By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010; E01
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."
Although Skoll -- who at 45 is soft-spoken, earnest and unassuming -- wound down his day-to-day involvement with Participant when he hired Berk in 2006, he still takes part in what he describes as the "deliberative process" whereby he and the Participant staff decide what's worthy of his investment. (Two years ago, Participant joined with Imagenation Abu Dhabi to create a $250 million film fund, allowing it to fully finance its own movies; the company also recently entered a multiyear, nonexclusive co-financing and distribution arrangement with Summit Entertainment, best known for "The Hurt Locker" and the "Twilight" franchise.)
"Waiting for 'Superman' " exemplifies the kind of film that Participant commissions to bring attention to a particular issue (Berk is a former teacher and school principal). But when the company first brought the idea to Guggenheim, the filmmaker recalled, "I thought it was a storytelling quagmire." Then one day, when he was driving his children to their Los Angeles private school, he realized he was passing by several public schools -- literally and metaphorically. That, he said, was "the breakthrough."
Such moments, Berk said, prove the most crucial in bringing a project to the screen. "No matter how important an issue is, if there isn't a powerful story and a way to tell it, then it's game over."
Not every timely project -- even one with an impeccable liberal bona fides -- makes it through the door. When Michael Moore brought "Sicko," his documentary about the health-care system, to Participant for funding, he was turned down. "The way he intended to tell the story at that point didn't seem to me like it was going to inspire the change that needed to happen," Skoll said. "Also . . . I grew up in the Canadian health-care system, which is not great. And Michael was using it as the paradigm for how it needs to be. My God, I have family members who had heart problems, and they would have died if they stayed in Canada."
Participant's track record has been uneven over the years. Films such as "Charlie Wilson's War," "The Soloist" and "The Informant!" earned critical plaudits and award nominations but didn't burn up the box office. The company's biggest successes -- "An Inconvenient Truth," "The Visitor," "The Kite Runner," "Good Night, and Good Luck," the remake of George Romero's bio-toxin thriller "The Crazies" and the big-agriculture documentary "Food, Inc.," -- had minuscule returns compared with conventional movies.
"The film business is a portfolio business," Berk said. "It's like baseball. Every one isn't a grand slam home run. You try for those, but you're also [hitting] singles, doubles, triples, walks, strike-outs -- that's the game that you're playing."Movie nights in D.C.
As for Participant's second bottom line of social impact, the company's influence has been palpable across a range of issues -- largely because Participant spends at least a year before a movie comes out creating partnerships with the nongovernmental organizations that will be its natural advisers, audience and word-of-mouth advocates. In Washington, Participant holds screenings of its films for politicians, staffers and think tankers long before they open in theaters. (Last year the company held six screenings here of the nuclear nonproliferation documentary "Countdown to Zero," creating buzz before the movie hit theaters this summer.)
"When I started the company, it was to motivate the grass roots and really get people to embrace an issue, and the idea was that the politics would follow," Skoll said. "We've recognized over time just how important D.C. is to the work that we do."
Skoll recalled that when he founded Participant and told partners at bigger studios that he wanted to create a social action campaign with his films, "They were like, 'No! Don't do that!' " Now, the Participant model is being imitated by an industry intensely interested in wooing dedicated audiences.
"Everybody now, when they're looking at material, they're looking at it not just from a commercial perspective but from a social action perspective," says Rob Friedman, co-chair and chief executive of Summit. "We are a competitive industry, and good, bad or indifferent, social relevance is another thing that the consumer is becoming more and more aware of. So just from a pure marketing perspective, it's another spoke in the wheel."
Michael Pollan, a local-food expert and author who was featured in "Food, Inc.," credits the movie for bringing the issue of corporate agriculture and food choices to a new constituency. "It was a much more elite concern before that movie," he says, recalling that Oprah Winfrey championed the film.
"I was on that show, and I talked to the studio audience for a couple of hours after. The issue had not been on that audience's radar, and that movie is what did it." (Participant has also used "Food, Inc." to mobilize viewers around the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act; a petition with some 230,000 signatures supporting the reauthorization was delivered to Congress on Wednesday. )Criticizing 'Superman'
Still, not everyone is convinced that Participant is using its power for good. "An Inconvenient Truth" inspired its own backlash. In the case of "Waiting for 'Superman,' " education historian Diane Ravitch, for example, accuses the movie of shifting blame, portraying teachers unions as monolithic obstacles to progress while uncritically championing privatization. (Among Participant's partners in the social action and marketing campaigns for the film are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and Walden Media, founded by Colorado businessman Philip Anschutz.)
"What they're doing is using this massive media barrage to demonize teachers and unions and say that poverty doesn't matter," Ravitch says. "The film's refusal to pay attention to the conditions that parents and children are living in, in terms of poverty, is an outrage. . . . I think it's actually a very harmful movie, and it's not going to improve education. It's going to lead people to a lot of wrong answers. I see a lot of bond issues being turned down because of 'Waiting for Superman.' "
Participant embraces the debate. And the company is eagerly" gearing up for its next provocation: "Fair Game," a dramatization of the Valerie Plame-Joe Wilson story starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, is due in theaters in November. Berk and his staff have enlisted 60 NGOs working on nuclear weapons issues -- one of Plame's areas of expertise when she was at the CIA -- and are planning workshops to train women in advocating for a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, an extension of the work started this summer with "Countdown to Zero."
"There are anywhere from seven to nine senators who . . . will determine whether a new START gets enacted," Berk says. "So we're focusing on training organizers in those key states, so they can create a groundswell."
He begins to speak more rapidly, his tongue tripping over all the coalitions and constituencies and core issues out there still to be tapped.
"It's somewhere between the Obama campaign and the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney 'Let's put on a show,' " he says, describing the typical Participant production. "It's a blast."
"Waiting for 'Superman' " (PG, 111 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row and E Street Cinema) opened Friday.