audience possible to effect the change, to create the awareness,” Strauss says. “We probably have more of an independent spirit, but we still have to work in the mainstream marketplace. Since we also do documentaries, by virtue of the medium, it puts us more on the independent landscape. Mainstream Hollywood needs a diversified slate. I would argue that we could and should be part of that slate. And I think there’s enough room for both blockbusters, high concept mainstream blockbusters, and movies that are a bit more thoughtful or deliberate but no less entertaining.”
Because of its governing philosophy, Strauss says that Participant will continue to be open to independent filmmakers. “We are a great opportunity for independent filmmakers who have a story to tell, and I think we should be looked at as an appropriate door to knock on,” he says. “They just have to be mindful of the fact that we have a specific mission, and if there are filmmakers, writers or actors with stories to tell that complement that mission, we are a great home for them. [It’s about] having an opportunity to have a place to set up a project and ultimately make a movie or a doc that [filmmakers] are passionate about that wouldn’t otherwise happen because the studio would not want to take on the burden of developing and releasing a film that is more challenging than others.”
Jeff Skoll adds, “The world of independent film is a little bit freer of that kind of commercial, mass-market influence that guide so many decisions for studios. I think from an economic standpoint, you also see these filmmakers being a little bit more financially responsible because oftentimes it is people doing this on their own nickel.”
But before you can direct your humanist and entertaining script, show off your skills at maximizing a shoestring budget, or even have your project looked at, you’ll need an agent. Almost all of the projects Participant looks at come from agents, managers, or film festivals, and they tend to be in the beginning stages of pre-production. Unsolicited submissions are not accepted. The selection process is rigorous, says Chris Adams, Participant’s chief vision officer and senior vice president of business development. The submitted project is looked at first by the selection committee, which composed the company’s board of advisors. After that, it goes through creative, business, and marketing—in that order. Lastly, it goes to Jeff Skoll who makes the ultimate decision based on the quality of the project and its social significance. Adams walks through the checklist: “The first step is accessing the material for its compliance with our mandate. Is it on point, meaning does it have social relevance? Does it have commercial viability? The point is to identify the pictures on the creative side. It’s all about the story. Then to analyze them ferociously because we want to see how the picture is being packaged. Our bottom line: we have two. We want a social return and a financial return on our investment.”
To ensure some of Participant’s films a wide release, the company has teamed up with distribution partners like Warner Bros. and IFC Films. Adams says that the studios will always be more concerned with the financial aspect, and that’s OK. “We like to make money, and we don’t like to lose money, but our partner is always about money,” he says. “We are celebratory of making money but we are more happy to see that the films are being seen.”
One film that managed to jump through all the selection hoops is American Gun, a mosaic of stories about how the proliferation of guns in the country affect different lives, written and directed by first-timer Aric Avelino. Avelino and his producer Ted Kroeber had been shopping the script around for three years when Avelino met Skoll at a Sundance industry party in 2003. The two talked about film and each other’s pet projects. Avelino says he was shocked at how much of a film buff Skoll is. “If you don’t know who Jeff Skoll is, he’s just the eBay guy,” Avelino says. “[But] he is just so enthusiastic about film.” When Avelino returned to Los Angeles, he received a call from Participant to work on a rewrite for another film. After that came another call asking to see the script for American Gun, and shortly after a deal was struck. IFC Films will distribute the film.
Before meeting up with Skoll, Avelino says the film’s controversial subject matter (one storyline is about the aftermath of a high school shooting) is what turned a lot of studio execs away from the project, despite interest from and eventually participation by a list of venerable actors, including Donald Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Linda Cardellini, and Marcia Gay Harden. “A lot of people wanted to commercialize it,” Avelino says. “I think people were really taken aback by the boldness of the writing. We get a lot of ‘we love the script, but we can’t do it here. It’s just too tough.’ They were concerned with the budget, and that we couldn’t do it on the budget we had.”
Making it an even tougher sell to Hollywood was that Avelino had never directed a full-length film before. The 27-year-old filmmaker got his BA in theater arts from the Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, but not having comparable industry experience proved to be a setback until Participant came along. “It takes a special kind of company to say, ‘Look, we know this is your first film. You are going to work this crazy ridiculous schedule. But we believe that you can do it.’ And they did. They left me alone,” Avelino says.
Shooting began in July 2003, with a breakneck schedule of 24 days over five weeks and is now in post-production. If everything goes as planned, American Gun will be the first Participant-produced film to go public, which Avelino hopes will happen through festivals initially. “I think this is definitely a festival film—it’s not like we are going to open in thousands of theaters,” he says. “So it’s important for people to see the film, talk about it. Hopefully more people will see it if they respond to the film festivals.
For now, Participant’s fortune still remains unclear, and at a time when everyone wants to be part of the glamour that is Hollywood, legitimacy doesn’t come easy to an upstart production company headed by an ex-dot-com billionaire with well-meaning intentions. Skoll is humble but optimistic about the future success of his company. “I think Hollywood has a history of people who’ve been successful in traditional business and coming to town and just failing miserably,” he says. “Most industry people are skeptical when somebody comes here to make movies or to pursue an agenda of some kind, as I am. Credibility can only come with time and actual success—of actually doing good films and good projects. Hopefully we are on our way.”