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How Participant Media Stays on the Cutting Edge of Cultural Awareness

Participant Media is not a typical Hollywood company. Founded by former eBay chief Jeff Skoll in 2004, Participant aims to back movies and TV shows that inspire social action, not just simply entertain.

“We believe great storytelling can inspire positive change in the world,” says David Linde, Participant’s CEO. “We want to empower our audiences in ways that can have real-life impact.”

Linde is receiving the Empowerment Award at Variety’s Power of Women celebration for his role in supporting female executives and filmmakers. At a time when gender discrimination has become the galvanizing issue in the media business, Participant is leaning into stories about women who are fighting sexism and leading by example. Last summer’s “RBG” and this fall’s “On the Basis of Sex” both celebrate Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice who advocated on behalf of women’s rights as an attorney and has ruled to preserve those rights as a jurist. Both films are directed by female filmmakers — “RBG” is the brainchild of directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, and “On the Basis of Sex” was shot by Mimi Leder. “I feel that David and his company really make films that matter and films that help us think about the world that we live in,” Leder says.

The company is also backing “Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón’s semiautobiographical account of the two women who raised him — his mother and their live-in housekeeper, Cleo. If “RBG” and “On the Basis of Sex” focus on a feminist icon, “Roma” examines a different kind of courage: Cleo, with quiet integrity, provides the film’s moral compass. “It’s important for us to tell the stories of leaders and heroes who are unsung,” Linde says, “and Cleo is a hero in her own unmistakable way.”

The company is not just committed to bringing these stories to life on-screen. Its films also have an educational component associated with them, giving viewers a series of online resources to learn more about the environmental, social justice or humanitarian issues they illuminate.

Participant has made a point of providing opportunities for women in the entertainment industry. Sixty-six percent of the company’s workforce is female, and six women are department heads. They include Holly Gordon, the chief impact officer; Diane Weyermann, head of the documentary film and television division; and Christina Kounelias, worldwide marketing exec VP. “We want the fabric of our company to reflect the fabric of the country, ” says Linde.

By empowering directors like Leder and giving execs such as Gordon and Weyermann opportunities to call the shots, Participant is leading the way at a time when Hollywood is being faulted for lack of female representation both behind the camera and in the C-suite. In 2017, only 18% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films were women, a measly percentage considering that women comprise more than half of the population.

Linde, who previously ran Universal Pictures, says he’s noticed some positive changes in the industry. There’s more awareness about the need for pay equity, old prejudices about the commercial viability of female-driven stories are dissipating, and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements are raising awareness about toxic workplaces. But Linde thinks more must be done.

“The industry needs to link arms and be progressive about ensuring equal treatment for everyone,” he says. “We can and will do better.”

“On the Basis of Sex” was written and conceived well before dozens of women came forward to accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment. However, filming was under way when the allegations broke, triggering an industrywide reckoning. The parallels between Ginsburg’s barrier-breaking legal career and the current movement to rectify decades of mistreatment on studio lots could not have been clearer.

“Telling Justice Ginsburg’s story became more important than ever,” Leder says. “We were witnessing women finding their voices and speaking out against injustice in the same way that Justice Ginsburg fought against sexual discrimination and inequality.”

Hollywood is a business, and there are business reasons as well as moral ones to advocate for change. Many of the films that Participant makes, such as last year’s “The Post” and “RBG,” were box office hits. By 2020, there will be 2.56 billion millennial and Gen Z consumers representing $44 billion worth of spending power. They are more socially concious than their predecessors, with studies showing that they are 90% more likely to buy a product with social or environmental benefit than another, comparable product. Movies and TV shows with political or moral urgency speak to that generation.

“We avoid making medicine or spinach,” says Linde. “We make entertainment; if nobody sees the movie, there’s no social impact.”

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