Correction to This Article
In today's Arts section, which was printed in advance, an article on innovative filmmakers misspelled the name of Hollywood producer Peter Guber. This version has been corrected.
THE INNOVATORS Reimagining the Movies

Lights, Camera, Social Action!

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. Jeffrey Skoll seems nice. Like the billionaire next door. He may be the fifth-richest Canadian, but his hair looks like it was cut with a bowl on his head. The 40-year-old bachelor has got the smart shirt, the cool shoes. But Skoll is still a nerd. He favors phrases like "our primary metric is . . . " He may be the latest movie mogul to have Paris Hilton's private cell number, but he confesses that celebrities make him cringe.

On a recent sunny morning, he introduces his guest to the office dog, Noodles, who is a crotch-sniffer. Then Skoll talks about his childhood and, without apparent irony, his dreams for a better tomorrow. Often, when moviemakers talk about "doing good," what they mean is that their earnings are calculated by gross points on the back end, plus a cut of merchandising. But Skoll, the boyish former president of eBay, moved from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles two years ago to literally "do good" by making films with socially valuable lessons. Or at least that is what he says he is doing. This is a cynical town. And "good" can be a relative concept, politically speaking.

In the past few months, Skoll's $100 million company, Participant Productions, has financially backed "North Country," with Charlize Theron as a sexually harassed single mom working in the mines of Minnesota; "Good Night, and Good Luck," with David Strathairn as the chain-smoking newsman Edward R. Murrow standing up to redbaiting bully Sen. Joseph McCarthy; and "Syriana," with George Clooney as a rogue CIA operative set loose in a corrupt shadowland where American power dips its talons into Middle East oil.

For a seasoned producer, this would be considered a hot hand, but for a novice, it is a remarkable entry. "Syriana" and "Good Night" are considered strong contenders for Oscar nominations on Tuesday.

"He seems to be moving in a very purposeful way. He has the resources and he is resourceful. He has the means and the madness. And I give him high marks," says Peter Guber, co-host of "Sunday Morning Shootout," the AMC talk show on Hollywood, who produced his own slate of socially conscious movies ("Gorillas in the Mist," "Missing").

Skoll also financed the distribution of "Murderball," a documentary about wheelchair rugby players and the PBS television series "New Heroes," hosted by Robert Redford. He paid 100 percent of the costs for a new documentary about global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," starring Al Gore, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week. Also at the festival was the Skoll project "The World According to Sesame Street," a documentary showing how the popular children's program is localized for kids in Bangladesh, Kosovo and South Africa.

"He's backing movies that are very smart, very creative, and not just empty calories," Guber says. "But the question is, what happens when he has his flops? What does he do? Because failure is the inevitable cul-de-sac on the road to success in this town."

Producing mass entertainments for the perceived social good is not a new idea in Hollywood -- one of the first uses of film was as a propaganda tool. There have been plenty of "message movies" (think "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "The China Syndrome"), and depending on how broadly you define the term, there are plenty this year, with not only Skoll's products but also "Brokeback Mountain," "Crash," "The Constant Gardener" and "Munich."

What is unique about Skoll is his plan to deal only in socially transformative fare.

"If I came into this business to make money, that would be the wrong reason," he says.

Something wrong with money?

He continues, "For me, the premise was to create a media company in the public benefit. As a philanthropist, I give away a lot of money every year." Skoll endowed his eponymous foundation with $300 million.

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