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Participant Media and their PROMISED LAND of Social Activism

Focus Features 12.28.2012
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“When Jeff [Skoll] started the company, the idea of people making movies about issues wasn’t new,” says Jonathan King, Executive Vice President, Production of Participant Media, the company created by the former eBay President, entrepreneur and philanthropist. “But what was new was the idea that we would only do those kinds of movies and that we’d have a whole department of the company doing live engagement with the audience to get them actively engaged in [these issues].”

Indeed, in a movie marketing landscape where “participation” is measured by how many times a fan page is liked or a trailer link is tweeted, Skoll’s company earns its moniker by aiming higher, towards the ideals, if you will, of participatory democracy, where the good is promoted by citizens' active engagement with the decisions of the day. Since 2004, Participant has, in its own words, created “entertainment that inspires and accelerates social change, based on [Skoll’s] belief that a good story well told can truly make a difference in how you see the world.”

This winter, Focus Features releases one of those stories, the Participant-produced PROMISED LAND, directed by Gus Van Sant, written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski (based on a story by Dave Eggers), and starring the two along with Rosemarie DeWitt, Frances McDormand and Hal Holbrook. Dealing with the theme of responsibility — both civic and personal — in the tale of a small town confronted with lucrative offers from a natural gas drilling company, PROMISED LAND touches on both topical issues as well as larger ones about decision-making that reverberate across the company’s slate.

Central to Participant’s mission is its dual embrace of documentary and narrative films. “That we do both makes this company unique,” says Diane Weyermann, Executive Vice President, Documentary Films. “They complement each other.” Participant’s first two films, in 2005, consisted of one of each. There was Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro's Murderball, an exploration of paraplegic athletes playing intensely physical full-contact rugby. The film garnered a Best Documentary Academy Award nomination and was coupled in its release campaign with educational outreach about disabled athletes and fundraisers for organizations like Paralympics. The second film was George Clooney’s masterful period drama, Good Night, and Good Luck, which prompted much self-examination in the mainstream press for its implicit comparison of today's reporting with the courageous journalism of Edward R. Murrow. That film too scored at the Oscars, with six nominations, including Best Picture. The films to follow include Syriana; Food, Inc.; The Soloist; Waiting for Superman; An Inconvenient Truth; Contagion and The Help. And while the company was releasing those films, it was creating various new distribution and financing partnerships, a television division, and TakePart, a social action website that connects Participant films with corresponding non-profit organizations, promoting community involvement and various calls to action.

Key to Participant's success — its films have excelled both commercially and critically while also fundamentally shifting the course of public debate — is a clear focus on not only issues but also, most importantly, the specific ways in which film can help shape the dialogue surrounding those issues. Feature films — documentaries or fiction — can take years to develop, and Participant projects must be conscious of a topic's time horizon. "One of the things we think about when considering what films to make," says Weyermann, "is, 'What's going to crest in about two years?' It's not about what's happening right now, because right now we aren't going to be able to get the film out. It's about what is emerging, what is going to be a critical issue — one that we would love to illuminate through film."

How does Participant know what subjects will crest two, three, five years out? "Jeff has a number of different organizations under the umbrella of The Jeff Skoll Group," explains King. "There is the Skoll Foundation, which invests in and connects social entrepreneurs, and then there is the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which researches five areas of global threats: viruses, climate change, nukes, the Middle East and water. So we're always looking to develop projects in those areas."

While King points out that Participant isn't restricted to those five areas, it's striking to see how the priorities of the Skoll Global Threats Fund are reflected in the company's slate. An Inconvenient Truth famously tackled climate change, and with Contagion Steven Soderbergh updated the Irwin Allen-styled disaster pic to the very real world issue of killer viruses. Lucy Walker's Countdown to Zero detailed the continuing threat of nuclear proliferation while Jessica Yu's Last Call at the Oasis explored the issues involved in ensuring continued access to clean drinking water. Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana was a terse thriller set in the Middle East while arriving next year is Dan Setton's State 194, a documentary about Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's work towards U.N. recognition and statehood for Palestine.

