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.
"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."