Former Universal Boss David Linde Named New CEO Of Participant Media (EXCLUSIVE)

David Linde
Buchan/Variety/REX Shutterstock

Former Universal Pictures Chairman David Linde has been chosen by billionaire Jeff Skoll as the new CEO of Participant Media, the multi-faceted entertainment company that is reorganizing and seeking new film and television partners as it moves to reinvigorate its brand, the company announced just after noon.

In Linde,  Skoll has picked a seasoned studio chief with deep roots in the independent film business and in the international entertainment community, particularly in India and China, where he has established business and artistic ties.

Linde has been a film financier and producer for the last four years as the principal and founder of Lava Bear Films, which has financial backing from India’s Reliance Entertainment and has worked with directors like Alejandro Inarritu and China’s Zhang Yimou. Skoll, founding president of eBay, believes that his new chief executive’s broad and cosmopolitan profile is perfectly tailored to Participant’s mission of generating profits while also making a deep impact on social causes.

“David is a thoroughly decent human being who also happens to understand film, artists, distribution, social causes, fairness and entrepreneurial opportunities,” Skoll told Variety. “I could not seek a better partner as we continue to build Participant as a global media company serving the public interest.”

The new chief executive comes to the helm of Participant as the company is backing a string of critically-acclaimed releases – including the investigative journalism ode “Spotlight,” the African warlord drama “Beasts of No Nation,” and the feminist documentary “He Named Me Malala” – and is pondering ways to expand its reach, in particular via a potential new partnership with Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks studio.

In a statement, Linde gave high praise to his new boss, saying, “Jeff’s vision is vitally distinct and powerful and offers partners around the world tremendous opportunity.” Linde said he sees his new job as “an absolutely unique chance to combine my professional experience and relationships with my intellectual and emotional priorities, and expand Participant Media’s impact on a global level.”

Skoll took the reins of Participant for the last six months, following the exit in April of  chief executive, Jim Berk, who left after complaints surfaced that he lacked strategic vision and alienated key employees with his micro-managing. After his long experiment with a Hollywood outsider (Berk started his career as a public school teacher and eventually became chief executive of the Hard Rock restaurant and hotel chain.) Skoll’s second chief executive, Linde, comes to Participant headquarters  in Beverly Hills from a more traditional entertainment background.

The 55-year-old executive began his career selling the rights to independent films and TV programs at Fox/Lorber. He joined Miramax films in 1991 in acquisitions, then advanced to become head of sales and chief executive of Miramax International. He oversaw the overseas release of acclaimed films including “Pulp Fiction,” and “The English Patient.”

Linde went on to become co-president of the production company Good Machine, whose international unit released Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” When Good Machine was sold to Universal in 2002, the studio created Focus Features and Linde became its co-president, overseeing a slate that included Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain.”

He was promoted to co-chairman at Universal in 2006, holding the top job along with Marc Shmuger until 2009. Both Linde and Shmuger eventually held the title of chairman before being fired by studio President Ron Meyer. During Linde’s tenure, Uni fielded hits like the “Bourne” films but did not produce the kind of blockbusters that studios increasingly need to compete. In his last year, Universal ranked sixth among major studios in domestic box office receipts.

But Linde was known as a thoughtful executive, more attuned to the kind of adult fare that is the stock in trade of Participant. The company was founded in 2004 by Skoll, the tech billionaire who also funds and oversees several nonprofits that work to solve global problems like famine, disease and nuclear proliferation.

Skoll decided about a year ago that Participant was not making the kind of progress he wanted — concerns that were detailed in a profile in Variety. He came to believe more could be done to expand and strengthen the film-TV-digital concern as an international brand. He wanted a clear strategic plan for how to position its upstart cable network,  Pivot TV, in a changing multi-channel and OTT universe. And he wanted to clarify the mission of the company’s website, Takepart.com.

