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.
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Lights, Camera, Social Action!
"Yet I thought there was a higher leverage to come in and create movies and TV shows that were actually able to do some good in the world," he says. "Whether they make money or not is not my biggest concern. I hope they do. It shows they're commercially viable and the model is sustainable and people are seeing them. But at the end of the day, social good is our primary metric."
Why is he doing this?
Skoll goes back to the beginning. "As a teenager, I read a lot of books," he says. "Books with lots of scary trends, things like nuclear weapons and overpopulation and global diseases, and I thought, wouldn't it be great to write stories that showed people these problems and that we could do something about them. But I didn't think it was the best way to make a living. So I had to get to a point where I was financially independent enough to write these stories, and lo and behold, eBay came along and I got more financial independence than I could have dreamed of."
Like $5 billion worth of independence.
"But I was so busy, I didn't have time to write, which was actually a little depressing, but then a light bulb went off and I realized I could actually hire writers to write these stories about the problems of this small interconnected world. Then another light bulb went off and I realized better than just writing stories, get them out to people in a big way, through movies, which was something nobody was doing, so in January 2004 I started Participant Productions."
"You gravitate toward like-minded people," says Steven Soderbergh, director of "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich," who has worked with Participant as an executive producer for "Syriana" and "Good Night."
"Like me and George Clooney and Jeff Skoll, we all feel like we've got to do something different. . . . I would assume it's easy not to be driven by money when you have a billion dollars," Soderbergh says. "But George and I don't have a billion dollars. But I'd live in a prison if you let me out to make movies. Like, I really don't give a [hoot]. And as soon as you remove money as the primary motivating factor for what you do, then things get a lot clearer."
Can films really influence culture and change the direction of history? Skoll believes they do. "There is a strong history of movies that have had an impact," he says, citing 1967's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." "That was the first time you see an interracial relationship," says Skoll. And what about "Gandhi"? "So powerful all over the world," he says. In fact, Skoll financed a project whereby "Gandhi" was dubbed into Arabic and shown in refugee camps in Palestine.
"Hotel Rwanda," he says, "at least got the debate going about what was occurring in Darfur," where Arab militias are committing genocide against non-Arab black Africans.
"He believes strongly in film's power to be a force for good, and a powerful way to inform people and get them interested in issues," says Alan Horn, president and COO of Warner Bros. Entertainment, which financed the three feature films with Skoll.
Participant Productions does not just finance movies -- it also backs social-action campaigns tied to its movies and forms partnerships with advocacy groups. For "North Country," it worked with Ms. magazine, the Feminist Majority Foundation and the Family Violence Prevention Fund and offered downloadable information kits about sexual harassment and a hot line. They urged audience members to contact Congress to support the Violence Against Women Act, which was up for renewal in October -- and the reason they released "North Country" at that time. (President Bush signed the bill earlier this month.)
But how can one measure the impact of a film? "That is really tough," Horn says. "We try to measure what we can," Skoll says. "On the Web sites -- the number of visitors, number of e-mails, number of pages. How many kits."
Skoll says it is still too early to know how effective the campaigns are. The Web sites, reached through www.participantproductions.com, he hopes, will nurture an activist community. But a visit to the company's site reveals there are not that many posts -- a few hundred -- and that some of the blogs are from company staffers and others associated with the advocacy efforts. A campaign associated with "Good Night, and Good Luck," which asked whether the mainstream media were ignoring the important news of the day, invited readers to post their own stories. The response was a few dozen postings on topics from a band's CD to to a critique of George Soros's investments.
His company president, Ricky Strauss, says, "scores of thousands" have visited the Web sites. "It's a lot of people, and they're just becoming aware that there is a company that exists that provides this experience for people."
Says Skoll: "This is our first slate of films. The company is young." And though he has high hopes for the Web, he thinks the movies themselves are the most important agent for change.
He denies that his aims are partisan. "We're not political," says Skoll, who is still a Canadian citizen, though he holds a green card to live and work in the United States. He says he has not given much money to either party, though he has donated to the California gubernatorial bid by his friend Steve Westly, a Democrat who hopes to challenge Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"My views tend to be centrist," Skoll says. "I'm not a big fan of George W., but my politics tend to be more Republican than not. But it depends."
"It goes back to when I was a kid," he says. "Looking at these big trends around the world. And these are really bad problems. And if people don't get involved, they are going to get worse. The reason this company exists is to bring these problems to people's attention and get them to figure out what the solution is.
"We don't have the answers. I don't think the Democrats have the answers and I don't think the Republicans have the answers, but together by having these things brought to public attention, we can find the answers. I believe people are basically good, and when they see a problem they'll want to solve it."