EXCLUSIVE: After Jeff Skoll made his fortune turning eBay into a juggernaut, he turned to Hollywood as the first financier/producer not looking to make more money and rub elbows with the stars. Skoll formed Participant Media — and hired former Hard Rock Cafe CEO Jim Berk to run it — as part of his mandate to use his fortune for good causes forged by his belief that movies can illuminate important issues more powerfully than any other medium. After eight years, Participant has done that — its films have won five Oscars and 22 nominations — and shown there’s a sound business in issue-oriented films. They are in the Oscar hunt this year with three films: Lincoln, Promised Land and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; and Middle Of Nowhere created buzz at Sundance on the indie film circuit.
DEADLINE: Jeff, before eBay made you a zillionaire, you wanted to be a writer. Will you write one of these issue-oriented films for Participant?
SKOLL: Funny you should ask. All these years, I’ve felt that for the amount of time it would take me to write something, we could have 10 projects going with really good writers. But I have an idea. It’s not fully fleshed out, but I want to write the screenplay. I’ve never done it before, and respect the people who can. Whether or not it turns out to be a great screenplay, I think making the effort will help me understand how hard it is to actually write and come up with something creative. I want to keep the issue close to my vest for now and let it unfold the way most creative efforts do.
DEADLINE: The decision to hold back Lincoln until after the election hasn’t worked against the film, judging by its $144 million domestic gross. Did you have a sway in not putting it out during the elections, when interest might have been higher?
SKOLL: Steven had a very strong opinion from the very start that the film should not be used as a political football. He was pretty firm that he wanted it to come out after the election, and given it is Steven…
DEADLINE: You were grateful he bothered to tell you?
BERK: Actually we had never done a film with him before and he was very amazingly collaborative. I was like, “Why are you asking us? You’re Steven Spielberg.”
DEADLINE: How much input do you require? Do you consider yourselves creative producers?
SKOLL: It really depends on the film. In some cases, we develop. Contagion, Waiting For Superman, they started with an idea on the blackboard and then you bring in people. On Lincoln, you defer.
BERK: We were involved in The Help early days, and were part of that process all the way through. Where we played an active role in Lincoln was in positioning in the marketplace, enlisting ingenious folks that would put this film in certain conversations, getting it into the zeitgeist.
DEADLINE: Of all the places you could spend your money, Jeff, why Hollywood?
SKOLL: As a kid, I read a lot of books that made the future seem like a scary place with terrible weapons, diseases and wars. I wanted to be a writer, and tell stories that would get people interested in issues that affect us all. But I didn’t want to make a living as a writer. I became an entrepreneur in hopes I would get to a point where I could afford to write these stories. With eBay, I suddenly had far more resources than I ever dreamed, and a light bulb went off. I didn’t necessarily have to write the stories myself. I could find writers to do that, but what I could do is get those stories in film and TV and other forms of media.
DEADLINE: Hollywood has always welcomed in newcomers with checkbooks, who usually leave with lighter wallets. What was your early experience when you came in minus the usual ambition of making a financial killing?
SKOLL: In 2003 I went around LA, trying to understand if anybody had done this before. Most people were pretty skeptical. When I asked writers, directors, agents and bankers in the film industry what they were most proud of in their career, it was always a project about an issue they cared about. I’d say, what about a company devoted to making those films? Some got it, some didn’t. Alan Horn, who was running Warner Bros, got it right away and we did our first 3 movies there – Good Night And Good Luck, Syriana and North Country. Those films made it clear that I wasn’t just another check writer. We were trying to make a difference.
DEADLINE: You have three films in the Oscar conversation. Why did you say yes to Promised Land?
BERK: This came to us in a script draft from Matt Damon and John Krasinski, and the issue was of great interest. We’d done four films with Matt, and Gus Van Sant is a master storyteller. We look for 3 things; commercial reliability, social relevance, and quality. And given the package and distributor, and issue that impacts small towns, and the energy issue, it was perfect for us.
DEADLINE: Of those criteria, which is most important?
BERK: The issue comes first, it has to be a tangible issue that affects millions, where the film can make a difference for those people.
DEADLINE: Would you reject a film that took a stand you didn’t agree with?
BERK: It’s not our role to necessarily tell people what to think, but to put these issues into the zeitgeist and give them information to think about. It’s more empowerment than a specific set of agendas. The purpose Jeff made clear was to serve a role toward peace and sustainability by empowering people with information and ways to get involved, whether they choose the left or the right or somewhere in between.
DEADLINE: Why did Lincoln fit this mold?
BERK: It’s definitely against slavery, so I broke Jeff’s rule about not being partisan (laughs).
DEADLINE: Movies you’ve made like An Inconvenient Truth or The Promised Land deal in current global issues, and slavery is long abolished.
SKOLL: That’s the very question I faced when we started to think of this as a project. The reality is that it’s really about a divided country, and how leadership gets you through. After I read the book and the script in particular, it felt like a resonant issue in this country that actually seems kind of fresh right now.
DEADLINE: How do you handicap what history lesson will be relevant several years down the line?
BERK: It is very hard to predict ahead of time. One film we looked and missed out on was Argo. At the time we thought, the Iranian revolution is history, what’s the tangible issue? And Argo comes out, with Arab Spring and all this crazy stuff happening. One of the things we try to do is stay engaged with the NGO community, identify and understand issues and where they’re headed and pressure is building.
DEADLINE: When most high-net-worth individuals come to Hollywood and leave with lighter wallets, it’s not deliberate. Has Participant lost more than it has made?
