Participating in Good: Spurring social change through the power of the movies

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“You cannot change the world if you don’t like each other.” A fine guiding principle for a nonprofit organization, a political activist group, a self-help seminar…but a production company? You bet—when that production company is Participant Media, which since its founding in 2004 by Jeff Skoll has been bringing movies that seek to affect social change to the big screen.

“Compassion,” continues CEO David Linde, “is central to the perspective of Participant. We believe in a compassionate world. And when you’re talking about 75-plus movies and over two billion dollars’ worth of box office, I would say that there are a lot of people who agree with us.”

A scan down Participant’s filmography backs Linde up. Commercial and critical successes—Lincoln; The Help; Contagion; Food, Inc.; and this year’s Wonder, just to name a few—abound. There are Oscar winners—like Tom McCarthy’s Best Picture winner Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s child molestation cover-up, and Best Documentary Feature winners CITIZENFOUR, The Cove and An Inconvenient Truth. Come the 90th Annual Academy Awards on March 4, they could have some new brethren: Steven Spielberg’s The Post; Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s documentary An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power; Ai Weiwei's Human Flow, about the globay refugee crisis; and Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman, from director Sebastián Lelio, are all awards-season hopefuls.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary duo The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. Breathe, Andy Serkis’ biopic of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), a crusader for the disabled.  Based-on-a-true-story actioner Deepwater Horizon. Spielberg’s Cold War drama Bridge of Spies. The films Participant has (ahem) participated in run the gamut, but they have one thing in common: a shared determination to, in the words of president of documentary film and television Diane Weyermann, “tell stories that are engaging and can reach people, and that illuminate issues that may or may not be in the spotlight.”

“One thing that film can do is inspire,” elaborates Jonathan King, Participant’s president of narrative film and television. “In a climate where political division is especially acute, we look for ways to draw people together. There’s a movie out right now called Wonder”—about the experience of a young boy (Room’s Jacob Tremblay) with facial differences who goes to a public school for the first time—“that’s really about embracing differences and relating to people who may be different than you are, and looking at them with compassion. That kind of movie is really resonant with audiences. It is completely in line with our mission.”

In that same vein, Weyermann cites upcoming Sundance Selects/IFC Films release Far from the Tree, about families where parents and children are profoundly different from one another due to Down Syndrome, dwarfism, being transgender or some other cause. “It’s really a film about love and acceptance and compassion. In this polarized environment we find ourselves in, where people don’t speak to each other and there’s a lot of fear of the ‘other,’ these are really important films to get out there… We’re all looking for ways to be more positive and more hopeful and more inspired, rather than being pulled down by division and fear.”

That hunt for “common ground,” King explains, is one of Participant’s primary raisons d’etre. It’s also something that “in some ways, film as an art form is uniquely suited to do.”

In the end, it all boils down to “spinach.”

That’s the word that Linde uses to describe the sort of films Participant doesn’t want to make: chock-full of positive messages, but dry, dull and preachy. You may not want to eat it, but hey, it’s good for you!

That is emphatically not the Participant way. “We don’t make spinach,” Linde says. “We’re making movies. And television shows and digital short film content. There are lots of people out there making spinach. That’s not us.” Story must come first, always. “People want to be entertained. They want to be thrilled.” Or, put another way: “You can’t change the world if nobody sees your movie.”

King cites Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex, out later in 2018, about the efforts of young lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) and her husband Marty (Armie Hammer) to bring gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court. “It wouldn’t have made for a good movie if it hadn’t been a really great, surprising, engaging, emotional story.”

Participant also teamed with Steven Spielberg to tackle gender equality in The Post. On one level, it’s a ripping yarn about a key moment in American history: the publication of the Pentagon Papers. On another, it’s about journalism and freedom of the press. On yet a third, says Linde, it’s “a fantastic story about a woman [Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep] who is realizing her importance and relevance in the world.” With those two films, Participant is “engaging in conversation about great woman leaders. This year and next year. And people who are going to be seeing On the Basis of Sex are going to be reminded about The Post. It’s a very organic process of conversation.”

With these two films about “strong women in professions that are primarily male-dominated,” Weyermann points out that Participant has landed “in the right zeitgeist… [The Post and On the Basis of Sex] land right at the time when people can really relate to them and respond to them. That’s something we always look at: What stories are cresting? What’s going on in the zeitgeist?”

Linde calls this “catching moments.” “Moments” caught in Participant films over the last few years include: the global refugee crisis (Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow), the leaking of classified government information (Laura Poitras’ CITIZENFOUR), the Arab Spring movement (Jehane Noujaim’s The Square) and cyberterrorism (Alex Gibney’s Zero Days).

Through always looking ahead to what issues people are hungry to engage with, Participant Media, through its films, sparks conversation. For Linde, King and Weyermann, it’s not just a matter of making films, handing them off to the distributors and then moving on to the next one. For many of its films, Participant partners with NGOs in ways that raise awareness and prompt real change. For example, withAn Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, Participant partnered with the Climate Reality Project, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund to help combat climate change. An online “action center” used social media to push out videos that were seen 75 million times.

“We have a responsibility and a mission to engage people around the subject of each movie,” Linde explains. “It’s not our job to market them into the movie theatre. We’re not a distributor. That’s what our partner does. But we’re embracing a much broader spectrum of partners around a movie than a typical distributor would. They have their stakeholders and partners and audience, and we have our stakeholders and partners and audience. And we merge them together over the life of the film to create as much awareness of the movie and the issue as possible. The film distributor actions them into the movie theatre. Our NGO partners action them to actual action. And you’re building this very organic, dynamic life around a movie”—one that extends well beyond its theatrical release.

“You’d better bring a lot to the table, if you’re going to survive in the media business,” Linde adds. “You’d better be distinct about what it is that you’re doing. And this company is unique, and it brings a lot to the table. And that’s how we make ourselves different.”

Participant’s unique approach is what the distributors want, what the filmmakers want, what the NGOs want…and also, increasingly, what consumers want as well. For some people, Linde notes, seeing a movie is just seeing a movie, “and that’s fine.” But by and large, he argues that we’re in the “age of the conscious consumer,” with people of all ages and backgrounds showing an increasing interest in how they can use their buying power to make a positive impact on the world. These consumers “are applying a new value filter to their purchases. And that’s just a fact. TOMS shoes and KIND bars wouldn’t exist and be successful if that wasn’t one of the momentum changes going on.”

“Our task,” says Weyermann, “is to bring stories to life that we hope can get people to think about things in a different way and maybe act towards change.” And it’s working. Weyermann recalls an event where the filmmakers behind An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power were honored by the California League of Conservation Voters. There, Weyermann spoke with a young environmental activist—herself receiving an award there—who recalled that she attended one of Al Gore’s training sessions after finding out about them in the first An Inconvenient Truth.

Sometimes the impact is large: the Indonesian government officially acknowledging for the first time the tragedy of the 1965-66 mass killings in their country as a direct result of The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. Sometimes they’re smaller: all the people who grew more conscious of their eating habits as a result of seeing Robert Kenner’s 2008 documentary Food, Inc. “These kinds of things are incredible,” Weyermann says. “It’s really about how these films connect to viewers and get them to think or change or feel supported or feel acknowledged or inspired. Whatever the case might be. That’s what gives Jonathan and me a lot of pride in what we do.”