|Participant Productions (2004–2007)|
|Headquarters||Los Angeles, California, United States|
|Products||Movies, new media|
Participant Media is an American film production company founded in 2004 by Jeffrey Skoll, dedicated to entertainment that inspires and compels social change. The company finances and co-produces films, and its digital hub, TakePart serves millions of socially conscious consumers each month with daily articles, videos and opportunities to take action.
After founding, the company was originally named Participant Productions, troubled from a number of failed attempts and projects subsequently entering development hell, but entered success after a series of trial and error, and went on to become one of the most well-known independent financiers. The company's name descriptively politicizes its basis on currently topical subjects presented to induce awareness in problematic social aspects.
The company has produced, financed, or co-produced over 75 films. Its films have been nominated for 50 Academy Awards, and have won 11, including Best Picture for Spotlight.
Founding and early investments
With $100 million in cash from Skoll's personal funds, Skoll was the company's first chief executive officer, but stepped down from that position in August 2006. Participant Productions' initial plans were to produce four to six films per year, each with a budget of $40 million. The company focused on films in six areas – the environment, health care, human rights, institutional responsibility, peace and tolerance, and social and economic justice. It evaluated projects by running them past its creative executives first, assessing their cost and commercial viability second, and then analyzing their social relevance last. Once the decision was made to go ahead with production, the company reached out to non-profit organizations to ask them to build campaigns around the release. In some cases, the studio has spent years creating positive word-of-mouth with advocacy groups, which are often encouraged to use the film to push their own agendas.
The new company quickly announced an ambitious slate of productions. Its first film was the drama film American Gun (2005), with equity partner IFC Films. Two weeks later, the company announced a co-production deal with Warner Bros. on two films – the geopolitical thriller film Syriana (2005) and the drama film Class Action (later re-titled North Country (2005). Participant Productions contributed half the budget of each film. Its fourth production, a documentary film, was announced in November 2004. Titled The World According to Sesame Street (2005), the film examined the impact of the children's television show Sesame Street on world culture, focusing on Kosovo, Bangladesh, South Africa and El Salvador. At the same time, the company began to implement an environmentally friendly strategy: Syriana was the company's first carbon-neutral production, and the company created carbon offsets for the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth (2006).
First films and financial problems, maturing growth
In 2005, the company suffered its first stumble. It again agreed to co-finance a picture with Warner Bros., this time Vadim Perelman's second feature, Truce. Although Perelman claimed he had "never been moved by a script to such an extent", the film never went into production. North Country did poorly at the box office despite having recent Academy Award-winner Charlize Theron in the lead. The World According to Sesame Street never found a distributor for theatrical release, and eventually only aired on PBS television, Sesame Street's broadcast home.
The company announced in March 2005 that it would executive co-produce the Warner Bros. drama film Good Night, and Good Luck. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, the company bought the right to distribute the forthcoming drama film Fast Food Nation (2006), directed by Richard Linklater, in North America in return for an equity stake in the film. A month later, it bought the distribution rights to the documentary film Murderball in return for an equity stake in the film. It also executive produced and co-financed Al Gore's global-warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.
As heavier production scheduling grew, the company added staff. Ricky Strauss was named first president in March 2005, with oversight of production, marketing and business development. Attorney and former non-profit chief executive Meredith Blake was hired in June as its Senior Vice President of Corporate and Community Affairs, to oversee development of awareness and outreach campaigns around the social issues raised in the company's films in cooperation with non-profit organizations, corporations, and earned media. Diane Weyermann, director of the Sundance Institute's Documentary Film Program, joined the company in October 2005 as Executive Vice President of Documentary Production.
The company's non-film-production efforts continued to grow as well. The company provided an undisclosed amount of financing in February 2005 to film distributor Emerging Pictures to finance that company's national network of digitally equipped cinemas (with Emerging Pictures distributing Participant's films). The company also began its first socially relevant outreach project, helping to finance screenings of the biographical film Gandhi (1982) in the Palestinian territories for the first time as well as in the countries of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. In support of its upcoming film, An Inconvenient Truth, the studio negotiated a deal whereby distributor Paramount Classics would donate five percent of its U.S. domestic theatrical gross box-office receipts (with a minimum guarantee of $500,000) to the Alliance for Climate Protection.
