×

Participant’s Jeff Skoll: How the Power of Film Spread ‘An Inconvenient Truth’

I had just come back from a 2005 international conference on major world issues, where the consensus on climate change was that we did not have to worry for another 50 years. Then I returned to Los Angeles and attended a presentation by Al Gore at CAA.

Al’s now-famous slideshow on the climate made me realize we needed to act immediately to mitigate the damage to come. I had created Participant Media a year earlier to get people involved in the biggest problems in the world. And here was a massive problem staring us in the face.

Even with all the presentations Al was making, his message would not reach enough people before it was too late.

Immediately after the presentation, in a small office at CAA, Laurie David, Lawrence Bender and I convinced Al that we could make a movie based on the slideshow.

Davis Guggenheim, who was running Participant’s documentary program, decided he would leave his role to direct the film. I agreed to fund it, with all profits going to organizations working on climate and related environmental issues. Al pledged to do the same.

And so it began.

We soon were following Al around the world, capturing his exhausting pace as he traveled from city to city, continent to continent.

It was not always easy. We had to cancel one scheduled talk Al was to give to a group of insurance adjusters in a southern U.S. city when a storm rolled in. The insurance adjusters would learn the message another day, but the Earth had delivered a powerful lesson: The city was New Orleans, and the storm was Hurricane Katrina.

Over the course of the next few months, Davis crafted a unique film, balancing technical data alongside Al’s personal story.

“Even with all the presentations Al was making, his message would not reach enough people before it was too late.”
Jeff Skoll

We first screened the picture for a major studio. It did not go well. After the screening, the studio head put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Jeff, I know you are new to this business, but people are not going to leave their homes, hire a baby sitter, pay for parking and go to the theater to see this movie.”

When we premiered at Sundance several weeks later, our expectations were low. It was our first showing of the film to an audience. But the reaction was a revelation. People wept. There was repeated cheering during the film and a long standing ovation afterward. Paramount agreed to distribute. We had another rousing premiere at Cannes, and by the end of May 2006, the film debuted.

Environmental organizations and teachers embraced the picture in droves. It was adopted as part of the standard curriculum for a number of countries and remains one of the largest-grossing documentaries to this day.

Click here for full coverage from Variety’s Hollywood and Politics issue.

By 2007, 85% of Americans cited climate change as an important issue, compared with just 33% in prior years. The phrase we invented, “An Inconvenient Truth,” became a part of the lexicon.

The next year, I traveled much of the world. Invariably, elders told me how they had seen the climate change in their lifetimes. In India, stuck in a monsoon, I took shelter in a “hotel” in the Himalayan foothills. There was no water or electricity, but the 14-year-old innkeeper’s English was good. When we mentioned “An Inconvenient Truth,” he lit up. “I have seen it!” he said. “I have had all my friends see it, too.” In that moment, I fully appreciated the global power of film to influence and shape behavior for the public good.

I have a little collage in my office that shows how the cycle of belief-behavior-policy-systems change works: a picture of our group from the premiere, the two Oscars the film won, the Pope’s Encyclical on climate change — and soon I will add an Eiffel Tower for the recent breakthrough Paris agreements.

Clearly our job is not finished. But in this 10th anniversary year of the release of the film, I am proud of the progress we have made. Solutions are now within reach. But more than ever, there is no time to waste. We must bring these solutions to every corner of the globe.

Jeff Skoll is the founder and chairman of Participant Media.

Popular on Variety

More Biz

  • Hopper Reserve

    Dennis Hopper's Dying Wish: His Own Strain of Marijuana

    Even as celebrity brands are starting to flood the emerging Cannabis market, Hopper Reserve stands out. The brand was launched by Marin Hopper, Dennis Hopper’s daughter from his marriage to Brooke Hayward. Hopper Reserve is a gram of California indoor-grown flower, two packs of rolling papers, a pair of matches and a trading card either [...]

  • Snoop Dogg Weed

    In the Cannabis Business, Not All Star Strains Are Created Equal

    With the cannabis green rush in full swing, many celebrities are jumping into the fray with their own brands, including such well-known stoners as Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg and Tommy Chong. But as it turns out, not all star strains are created equal, so we assembled a trio of crack experts to put the product [...]

  • Richard Branson Jason Felts

    Kaaboo Festival Acquired by Virgin Fest Owner Jason Felts

    Kaaboo, which says it has “shifted the music festival paradigm by offering a highly amenitized festival experience for adults,” is now under new ownership. Virgin Fest founder and CEO Jason Felts (pictured above with Virgin founder Richard Branson) has fully acquired all of the festival brand assets through an affiliate of Virgin Fest, the music [...]

  • Live Nation Chief Michael Rapino Talks

    Live Nation-Ticketmaster Chief Michael Rapino Talks Dept. of Justice Inquiries

    Back in August, Senators Richard Blumenthal of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota made the most recent of several requests for an Department of Justice antitrust investigation into competition in the ticketing industry, and it soon became clear that the target of the probe was Live Nation and its 2010 merger with Ticketmaster, which [...]

  • Lowell Smokes Cafe Marijuana

    With Cannabis Lounges, On-Site Consumption, Marijuana-Infused Meals Go Legit

    Can this century’s Roaring ’20s repeat history but with pre-rolled joints instead of whiskey flasks and soccer moms as the new flappers? This month, West Hollywood will see the opening of the nation’s first at least quasi-legal cannabis consumption lounge, officially dubbed Lowell Farms: A Cannabis Café, located at 1211 N. La Brea between Fountain [...]

  • 2020 TV Season Preview

    How 2020's Fall TV Season Is Already Shaping Up

    Aiming to stand out in a crowded field, broadcasters this season have leaned on the stability of their schedules and the return of established hits. But for many of the same reasons, they’ve also begun to seed the ground for next year’s crop of shows, considering that top performers like “How to Get Away With [...]

  • Taylor Swift Talks Scott Borchetta’s ‘Sneaky’

    Taylor Swift Talks Scott Borchetta's 'Betrayal,' 'Sneaky' Deal With Scooter Braun

    While Taylor Swift’s sprawling Rolling Stone cover interview is largely about her music and herself, there’s also plenty about the personal and business dramas of the last three years. And not surprisingly, Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta — who this summer inked a reported $300 million deal for the Big Machine Records catalog and with [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content