After Berk’s departure in April, Skoll moved from the Sunset Boulevard office where he operates his nonprofits and investment fund and into Participant’s headquarters in Beverly Hills. He took the CEO’s corner office and re-immersed himself in his company. Skoll could point proudly to a number of acclaimed films his company had helped fund — from “An Inconvenient Truth, ” to “Syrianna,” “The Help,” “Lincoln” and the documentary “Citizenfour.”  Participant has a knack for keeping such films in the public consciousness via social media and education campaigns.

But the company had not made an equivalent gain in brand awareness with the public — its film, TV and digital units taking on separate identities as Participant, Pivot and TakePart. In fact, it was only belatedly that the company was able to buy the Participant.com web domain from a Norwegian entrepreneur, who had owned it for years.

“Now we want to refocus attention on one master brand called ‘Participant,’ which will be a consumer brand meaning high-quality entertainment about important issues that involve the survival and thriving of humanity,” Skoll said in a recent interview with Variety, before he had finalized his decision about the new CEO he hopes will help realize his ambitions. Participant needs improved expansion of its international footprint, brand enhancement and other fixes, he said. In shorthand: “If we want to be the Disney of Social impact, that’s not going to happen by itself.”

The most problematic strategic decision going forward may be what to do with Pivot, the two-year-old cable channel that has struggled to establish an identity, even as a few of its programs –like “Fortitude,” a drama about life above the Arctic Circle, and “Welcome to Fairfax,” the verite program about young entrepreneurs– have earned critical praise. Though its available in 47 million households, the increasingly crowded landscape of TV and digital outlets is making it harder for smaller independent channels to survive.

Pivot has hired a consultant to help it search for a strategic partner. A model for Pivot could be the deal that BBC America struck last year with AMC Networks, in which AMC paid $200 million to BBC Worldwide for a 49.9% stake and operating control of the channel. Insiders at Participant said the company has looked at a variety of potential partners such as Discovery Communications, A+E Networks and 21st Century Fox. But obscure Pivot’s challenge is being viewed as having enough heft to entice a larger player to view an alliance as advantageous.

There are no active negotiations for a TV partnership. Similarly, Participant execs say no deal is imminent to invest in DreamWorks, though Skoll has made it clear he would like to work more closely with the Steven Spielberg production company. The two previously collaborated  on films such as “The Help,” “Lincoln,” and the director’s latest effort, “Bridge of Spies,” due for release on Oct. 16.

As a private company, Participant has never had to issue earnings reports. Skoll has suggested in the past that his film division made money, while the other operations did not. But on a recent day in his office he said that he doesn’t think the world should view his company with a strictly bottom-line sensibility.

“That is not the right question,” Skoll said. “The right question is: Do we have right business model to sustain important content all over the world?”

To organize his thoughts, Skoll likes to stand at a white board and sketch out diagrams. The tech innovator who grabbed giant hunks of market share for eBay becomes most animated when pointing his marker at a bulky column labeled “greenfields,” for untapped areas of opportunity. The biggest greenfield, in his view? Access to the estimated seven billion humans who could have broad band and cell phone access within five years, up from the current two billion. “There is an opportunity to really get out there in a big way,” Skoll said, “to promote the issues people care about.”

In a similarly ambitious mood in June when he spoke to a gathering of fellow billionaires, Skoll extolled the virtues of mass media. The business titans were among those who have taken Bill Gates’s “Giving Pledge” — the commitment that half of their fortunes to charity on their deaths — and Skoll told his fellow magnates that their good works can be magnified by the proper presentation to the public. “The power of story can be great marginal addition to the billions of dollars they are all spending on these issues,” Skoll said, looking back on his talk. He noted that Participant should be well positioned to tell those stories. “The opportunity is there and it’s a heck of an opportunity.”

The announcement from Participant said that Linde will continue to work with Lava Bear’s president and partner, Tory Metzger, on the company’s 2016 release slate, which includes “The Forest” (Focus Features), “Shut In” (EuropaCorp), “Desierto” (STX Entertainment), and “Story Of Your Life” (Paramount).