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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.

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