Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that Participant Media screened the nuclear nonproliferation documentary "Countdown to Zero" for private groups in Washington last year. Those screenings were this year.

For the studio behind 'Waiting for Superman,' movies are a tool for change

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010

Let it be stipulated that, when the president of the United States talks about your movie, you've attained major buzz.

That's precisely what happened with "Waiting for 'Superman,' " Davis Guggenheim's documentary about education reform that, when it opened in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 24, arrived in the midst of escalating chatter. Just before the film opened, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is lionized in the movie, made news at a screening when she decried the recent Democratic mayoral primary in Washington as "devastating" for the city's schoolchildren.

In the ensuing days, education reform seemed to take on a life of its own, with "Waiting for 'Superman' " leading the way. The whirlwind culminated on Monday's "Today" show, when President Obama mentioned the film while explaining his education agenda -- which closely tracks much of the documentary's message.

Hitting the sweet spot of public awareness is not unusual for Participant Media, the company that produced "Waiting for 'Superman.' " With a combination of wonkish activism and showbiz acumen, the company has proved uncommonly astute at predicting what issues will be hot two years after they begin production on a movie. This is, after all, the company that saw Hollywood gold in Al Gore's PowerPoint presentation on global warming.

Indeed, with "Waiting for 'Superman' " dovetailing so seamlessly with the political and social zeitgeist, partly creating and partly riding a wave of policy pronouncements and saturation media, it looks like Participant is on the verge of a rollout similar to "An Inconvenient Truth," the company's greatest success to date. Also directed by Guggenheim, that 2006 documentary wound up winning two Oscars, galvanizing public opinion on climate change and most likely helping Gore win the Nobel Prize.

Participant was founded in 2004 by Jeff Skoll with some of the $2 billion he reportedly earned when he cashed out the stock options he earned as eBay's first president. His goal: making documentaries and narrative features with progressive messages, and making them hits -- a mission that initially was looked on with skepticism by Hollywood suits. No more. In the intervening years, the company has become a groundbreaking force, its overlapping agendas of activism and show business redefining both. (Some of the company's best-known films include "Syriana," "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Charlie Wilson's War, "The Cove" and "Food, Inc.," as well as the upcoming "Fair Game.")

Participant has succeeded by sticking to what its founder calls a "double bottom line" strategy. "When we look at a project, first we see if it's a good story well told," the Montreal-born Skoll explained last month at the Toronto International Film Festival. Joined by Participant chief executive Jim Berk, Skoll happened to be dining just up the street from the University of Toronto, where he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, before moving to the United States to earn his MBA at Stanford.

"Can it be commercially viable?" Skoll continued. "Will people go see it? But, more particularly, will the social change that results from the film be greater than the capital we're putting in? That's always been the model. And sometimes even films that haven't had quite the box office success that we'd like really fit that social model."

So, Berk said, when the documentary "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," about disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, didn't perform well at the box office, the company immediately pivoted to focus on the film's "legacy campaign" in the form of a Web site (where political fundraising totals are lined up with congressional votes) and the inclusion of the DVD in university and law school curricula.

"When a film doesn't perform, we immediately put more emphasis on the legacy piece to make sure the film has some value," Berk says. "Every single film has a curriculum, [which] is meant to stay long after the film has gone through its box office run. For us, the theatrical release is just the start of the social action."

Skoll points to another example in "North Country," the 2005 film starring Charlize Theron about the first major successful sexual harassment case in the United States. "It didn't do much box office, but we timed the release to the vote on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act," he said. "The bill did pass, and some legislators said they saw our movie and it helped influence their vote."

The six-issue test

Participant receives around 5,000 project submissions a year, but whether it's a script that's come over the transom or a project the company commissions, every film has to correspond with at least one of six issues that Skoll, through the Skoll Foundation and the Skoll Global Threats Fund, has identified as priorities: "The environment, health, human rights, institutional responsibility, peace and tolerance, and social and economic equity."

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