The company had a very successful 2005 awards season, with eleven Academy Award nominations and one win. Good Night, and Good Luck garnered six nominations, including Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Director (George Clooney), Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (David Strathairn) and Best Original Screenplay. Murderball was nominated for Best Documentary Feature. North Country was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Charlize Theron) and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Frances McDormand). Syriana was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (George Clooney) and Best Original Screenplay. But of the eleven nominations, only George Clooney won for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in Syriana.
Film line-up addition and continued growth
In June, the company announced it would partner with New Line Cinema (a subsidiary of Warner Bros.) to produce The Crusaders, a drama about Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), a landmark ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States which ended racial segregation in public schools. But the film never got beyond the development stage.
In September, the company entered into an agreement to co-produce the drama film The Visitor (2008) with Groundswell Productions, and two months later agreed to co-produce (with Sony Pictures Classics) a documentary film about the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, Standard Operating Procedure (2008), directed by Errol Morris.
Finally, in December, the company agreed to finance and produce the documentary film Man from Plains (2007), directed by Jonathan Demme, that followed former U.S. President Jimmy Carter as he promoted his political-science book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006).
The company also co-financed, with Warner Independent Pictures, the documentary film Darfur Now (2007), and, with Universal Studios and others, co-financed the biographical film Charlie Wilson's War (2007). The film had the biggest budget of any of the company's films since Syriana.
Three major corporate events also occurred in 2006.
- In September, Skoll stepped down as the company's chief executive officer and was replaced by James Berk, the founding executive director of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Foundation and former president and chief executive officer of Hard Rock Cafe International. Berk's duties included daily operations and management, earned media efforts and corporate branding.
- In December, the company won its first significant award when the Producers Guild of America presented the 2007 Stanley Kramer Award to An Inconvenient Truth.
- The company was also one of the backers in April 2006 which invested $1 billion in Summit Entertainment, allowing that company to restructure itself as a full-fledged film studio. This did not become known, however, for near three years.
The company's success continued through the 2006 awards season. An Inconvenient Truth was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and the song "I Need to Wake Up" (by Melissa Etheridge) nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The film and song won their respective categories in February 2007.
Corporate growth continued in 2007. On January 8, the company hired motion-picture marketing veterans Buffy Shutt and Kathy Jones, both Executive Vice President of Marketing, to coordinate marketing of the company's films. Eight days later, the company hired Tony Award- and Emmy Award-winning event producer John Schreiber as Executive Vice President of Social Action and Advocacy to enhance the company's earned media, non-profit and corporate outreach and advocacy campaigns.
February saw the hire of Adrian Sexton as Executive Vice President to oversee digital and global media projects, and April saw veteran production head Jonathan King join the company as Executive Vice President of Production. Lynn Hirshfield was hired in May as Vice President of Business Development to launch the company's publishing division, and saw Bonnie Abaunza and Liana Schwarz both Vice President of Social Action Campaign Development and Operations to assist with social outreach and advocacy campaigns in mid-June.
Portman deal and name change, more political outreach
In November, the company signed a deal with actress Natalie Portman's newly formed production company, Handsomecharlie Films, under which the two studios would co-produce socially relevant films for a two-year period. No films were produced under this agreement, however. The same month, the company hired veteran Showtime producer John Moser to oversee development and production of original programs for television and home cable. But despite the management activity and expansion, not all of the company's films did well. Chicago 10 did not sell for several months after it premiered at Sundance, and only significant editing and a reduction in running time led to a distribution deal.
The company also announced additional productions. In January, it said it was co-financing the drama film The Kite Runner (2007) with Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and DreamWorks. That spring, the company took an equity position in Angels in the Dust (2007), a documentary film about children orphaned by AIDS, and paid the filmmaker to update the film and shoot more footage.
In April, it closed a deal with Warner Independent to turn the biographical book, The Mayor of Castro Street (1982), by Randy Shilts, into a film, but entered development hell, as well as the feature-length documentary about the 2007 Live Earth concert later. Five months later, in June, Participant agreed to co-produce and co-finance (with Broken Lizard) the company's first comedy film, Taildraggers, revolving around five pilots trying to stop oil extraction from an Alaskan preserve. As of June 2009, however, the film had not been produced.
Participant then signed a co-production deal with State Street Pictures to finance the biographical drama, Bobby Martinez about the eponymous Latino surfer in November. The film entered development hell for nearly two years, but hired Ric Roman Waugh to rewrite and direct in April 2009, with supposed production by the beginning of 2012. By the end of 2007, the company was seen as a key player in documentary production.
