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? (more…)