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For a film to change the world, it first has to be watchable


For a film to change the world, it first has to be watchable

The Guardian  – December 15, 2014 

By Oliver Balch

Few media executives have the luxury of submitting a business proposal to then be asked what more they could do if they had an additional $50m. But then few media execs have a multi-billionaire philanthropist for a boss.

Jim Berk, CEO of Los Angeles-based Participant Media, is first to admit his good fortune. Not only can he count on Jeff Skoll, inaugural president of eBay, to bankroll the multi-channel entertainment firm; Skoll has also given him a gem of a job description: to produce entertainment that inspires and compels social change.

The first feature films out of the gate were Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, and North County, all of them critically acclaimed. Since setting up in 2004, Participant has had a hand in more than sixty movies. The list includes hits such as Food Inc, An Inconvenient Truth, Contagion and Lincoln.

The company is active away from the big screen too. TakePart, Participant’s magazine-style digital platform, clocks up around 10m unique visits a month.Pivot, its private TV network launched in 2013, is available via satellite and cable in over 45m homes across North America.

But mainstream media firms are notoriously nervous of anything that smacks of change-the-world politicking. If you want to send a message, Hollywood insiders liked to tell Skoll in the early days, then use Western Union.

Don’t preach, entertain

So what is the trick to creating hard-hitting social content without turning audiences off? “First and foremost, you entertain,” says Berk. Participant may well be full of well-meaning folk wanting to stave off pandemic viruses (Contagion) or turn round the US’ flagging education system (Waiting for Superman), but their first job is to produce content that engages the public. So rule one: no finger-wagging. “Even though our primary reason for existing is social impact, that isn’t what we lead with,” says Berk. “If we don’t think that the format is entertaining or if it’s not commercially viable, then we won’t do it, however important the issue is.”

His reasoning is simple and, for once, it’s not all about the money. Participant is a “double bottom-line” company (ie it seeks to balance profit with social returns), but it’s not economically cavalier. Berk insists the company operates with a for-profit focus. Instead, his logic links back to the company’s mission: “If it doesn’t create that connection with an audience, then nobody will go and see it.”

The second trick revolves around subject matter. Keep it relevant and keep it authentic, says Berk. Participant keeps a revolving list of around 35 issues that it feels are important but lack attention and airtime. The list continually evolves and mutates, depending on events and trends in public opinion. It’s not top-down either; the company interacts with a network of over 400 grassroots NGOs, ensuring its ideas are both on-the-mark and of-the-moment.

There’s flex in the system too. Sometimes Participant will have a clear idea of the issue it wants to highlight and commissions content around it. Other times, it lands a great story and the specific social issue of concern needs time to come to light. Often it’s a mix of the two.


Eyes on the audience

The choice of genre is all-important too. Any output has to be tailored to appeal to the demographic or decision-makers that are able to move the needle on the social issue under scrutiny, says Jonathan King, the company’s executive vice-president of production.

Take Ric Roman Waugh’s 2013 action thriller, Snitch. The film centres on injustices within the penal system. Yet those most set to benefit from penal reform are not exactly 100% engaged on the issue, admits King. His solution is straightforward: “You’ve got to create an action movie to talk about an issue that’s important to the community that goes to see action movies.”

Such thinking has an important implication: it frees up media companies from blindly chasing ever bigger audiences and ever more click rates. Berk cites the 2012 feature film Middle of Nowhere. Although critically acclaimed, the Sundance-winning film (about a woman struggling to maintain her relationship with her incarcerated husband) didn’t overly trouble the box office. Yet it was influential in persuading key legislators to stamp out the hitherto ignored problem of extortionate prison phone call rates.

But how to move from engaging your audience to mobilising them? That’s where Chad Boettcher comes in. He heads up the company’s “social action” team, whose job it is to signpost people to concrete action steps: be that student discussions or public screenings, an e-petition or Twitter campaign.

One topical example of Participant’s campaigning arm is its work around the film Merchants of Doubt. The feature-length comedy exposes the shady world of rent-a-quote pundits. In response, Participant has developed a set of teaching resources to help US journalism students to identify corporate spin where and when it happens.

To bring some rigour to the evaluation of the company’s social impact, Boettcher and his colleagues recently developed their own bespoke measurement system. The Participant Index tracks actions on a sliding scale from viewers who search online for more information to those who set up a new organisation. In its inaugural assessment, three in 10 viewers ticked the “this film/TV show/video changed my life” box. Berk is happy with that. His boss should be too.