Oscars Provide Stage for Participant Media’s Comeback Story

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Just a couple of years ago, Participant Media, a film and television company founded in 2004 by the eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll, seemed to have lost its way. Badly.

Bets on movies like “Denial,” about Holocaust disavowal, and “The Light Between Oceans,” a romance involving a moral quandary, were not paying off as expected. In a retrenchment, Participant, which focuses on issues-oriented entertainment, laid off 50 percent of its work force and closed three divisions. Mr. Skoll ousted the company’s chief executive.

Talk about a roaring comeback.

Participant, now led by David Linde, a former chairman of Universal Pictures, heads into Sunday’s Academy Awards with three major contenders and 17 overall nominations. Netflix has received all the attention for “Roma,” a front-runner for best picture. But Participant financed the film and shopped it to distributors, ultimately choosing Netflix. Participant was also behind “Green Book,” another best-picture favorite, rescuing the movie when another studio had passed on making it.

And Participant joined CNN Films and Magnolia Pictures to release “RBG,” an affectionate portrait of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that has a very good chance of winning best documentary.

“Having 17 nominations is terrific — obviously — but I’m mostly excited by how much the films are figuring into cultural conversations that feel really vital,” Mr. Linde said. “And wait until what’s next. I think it’s going to rock people’s socks.”

In the months ahead, with backing from Participant, the “Selma” filmmaker Ava DuVernay will deliver a scripted series to Netflix about the Central Park Five, the young black and Latino men who were wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman in Manhattan in 1989. Netflix will also release the Participant-produced documentary “American Factory,” which looks at a clash between a Chinese entrepreneur and blue-collar Ohioans. Later in the year, a Participant drama about a lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) who exposes a pollution cover-up by DuPont will arrive in theaters via Focus Features.

Steve James, an Oscar-nominated documentarian (“Hoop Dreams”), is making a Participant film, “Chicago Story,” that serves as a portrait of the troubled city. Most recently, Mr. James helped Participant return to TV production with “America to Me,” a celebrated docu-series about the racial divide in a public high school. “America to Me” could figure into this year’s Emmys and has an active social-impact campaign.

“It feels like we have found our footing again,” said Diane Weyermann, Participant’s longtime president of documentary film and television. “The company had early success but then grew in ways that weren’t the wisest. Refocusing on content — great storytelling — seems to be working really well.”

The question with any independent studio, of course, is sustainability. Can Participant really keep this roll going? And turn a profit while doing it?

Films with a message have never been easy to sell to the moviegoing masses. Matt Damon in a fracking drama (“Promised Land,” a 2012 Participant effort) has a hard time competing with “Avengers: Infinity War” in 3-D.

But Participant, founded to create positive social change, in part by rolling out specific action campaigns alongside film releases, scored a home run relatively quickly. “An Inconvenient Truth,” in which former Vice President Al Gore spoke about the dangers of climate change, took in $50 million, a huge total for a nonfiction film, and won two Oscars, including best documentary. Moreover, “An Inconvenient Truth,” directed by Davis Guggenheim, made more people pay attention to climate change.

In the coming years, Participant had other hits, including “The Help” (2011), focused on racial reconciliation and made in partnership with DreamWorks, and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011), about seniors combating loneliness. The newspaper drama “Spotlight” (2015), made with Anonymous Content and others, was named best picture at the Academy Awards.

Consistency, however, was nonexistent. For every success, Participant had several expensive misfires, including “The Beaver,” “Fair Game” and “Our Brand Is Crisis.” No studio has a perfect track record, but whipsawing results make it especially hard for independent film companies like Participant to stay afloat, even when they have billionaire benefactors.

Participant, then under the leadership of James G. Berk, who came to the company from the Hard Rock restaurant chain, was also expanding in puzzling ways. Mr. Berk started a cable channel, Pivot — just as the cable business began to falter. Other offshoot businesses included TakePart, a digital publishing effort.

And the movie business was growing only harder. Younger people, in particular, were becoming much choosier about what movies were worth seeing in a theater.

Enter Mr. Linde in late 2015.

Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Linde, 59, is a consummate Hollywood insider, cutting his teeth at Miramax with Harvey Weinstein in the 1990s before becoming co-president of Focus Features and ultimately chairman of Universal. He arrived at Participant after running his own film company, Lava Bear, best known for making the science-fiction hit “Arrival.”

Mr. Linde shut down Pivot, TakePart and another division. He hired a new chief impact officer, Holly Gordon, to sharpen Participant’s social action campaigns. He routed more resources to the development of film and television ideas. The company now has about 120 employees.

In 2017, Participant joined Lionsgate to make “Wonder,” about a boy coping with facial birth defects. The movie took in $306 million, the biggest total ever for a Participant production.

“Just as importantly, a message about compassion was delivered,” said Jonathan King, Participant’s president of narrative film and television. “Kids watch the movie, they internalize that message, it helps to change lives.”

Participant also moved to shore up distribution for its films. The company, for instance, became a founding investor in Amblin Partners, which includes Steven Spielberg’s movie and television operation; the partnership gives Participant access to Universal’s distribution machinery. “Green Book,” a racial issues film in the form of a road trip, was released by Universal and has collected $128 million worldwide.

“David Linde has taken Participant to a unique place in the world of film,” Mr. Spielberg said in a statement. Straddling the line between business and philanthropy “can be a commercially challenging but often rewarding road,” he noted.

Now that Participant has steadied itself, it intends to annually produce and invest in up to 10 narrative and documentary films and three television series. Another business, SoulPancake, which makes videos for YouTube, Facebook and other sites, will deliver roughly 30 hours of content a year.

Mr. Linde said Participant saw tech companies — including Netflix, which is available in 190 countries — as crucial partners. “They give us another path to reach a really substantial audience,” he said. “And start conversations on a global scale.”

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