The company continued to expand its social advocacy and outreach efforts in 2008. In January 2008, it joined and made a financial contribution to a $100 million United Nations-sponsored fund which would provide backing for films which combatted religious, ethnic, racial, and other stereotypes. Fueling the company's expansion was the creation of a $250 million fund with Imagination, a start-up film studio based in the United Arab Emirates which is a division of the Abu Dhabi Media Company. Each company contributed roughly half of the fund's total (although some funding came from loans). Participant and Imagination agreed to produce 18 films over the next five years, which would add approximately four feature-length films per year to Participant's existing slate. To boost its marketing efforts, the company also hired Jeffrey Sakson as Vice President of Publicity in April 2008. In September 2008, Participant Media and PublicAffairs Books signed a deal under which PublicAffairs would publish four original paperback books designed to expand upon the social messages in Participant's films. The first book to be published under the pact was Food Inc.: A Participant Guide: How Industrial Food Is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer—And What You Can Do About It. The company also founded a new Web site, TakePart.com, to promote Participant Media's films as well as make viewers aware of the social advocacy efforts of Participant's outreach partners.
In March, Participant announced a co-financing deal with Tapestry Films to produce Minimum Wage, a comedy about a corrupt corporate executive sentenced to live for a year on a minimum wage salary. It was not produced. A month later, the company announced it and Groundswell Productions were co-financing The Informant!, a comedy directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Matt Damon about the lysine price-fixing conspiracy at Archer Daniels Midland in the mid-1990s. July saw Participant set up a co-financing deal with three other studios to produce The Colony, an eco-horror film. It, too, was never produced.
The 2007 awards season saw several more Academy Award nominations for the company's films. Its films had a combined seven Golden Globe Award nominations, although it won none. Philip Seymour Hoffman was nominated for his supporting actor role in Charlie Wilson's War, Richard Jenkins was nominated for Best Actor in The Visitor, and Alberto Iglesias was nominated for best original score for The Kite Runner. But the studio won no Oscars that year. The success during awards season did not extend into 2008. The company had only three films released during the year (Every Little Step, Pressure Cooker, and Standard Operating Procedure), and none of them was nominated for an award from a major arts organization. However, in November 2008, the Producers Guild of America gave Participant founder Jeff Skoll its Visionary Award.
2009 saw the company continue to aggressively produce both feature films and documentaries. In January it announced that it would produce Paul Dinello's Mr. Burnout (about a burned out teacher seeking to rekindle his love of teaching) and Furry Vengeance (a comedy starring Brendan Fraser about an Oregon real estate developer who is opposed by animals). But only Furry Vengeance was produced. That same month Participant signed a five-year production and distribution deal with Summit Entertainment. The agreement, which covered titles financed by Participant's $250 million production agreement with Imagination Media, was nonexclusive (meaning Participant could seek distribution of films by other companies) and was limited to four projects a year. The agreement allowed Summit to charge a distribution fee, and to co-finance titles if it wished. The pact covered home video and pay-television distribution as well. Furry Vengeance was the first picture produced under the agreement. In April, the company hired screenwriter Miles Chapman to pen an untitled environmentally themed action-adventure script about the hunt for a mystical gem in the heart of Africa. The script went into development hell. The same month, the company agreed to co-finance (with Krasnoff/Foster Entertainment) a biographical drama titled History on Trial—which was intended to document the true story of Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish studies who was sued by Holocaust deniers David Irving for libel. The film was not produced. The company also announced a number of productions in May 2009, including: The Crazies, a remake of the 1973 film of the same name; Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a film about the Jack Abramoff Indian lobbying scandal; Help Me Spread Goodness, a comedy starring and directed by Ben Stiller about a banking executive who is caught by a Nigerian Internet scam (the film was not produced); and The Soloist, a drama starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. based on the true story of Nathaniel Ayers, a brilliant musician who develops schizophrenia and becomes homeless.
The company also expanded in non-film production as well. In March, Participant agreed to conduct outreach and social advocacy efforts on behalf of the Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions documentary The Cove about dolphin slaughters by Japanese villagers in a cove near fishing grounds. The firm's TakePart website also released a new iPhone application, Givabit, which solicits charitable donations for Participant Media's nonprofit advocacy partners from iPhone users once a day. In June, the company established a new book publishing subsidiary, headed by Vice President of Publishing Lynn Hirshfield (who changed titles within the company). Liana Schwarz was promoted to Senior Vice President of Campaign Development and Operations.
In September, the company signed an agreement with Submarine Entertainment under which they would handle North American sales of upcoming documentaries, and act as a consultant on worldwide sales of its documentaries.