King emphasizes that it’s not like a topic is checked off the list once it's covered in a film. "We're always looking to develop in these areas," he says. "With Contagion we were looking to raise the level of engagement [regarding killer viruses] and show that the best line of defense is government science. And we're still looking for the next version of that story." Following the success of Food, Inc. is A Place at the Table, which says Weyerman, "takes some of its themes in a very different direction. It looks at hunger in America and the fact that 50 million are food insecure. It asks what elements contribute to that, and how we as citizens can allow it to be. There's a great line in the film from Jeff Bridges, who has been very active [with this topic] for years: 'This is about patriotism. Do you feel okay that one in four kids in this country are going hungry?'"

Of Participant's marriage of topic to filmmaking approach, Weyermann says, "We try to get into these areas that are very complicated and sometimes deal with them in other ways. It might be with a story or angle that hasn't been told that would elicit another kind of conversation. Or a story that will get [the audience] to think about an issue in different ways. Maybe it's a story that hasn't been looked at because it's not on the radar, or maybe it is on the news but it hasn't been told using the power of film."

Van Sant's PROMISED LAND is an example of a film that looks at a story from a new angle, and its genesis illustrates the various ways in which Participant can become involved in a film. Often the company identifies an issue and seeks to develop a film exploring it. Other times, "filmmakers bring us a movie and we say, 'Great,'" says King, "and that's what happened with PROMISED LAND. Matt [Damon] and John [Krasinski] wrote a script that had gas exploration as a backdrop. But what it was really about was how communities make decisions — environmental decisions, social decisions. And that struck a chord with us."

Participant films run the gamut stylistically. Says Weyermann, "Storytelling can get a story into the public consciousness in a real emotional way. There’s not one style or aesthetic [at Participant]. It depends on the best way to convey a story cinematically. But the overriding aesthetic is that we make these movies as theatrical films and so we are employing the elements of theatrical filmmaking, of narrative storytelling — compelling stories, music and cinematography." As an example of the company's diversity, King points out projects ranging from Pablo Larrain's Oscar-shortlisted No, a drama about the removal of Pinochet from power shot on U-matic video cameras of its era to Snitch, an upcoming action drama starring Dwayne Johnson that examines the repercussions of the war on drugs.

Every Participant film is accompanied by an individual outreach campaign at its website, TakePart.com. The PROMISED LAND campaign, whose launch is forthcoming, "is about empowering communities to make the best decisions they can," says King, and will offer information about community engagement tools and will discuss how communication occurs within communities. "Say you want something to happen or not happen in your community," continues King. The site will detail "what is available to you as an average citizen, from petitions to organizing resources." For No, to be released by Sony Pictures Classics, the site is already live and pitches a "campaign which is about freedom of political expression and what you can do to support dissidents in places where free political expression is not easy."

Stresses Weyerman, "We work with myriad NGOs and groups on the ground who are focused on the issues. We never create a campaign internally and run it by ourselves. For A Place at the Table, we are working with all sorts of groups, from those focused on slow food to health organizations. The campaign will also look at the underlying root of poverty, and at people who don't earn a living wage and who are trying to get out of that situation."

Importantly, Participant campaigns realize that every viewer brings a different potential interest and skill set. "Not everyone is capable of doing the same thing," says Weyermann. "For the A Place at the Table campaign we're doing with Magnolia Pictures, we are giving people a lot of options, with [different options] if you're interested in poverty, or health, or political action." 

While Participant can point to a growing number of successes, from individual films' box office and industry recognition to their effective social-action campaigns, there's another, subtler triumph that shouldn't be overlooked. Says King, "I think we have proved, or are starting to prove, the thesis that it’s not a turn-off to think that movies can be entertaining while asking the audience to think about the world around them. In the early days of Participant, a lot of distributors would ask, 'Are you going to brand our movies as health food? Is it going to taste like a wheatgrass banana split?' But now distributors understand that if our outreach to a community gets them interested in an issue and a movie that they wouldn't have before, then that outreach becomes additive to the commercial prospects of a movie. It's not a detriment. After all, we want the movies to succeed and to engage people."

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