Strauss delivers awareness films to Toronto

Ricky Strauss stands at the top of the escalator at Toronto’s Varsity Cinemas, surrounded by a circle of well-wishers. Tall and charismatic, he’s not a movie star. But as president of production at Jeff Skoll’s socially activist Participant Prods., he is a star of sorts in the Hollywood community. Indeed, social-minded filmmakers of all stripes dream of Strauss sending some financial love their way. And distributors and producers nervous about selling divisive political content are seeking Participant’s support as a partner.

These days, however, Participant isn’t just about message movies. It wants message movies that attract broader audiences.

Strauss brought three pics to Toronto, all of them high-profile.

Jonathan Demme’s documentary “Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains,” was accompanied by President Carter and wife Roslyn. The film was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics ahead of the festival. Participant paid for all of the film, about Carter’s recent book tour for the controversial “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” “We hope the film will generate constructive dialogue,” says Strauss.

Tom McCarthy’s follow-up to “The Station Agent,” the immigration drama “The Visitor,” was one of the fest’s popular hits; Overture outbid its rivals to acquire the film in Toronto. Strauss is hoping Overture will go the extra mile to make its first festival acquisition a big hit.

“Participant was a great partner for us,” says Groundswell Entertainment prexy Michael London, who brought Participant in on an equal footing. “They pursue the goal of connecting their movies with audiences intelligently and aggressively.”

Don Cheadle and others were on hand to promote Ted Braun’s doc “Darfur Now,” which Warner Independent will release in November. Participant encouraged Braun and his team to approach Warner Independent for funds to make the film, which they co-financed 50-50. “The movie is not a downer at all,” says Strauss. “This is the first doc to come at the story from a variety of perspectives.”

Two years after embarking on their grand experiment, Skoll and Strauss have wildly exceeded their expectations. Both the Hollywood studios and indies embraced them after their early efforts — 2005’s “Syriana,” “North Country,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Murderball” — garnered 11 Oscar nominations; George Clooney won the supporting actor award for “Syriana.”

The next year, off a slideshow presentation, Participant backed Davis Guggenheim and Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” The global warming call-to-action, which didn’t look remotely commercial going in, won the documentary Oscar and became the third-highest grossing doc of all time.

“It was an auspicious beginning,” admits Strauss. “Skoll and I believed that the power of a good story well-told can inspire people to create powerful social change. Our success helped to leverage the brand with the creative community and legitimize what we are doing. The product speaks for itself.”

As it matures as a company, Participant is solidifying its goals.

Skoll, an ex-president of eBay, wants Participant to be both profitable and sustainable. While he seeks a modest return on his investment, on a global scale he wants to effectively support the causes that accompany each project. And as he retreats into the background, Skoll has empowered his management team, led by CEO Jim Berk.

Finding the right strategic partners for each project is key, as is keeping options open and elastic. “It’s not all tough subject matter,” says Strauss.

Universal’s upcoming Mike Nichols-Tom Hanks black comedy “Charlie Wilson’s War” is Participant’s biggest-budget project since “Syriana.”

“Every deal is different,” says Strauss.

Not all of Participant’s projects have succeeded. Even with Charlize Theron on the marquee, “North Country” died at the box office. Participant’s 2006 documentary “The World According to Sesame Street” aired only on PBS. And “Chicago 10,” Brett Morgen’s hybrid animated doc about the famed aftermath of the 1968 riots in Chicago, failed to sell at Sundance. Roadside Attractions, after some judicious editing, eventually picked up the film for release next February.

Participant remains committed to activism through film. But the tools continue to evolve.

“Ten years ago, people took to the streets to galvanize a movement,” says Strauss. “Now people are going online. We believe in the idea of citizen activism, especially in an election year. We’re asking audiences to get involved in the democratic process.”

Thus Participant is growing its digital department under Adrian Sexton to create online initiatives and grow a global community interested in social relevance in media. A Participant version 2.0 will replace Participate.net in time to promote DreamWorks and Paramount Vantage’s Nov. 2 release of “The Kite Runner,” directed by Marc Forster from David Benioff’s adaptation of the Khaled Hosseini bestseller. Sidney Kimmel and DreamWorks approached Participant to participate, the aim being to harness a social action campaign to boost the marketing of the movie.

“They’re good at helping link a connection between a film and its issue in a greater sense,” says Vantage head John Lesher.

Even amid Participant’s broader ambitions, persuading the company to back a smaller movie is still possible. Just ask Louise Hogarth, whose moving AIDS orphans in Africa documentary “Angels in the Dust” opens in N.Y. and L.A. this month.

“I’m not a Jonathan Demme or Errol Morris or Don Cheadle. (But) I was in the right place at the right time,” says Hogarth, who wouldn’t give up trying to get under the Participant gate.

Eventually she went to a conference that she knew Skoll was backing and gave her DVD promo to a friend who got it to Participant. It passed muster with then-documentary division chief Guggenheim, and survived the next round of scrutiny with new doc topper Diane Weyermann.

“It put a human face on the tragedy of AIDS and a country decimated by illness,” says Strauss.

Though she had already shot 85 hours about a South African white family who run an orphanage for children whose relatives have died of AIDS, Participant sent Hogarth back to Capetown to update the film.

Weyermann told her to focus more on the kids and less on the adults. “She gave great notes,” says Hogarth.

Upcoming for Participant in 2008 are an untitled “Live Earth” doc inspired by the concerts; Errol Morris’s Abu Ghraib documentary, which Participant co-financed with Sony Classics; and WIP’s “The Mayor of Castro Street,” which is awaiting a script from Chris McQuarrie and Bryan Singer that will determine whether they will shoot before or after the threatened upcoming writers’ strike.

Meanwhile, as Hogarth opens her movie, she is grateful.

“It’s wonderful having a machine behind you to help get the word out,” she says. “They open so many doors. My experience with Participant has been a dream.”

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