Participant Media, a key backer of touchstone documentaries such as “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Food,” Inc., isn’t afraid to take on divisive issues like government secrecy and the state of Palestine.
The 9-year-old company has just released Dan Setton’s “State 194,” a documentary about Salam Fayyad’s efforts to gain United Nations recognition for the independence of the Palestinian territories. And it’s in post on Bill’s Condon’s WikiLeaks drama “The Fifth Estate” (pictured above), due out Oct. 11 from Disney.
Both titles also are receiving Participant’s unique added-value component: a Web-based social action campaign aimed at sparking discussion and getting people involved with the issues represented in the movie. It’s a strategy exemplified in the company motto: “Entertainment that inspires social change.”
A third of the 150 or so employees at Participant’s Beverly Hills headquarters work on social action campaigns, reaching out to communities of engaged and influential individuals via TakePart.com — the company’s digital arm. The site has been attracting more than 4.5 million visits a month with 11,000 pieces of content a year — each with links that connect users to an action they can take.
For “State 194,” the site features several stories about the film as well as a Take Part link to the Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace, which is working to break down psychological barriers between Israelis and Palestinians.
“The basic idea is to get people talking about the issues,” Participant’s Chad Boettcher says. “We’re under no illusions that the crisis will be solved the next day. The film is an opportunity to bring awareness into this area.”
Boettcher, the company’s exec VP for social action, notes that Participant, which has released 43 films in nine years, typically plans the social action campaigns for about half a dozen films at once, which currently include those of “The Fifth Estate,” “The Great Invisible,” “The 99 Percent” and Donald Rumsfeld documentary “The Unknown Known.” He says “The Fifth Estate” campaign — not yet approved — will highlight the notion of digital literacy, and the opportunity to use that to create communities that empower people.
“We’re developing (and piloting) a social impact index that incorporates lessons from our nine years of social action campaigns, and pulls them together in a consistent methodology and approach that both we, and our partners, can regularly use,” Boettcher says.
While it may sound wonky, the issue-based film biz hasn’t been doing too badly lately. In the past two years, the movie production company, founded by Jeff Skoll in 2004, has turned the corner in terms of profitability, with four of its films — “The Help,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Contagion” and “Lincoln” — combining for more than $750 million in worldwide grosses.
That would be filmmaking success enough for any production company, but Participant wants to change the world, too. Every one of its films includes a social-action component tied to the movie, including such issues as prison sentencing (“Snitch”), dolphin slaughter (“The Cove”), the path of epidemics (“Contagion”); elderly housing (“Marigold Hotel”), and homelessness (“The Soloist”).
“We have two bottom lines — one for profit and one for social action,” notes chief exec Jim Berk.