In January 2010, Participant Media co-presented director Mark Lewis' documentary film, Cane Toads: The Conquest at the Sundance Film Festival. The film, the industry newspaper Daily Variety said, was the "first specialty doc filmed in digital 3D." A month later, Bonnie Stylides left Summit Entertainment to become Participant's Senior Vice-President of Business Affairs. The studio's hit documentary, Waiting for "Superman", garnered media acclaim, and Participant inked a worldwide distribution deal with Paramount shortly before its premiere at Sundance. It also sold North American distribution rights for its documentary, Countdown to Zero, to Magnolia Pictures, and distribution rights to its documentary Climate of Change to Tribeca Film (a division of Robert De Niro's Tribeca Enterprises).
The company also received a $248,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to raise awareness about access to quality food and childhood obesity. The studio used these funds to create a campaign linked to its promotional efforts for the documentary film Food, Inc. and signed a deal with Active Media to help run the campaign. It also signed a deal with Planet Illogica (a web site collaboratively produced by artists, filmmakers, musicians, and fashion designers) to generate a social action campaign associated with its documentary Oceans (which was released by Walt Disney Pictures). The "Save My Oceans Tour" involved concerts, art installations, and screenings of Oceans on college campuses.
In April, Noah Manduke (former president of the consulting firm Durable Good and president of the marketing firm Siegel + Gale) was named chief strategy officer of the Jeff Skoll Group. Skoll created the Skoll Group to oversee his various enterprises, including Participant Media, and Manduke began working with Skoll and Participant Media's top management to begin a strategic planning process and strengthen collaboration between Participant and Skoll's other organizations and companies. The following month, studio executive James Berk was one of only 180 individuals invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Based on the success of its Twilight Saga film series, Summit Entertainment announced on March 8, 2011, that it was making a $750 million debt refinancing with cash distribution to its investors, which included Participant Media.
On June 5, The New York Times ran a major about the studio, declaring: "Participant Media, the film industry's most visible attempt at social entrepreneurship, turned seven this year without quite sorting out whether a company that trades in movies with a message can earn its way in a business that has been tough even for those who peddle 3-D pandas and such." Author Michael Cieply noted that The Beaver, Participant's latest released, cost $20 million but had garnered just $1 million in gross box-office sales after a month in theaters – making the film a "flop". The company's biggest success to date, the newspaper noted, was 2007's Charlie Wilson's War ($66.7 million in gross domestic box office revenue). Skoll was quoted as saying that he had poured "hundreds of millions to date [into the company], with much more to follow", and that the studio had yet to break even. Skoll and Berk, however, noted that Participant Media performs slightly above-average when compared to similarly-sized peers. The advantage came in three areas: home video sales, the company's long-term attempts to build social movements around its films, and its stake in Summit Entertainment (which allowed it to win more favorable distribution terms).
Quoting unnamed sources, the Times said that audiences may be turned off by Participant's relentless focus on upsetting issues. The company hoped that it would change this attitude about its films (and make money) with 2011's The Help (about racial reconciliation in the American South during the 1960s) and Contagion (a Steven Soderbergh picture about the outbreak of a virulent, deadly disease). Skoll also said that Participant had purchased the rights to a New York Times article about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, and that the film would likely focus not simply on oil drilling but on a number of critical issues (such as climate change and the ecological health of oceans).
By year's end, however, there was less concern about the company's financial future. The studio's $25 million film about racial reconciliation (about a third of the production budget came from Participant), The Help, cleared $100 million in late August, and was just short of $200 million worldwide by late December. The Help was the first film since 2010's Inception to be number one at the North American box office for three straight weekends in a row, and was only unseated by another Participant Media film, Contagion. The Help was nominated for four Academy Awards: The film for Best Picture, Viola Davis for Best Actress, and Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer for Best Supporting Actress. Spencer won the Oscar for her role.
Participant executives said in October 2011 that the studio would expand its production to make seven to twelve films a year, would begin producing features and series for television, and expand its online presence. As part of this plan, in November the studio hired advertising executive Chad Boettcher to be executive vice president for social action and advocacy and 20th Century Fox executive Gary Frenkel to be senior vice president for digital products and communities.
In January 2012, Participant Media made its first investment in a non-English-language film, the forthcoming Pablo Larraín motion picture No (starring Gael Garcia Bernal). The semi-biographical film tells the story of a man who initiates an upbeat, innocuous advertising campaign that helps to unseat Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet during the 1988 plebiscite that led to the Chilean transition to democracy. The same month, however, it lost its president, Ricky Strauss, who departed the studio to become head of worldwide marketing at Walt Disney Pictures.
