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Making movies to make a difference

y PATRICK GAVIN | 5/1/12 10:37 PM EDT Politico.com Los Angeles–based Participant Media, one of the leading producers of politically themed movies, is out to disprove what Hollywood has long believed: that policy is box office poison. Consider that in the past eight years, the company has produced such films as “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Page One,” “Waiting for Superman,” “Countdown to Zero,” “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” “The Cove,” “Food, Inc.,” “Fast Food Nation,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The Kite Runner,” “Syriana,” “Murderball” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Its latest movie, “Last Call at the Oasis,” concerns threats to the U.S. water supply. (POLITICO recently spoke with consumer advocate Erin Brokovich about her role in the film.) Participant CEO Jim Berk says the market for political movies is, believe it or not, a fruitful one. “The market’s always been there,” Berk told POLITICO. “It’s always been a small piece of the market. You can go back to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Gandhi’ or ‘Schindler’s List.’ There’s always a percentage of films — 5, 8, 10 percent of the market, never more than 20 — that are always speaking to the issues. The difference is that companies with films like that, they’re one-offs within the studio system. It’s not their prime, core business because that segment is a more challenging segment.” Participant, by contrast, focuses exclusively on films that “inspire and compel social change,” which means it sometimes shakes up things in Washington. “If you can raise the visibility, if you can push things into the zeitgeist, there’s going to be pressure on policymakers, on communities, and even individual pressure to make personal change, community change or legislative change,” Berk said. Its marketing strategy? It’s not simply to get as many folks in the movie theaters as possible. It will do smaller screenings with lawmakers, policy wonks and schools — anything and everything to get people “emotionally connected to the film.” There are, of course, two problems with political films. The first is that they can’t be, well, terribly political. “We have no political bent,” Berk said. “We’re not looking to get people to solve in a particular way what we think is the solution. We want people to think about the issue and want pressure to solve it.” The other difficulty is finding an issue that’s timely — before it’s timely. Given the length of production schedules, Participant essentially has to predict what will be a hot issue, say, a year from now. To achieve that, Berk said, “we spend a lot of time with policy experts [who] are really embedded into some of these more complex issues. So we’re looking at the environment, peace and tolerance, so where does that put us? It puts us in the Middle East. It puts us in anything about war or unintended consequences.” And does this mean box office success? That’s the hope, said Berk, who made it clear that his company adheres to the basics of profit making. “Box office is important to us,” Berk said. “If you don’t have box office, you don’t have eyeballs. If you don’t have eyeballs, you don’t have that large-scale awareness.” Indeed, Participant is coming off two of its biggest successes: 2011’s “The Help” and “Contagion.” (Not that it’s been all roses. The company has had its share of flops, such as 2011’s “The Beaver” with Mel Gibson, which sought to draw attention to mental health issues.) Berk admitted to hoping Participant’s films add a particular issue to people’s “pool of worries” but said, “You cannot sell the issue.” “The issue does not lead the conversation. The issue does not lead the storytelling. It always starts with a good story well told. … We don’t market our films as, ‘Hey, go see a pandemic movie!’ If you see the trailer for a documentary, it’s designed to be entertainment first and foremost.” http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0512/75800.html