Now that Beverly Hills billionaire Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media has a best picture Oscar on the shelf for “Spotlight,” where does the socially conscious production company go from here?
Instead of chasing easier money by going for more blockbuster fare, Participant is staying true to its founder’s original mission of more socially relevant content while keeping the faith that profits will follow.
It is following up “Spotlight,” a drama about Boston Globe’s investigation into the pedophile priests scandal, with “Deepwater Horizon,” about an investigation into the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The company also has dramas on Hurricane Katrina and the Holocaust in development.
“‘Deepwater,’ for example, is similar thematically to ‘Spotlight’ insofar as it’s about investigating what really happened,” Jonathan King, executive vice president of Participant, told the Business Journal. “How could a disaster of this scale have happened?”
The social and cultural impact of a number of Participant’s previous films, such as civil rights drama “The Help” and climate change documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” have been felt in terms of legislative change and increased political participation, two goals personally important to founder Skoll.
“They’re bucking the traditional system,” said Jason Squire, author of “The Movie Business” and a researcher on the topic at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. “You decide to make a company and raise money – which is highly speculative and not secure, and challenge yourself further to decide on important content that will change the social conversation. That’s their business model at Participant.”
But bucking the system or not, Participant still has to work within it, and not just exist, but thrive sustainably.
Skoll said that issue was on his mind last year after a near-death experience caused him to reassess not only his own mortality but his company’s as well. He contracted yellow fever during a trip to help fight the Ebola crisis in Africa, which left the usually globe-trotting entrepreneur bedridden for eight days.
When he returned to Los Angeles, Skoll cleaned house at Participant. Chief Executive Jim Berk, who had led the company for almost nine years, was out. Strategy shifted: more global, more impact. Skoll decided the brand of Participant needed to be stronger – and so did the bottom line.
The creative and commercial success of “Spotlight” could be a step in the right direction because history shows that where there are Oscars, money follows.
“There is a traditional Oscar bump – say, X millions of dollars in every category, with the highest for best picture,” said USC’s Squire. “Suddenly nonmoviegoers go see it.”
Indeed, Spotlight saw a 140 percent increase in box-office sales for the weekend after its best picture win last month. The film, which had a reported budget of $20 million, now has a nationwide box-office gross of $41.5 million domestically and $71.9 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.
“Spotlight,” also winner of the original screenplay Oscar, and its award success will likely yield bigger video-on-demand sales, which is where most independent films bring in the majority of their revenue, according to Squire.
Now, Participant’s strategy is to build on that success.
The company declined to discuss financials for this article, but it’s tough to be profitable in the movie business. According to a report earlier this month by New York investment banking firm Cowen and Co., only three studios, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Co. and DreamWorks Animation, saw an increase in profit margin last year.
Skoll formed Participant 12 years ago, tapping his deep pockets filled from the Internet sector.
As the first president of San Jose’s eBay Inc., Skoll cashed out a portion of his company holdings and became a billionaire. The 21st richest person in Los Angeles, with a net worth of $3.32 billion, according to the Business Journal’s 2015 List of Wealthiest Angelenos, he funds efforts to promote socially conscious messages and solve world problems.
Shortly after forming his production company, he told Wired, “Participant doesn’t make a lot of sense from a financial investment perspective. Social good is what we’re really after.”
Skoll was unavailable to comment for this piece but Participant’s King said: “He has been very supportive, really understands the movie business and knows it takes time to build a story right.”
He added that Skoll is still very much involved in the day-to-day operations just as he was at the very beginning.
“I just exchanged emails back and forth with him today,” King said.
The multiplatform media company’s brand includes a digital arm, TakePart.com, and television channel, Pivot, and, according to Participant’s website, its projects follow Skoll’s ethos that “a story well-told can change the world.”
“Spotlight” might have been a tough sell in terms of subject matter, but the film has further raised the issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and its Oscar wins have delivered a level of prestige higher than that bestowed on any previous Participant movie.
“That film gave a voice to the voiceless and empowers other survivors to tell their stories to impact societal change,” said David Linde, chief executive of Participant, in an emailed statement to the Business Journal.
But aside from social impact and financial profits, Squire said Participant can look forward to increased clout in the creative marketplace.
“All creatives have always respected Participant,” he said, “but now they can expect even more agents, managers and talent knocking on their door.”
King agrees, especially when it comes to issues such as trust and telling the truth.
“Having an award like this can lead to more trust; people trust us to tell their story right and to get it in front of people,” said King. “We have to tell the truth, even when there might be an urge to make a film more movie-ish.”
As for the upcoming production slate at Participant, the independent films that were already in production before “Spotlight’s” big win could see a boost from the newfound prestige.
“When you look at the movies that were successful this year – ‘Spotlight’ or ‘The Revenant,’ which was also a really personal movie that required incredible dedication from both director Alejandro (Gonzalez Inarritu) and Leo (DiCaprio) – the good news is that there is an audience for them,” said King. “The box-office numbers show us that the audiences will show up.”
Other Participant films include “Syriana,” “Contagion,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” “Lincoln,” which was produced in 2012 for a reported $65 million, is Participant’s highest-grossing film, pulling in $182.2 million domestically.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.