Three weeks later, in February 2012, Participant Media announced that it was partnering with Summit Entertainment, Image Nation (formerly Imagination Abu Dhabi), Spanish production company Apaches Entertainment, and Colombian production company Dynamo to produce a supernatural horror film about an American oil company executive who moves his family into a house in a small city in Colombia only to find the home is haunted. The company announced that Spanish director Luis Quilez would direct from a script by Alex and David Pastor (who developed their script with funding from Participant).
In April, Participant formed Participant Television, its television division, with the naming of its president, Evan Shapiro. Participant also took an equity stake in Cineflix Media Canada-based TV producer and distributor. In December, Participant continued its move into television with the purchase of the Documentary Channel (USA) and Halogen TV's distribution assets to be combined into a new cable channel within its TV division.
On January 10, 2013, Participant Media's Lincoln received 12 Academy Award nominations. These included Best Picture, Best Director (Steven Spielberg), Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Supporting Actress (Sally Field), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Tony Kushner).
The following month, Participant Media launched a Latin American production division, Participant PanAmerica, to co-finance Spanish-language films with Mexican producers. The plan calls for 12 films to be made under this division over a five-year period.
PM's new millennial targeted cable channel, Pivot, launched on August 1.
On October 13, 2015, the company announced David Linde joined Participant as CEO.
On February 28, 2016, the company won its first Best Picture Academy Award for Spotlight. The acclaimed drama also picked up the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer).
On October 13, 2016, the company acquired SoulPancake, a short-form and digital brand, for an undisclosed price. On October 31, 2016, the company shut down TV network Pivot due to low ratings and small viewing audiences. At the end of 2016, the company shut down TakePart as part of a shifting strategy.
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- A similar film, Joyeux Noël, was produced by Sony Pictures Classics in 2005. Truce entered development hell and Perelman signed to direct The Giver in December 2005. He was removed from that project and instead directed an MTV Video Music Award-winning music video for Kelly Clarkson (for the song "Breakaway"). Perelman's next feature was the thriller film The Life Before Her Eyes (2007), starring Uma Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood. See: Gardner, Chris (December 11, 2005). "Walden Looks for Lion's Share". Variety.; Morfoot, Addie (August 31, 2006). "Panic!, Blunt Prized with MTV Vid Nods". Variety.; Fleming, Michael (June 8, 2006). "Thriller Ensnares Thurman to Star". Variety.
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- McClintock, Pamela (October 10, 2005). "Exec Joins Skoll Roll". Variety.
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- McClintock, Pamela; Zeitchik, Steven (November 16, 2006). "'Chicago 10' Doc To Open Sundance". Variety.
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- (registration required) Barnes, Brooks (November 20, 2008). "For Studio, Vampire Movie Is a Cinderella Story". The New York Times.
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- The film went into development hell. In January 2008, Broken Lizard began work on The Slammin' Salmon (2009). In March 2008, the company began filming on another comedy, tentatively titled Tow Truck, but this film had not been released as of March 2012. In January 2009, Broken Lizard finished casting for a third picture, the comedy Freeloaders. Freeloaders was completed, but did not have theatrical distribution as of March 2012. See: Brownstein, Bill (June 15, 2009). "You Can't Cage These Animals". The Gazette.; Siegel, Tatiana (March 3, 2008). "Raboy Takes Wheel of 'Tow Truck'". Variety.; Siegel, Tatiana (January 29, 2009). "Broken Lizard Gets Some 'Freeloaders'". Variety.
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- Charlie Wilson's War was nominated for Best Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical), and writer Aaron Sorkin for Best Screenplay (Motion Picture) for the film. For their performances in the movie, Tom Hanks was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical), Julia Roberts was nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical), and Philip Seymour Hoffman was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical). The Kite Runner was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, and Alberto Iglesias was nominated for his score for the film. See: Gallo, Phil (January 13, 2008). "'Atonement,' 'Sweeney' Win Globes". Variety.
- "Oscar Nominations". Variety. January 22, 2008.
- McNary, Dave. "Producers to Toast Skoll." Daily Variety. November 19, 2008; Stewart, Anna. "Visionary Award: Jeff Skoll." Daily Variety. January 23, 2009.
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- Fleming, Michael (April 24, 2009). "Producers Will Put History on 'Trial'". Daily Variety.
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