Participant Media: Jeff Skoll’s Unorthodox Business Model Has People Talking

Shingle has been involved in making (and co-funding) some 40 films including "Lincoln," "The Help" and, opening this weekend, "The Fifth Estate"

Peter Bart Doing Well Doing Good
Cheyne Gateley

Ten years ago, I encountered a congenial middle-aged fellow at the Cannes Film Festival who, after an exchange of pleasantries, proceeded to confide his plan to build an entertainment company. I’d been told he was a billionaire, albeit an unimposing one — no entourage, no bodyguards, not even a jeweled earring — so I listened respectfully before confiding my reaction: I thought his business plan was ill-conceived. I didn’t even like his company’s name, Participant. It sounded too, well, participatory.

Today, Jeff Skoll and his company are still around; clearly my advice did not resonate, and just as well. His buoyant shingle has been involved in making (and co-funding) some 40 films including “Lincoln,” “The Help” and, opening this weekend, “The Fifth Estate,” along with building a formidable digital platform for social advocacy.

This year, in yet another flight of optimism, he’s launched a new TV channel, Pivot, which reaches 40 million homes (more on that later). The other day, he also revealed his intention to extend Participant’s reach overseas, creating local product in various media in 10 countries.

A decade ago, my reservation about the Skoll Doctrine was very basic — and concerned the idea of building programming around “socially relevant” themes. To my pedestrian mind, it sounded risky to start with a message, and then find the story and characters. I had been involved with several such high-minded projects, only to run up against the old Samuel Goldwyn critique, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

However, Skoll’s company, prodded by the forceful leadership of CEO Jim Berk, a one-time high-school principal, has made his socially relevant agenda work with surprising consistency. In creating his idiosyncratic product, he also has accomplished something even more daunting: Enabling his audience to actually act on a point of view portrayed on a TV show or movie by joining TakePart, an online action platform that helps link those motivated by the programming directly to a cause or campaign.

Participant has grown from a staff of 17 to 219, and has secured co-funding deals from Abu Dhabi and now Qatar. It has also utilized the resources of distributors, which often have equity stakes, in releasing its product.

But is it a business? Surely not in the corporate sense. Participant is Skoll’s baby — an exercise in what he terms “unconventional philanthropy.” He provided hundreds of millions of dollars to found it and fund it. Since it’s his private firm, no profit-and-loss figures are reported, but insiders believe the company has generated a solid revenue stream. Though it’s had its high-profile losers (like “The Beaver”), several of its pictures have scored at the box office, “Contagion” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” among them.

Its latest release, “The Fifth Estate,” reflects the risks of the Participant approach. The subject matter, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange’s assault on government secrecy, offers both tension and topicality. But as depicted in the film, Assange remains a crusade in search of a character. The fi lm is uncompromisingly chilly.

Participant is similarly uncompromising in its new TV channel, Pivot. Its launch is ambitious — 360 hours of original programming keyed to millennials. Its aim is not to conquer the ratings charts but to “create a conversation.” Its talent is edgy: Meghan McCain presides over a talkshow, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt will start his version of a variety show in January, with live performances, shorts and random eccentricities (the brash actor’s first feature-directing effort, “Don Jon,” underperformed).

All in all, I’m glad Skoll lent a deaf ear to my advice. Having helped launch eBay, thus creating a mega-industry, he has now devoted himself to starting something more challenging — an intelligent conversation. Maybe that’s something that doesn’t require a business plan.