SKOLL: I started with a philanthropist hat on. For me it’s not about making money, but it is about commercial viability so that the company can ultimately sustain itself and be a global company that focuses on the public interest. We’re doing fine. I left Silicon Valley in 2003 where I had a pretty good perch with regards to the Internet and all the things it was becoming, but I felt I could personally make more impact by telling stories and making films. A lot of my friends stayed behind and went on to found things like Facebook and Twitter (laughs), so…financially speaking we’re doing fine but the movie business has been quite successful. And I’m investing quite a bit more in television and on Internet strategies and things like that.
BERK: I look at it as a business. When you make such a big commitment of dollars as Jeff has, there’s a responsibility toward sustainability. And the last few years have been extraordinarily good for us.
DEADLINE: Jeff, you had eBay and Jim was CEO of the Hard Rock. If you were investing solely to make money, how do movies stack up?
SKOLL: In my business school classes at Stanford, I had a Strategy professor who’d always say, “Look at an industry and ask if it’s an attractive industry. And if so, for whom?” I’d say financially the movie industry is slightly ahead of the buggy whip industry (laughs). It’s not the best place in the world for investment. The business itself is sound. It’s not growing or declining appreciably, but in terms of impacting the world, a story well told has such profound implications for change. I haven’t found a better way to change the way people view the world and the way they behave.
DEADLINE: Paul Thomas Anderson would never have gotten to make The Master at $35 million if Megan Ellison hadn’t written a big check she’ll probably never get back. It felt like she was a patron of the arts, underwriting the vision of a great filmmaker. Would you do that?
SKOLL: Oh absolutely, but it has to be issue first. We do kind of an internal calculation of the functional value created by a film. North Country was a tough proposition timed to coincide with the Bush administration vote to renew their Violence Against Women Act, which at the time was anything but a sure bet of passing. We had screenings on the Hill, we met with legislators; the film was considered pretty influential at the time and the act passed. I don’t know that I could possibly have given away money to a non-profit organization that would have had the same impact as the film. Our metric is social value return, plus, the commercial return must be greater than the resources that go into it. But for everybody else it’s commercial return, and we will take risks on projects no one else will. On Contagion, for instance, for a long time I had pandemics on my radar, and especially after the H1N1 pandemic, I felt it wasn’t something we could ignore. I thought we could do something an entertaining way. We’d worked with Scott Burns on The Informant!, and he got really interested over dinner, and we brought in Steven Soderbergh. By the way, I know you’ve been around a long time, and I’m curious: how many entertainment company founders have told you “I have pandemics on my radar?”
DEADLINE: I’ve met a few hypochondriacs in my day. When you started, what was the hardest and maybe most useful lesson you learned?
SKOLL: Our hard lessons came from the realization that, even if you do a really good film, people may not see it. And if it doesn’t get seen, it won’t make a difference in the issue. The Soloist, Fair Game or even The Fever were all well done, and nobody saw them. At first that was hard, but it happens. I remember early on, Peter Schlessel was on our board. We had a review, and we were talking about Fast Food Nation, which had just come out and disappeared. Somebody said, “Well, should we talk about Fast Food Nation?” Peter said “Eh, it’s the movie business. Next!”
DEADLINE: That certainly would have been a way to greet the non-performance of The Beaver, a movie about mental health that was undone by the issues of its star Mel Gibson.
SKOLL: In that case, we had quite an elaborate campaign around mental health that just didn’t really take off because…well, and that part is what I worry about. A couple years ago we had a film called Countdown To Zero, a documentary about nuclear weapons. I worked harder on that film than on any of our 41 films so far. We did 100 private screenings from the White House and the CIA and the Kremlin and India. We had hundreds of global artists, musicians and so on, take part in the campaign around the film. And it came out and it did almost nothing at the box office. That would have been tragic, except that the decision-maker screenings we had done turned out to be really important along with the timing. The U.S. and Russia were negotiating the New Start agreement. And we had reached a lot of those decision-makers with the film.
DEADLINE: Which Participant film had the most profound impact on an issue?
BERK: For me, it’s Waiting For Superman for its impact on education, and what’s been going on with Lincoln. And The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has sparked a myriad of conversations facing retirees. I’m seeing the stuff my own parents are facing and that feels very close for me.
SKOLL: A film like The Cove, which had the pretty narrow focus of killing dolphins in Japan, created awareness that was amazing for one film. Even Middle Of Nowhere, which admittedly had a narrow campaign, illuminated the predatory phone call rates that people face when trying to talk to family members in prison. There is a $5 connection fee, and $3 a minute, it’s just ridiculous. Especially when studies show that when people are in touch it reduces recidivism.
BERK: That’s a good example of how these films create an entryway into larger conversations. Why should you care about predatory call rates? After working with concerned NGOs and pressing the issue, we believe they will be outlawed shortly. That is a huge thing that speaks to a larger issue about tolerance, human rights, treatment, and our role is in society in rehabilitating and taking care of people. The issue doesn’t have to be front and center like it was in Contagion, it can be contained in a story. The Beaver did under $10 million in worldwide box office, but it also launched IAmAlive’s digital crisis hotline, the first 24/7 hotline for people suffering from depression and thoughts of suicide. They are now averaging over 10,000 conversations a month. That doesn’t exist if not for that film. The Visitor was profitable, but it only did $8 million. It also established the first national database for detainees and also started training lawyers in a pro bono program, over 600 so far. There was no database for people to pull up case studies to use as precedent for detainees who didn’t have access to representation. Now there’s a massive pro bono program. The Safe Chemicals Act passed after the pandemics discussed in Contagion. After every one of these films, there is an ongoing curriculum of courses that are free. We still talk to 8000 teachers a month as the result of An Inconvenient Truth. Every film has a legacy. The films just don’t go into somebody’s library.