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The Fact That Changed Everything: Jim Berk and Participant Media

Each film is looking to develop a sense of awareness and empowerment about an issue that’s worth your time.

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A film can have the power to spur conversation and spark an audience’s empathy, passion, and curiosity. For Los Angeles-based Participant Media, the visual storytelling power of movies is an invaluable tool to create meaningful impact. Says Participant CEO Jim Berk, “This company is driven by the belief that every problem this world confronts has solutions.”

For those that doubt an entertaining movie can lead to world change, consider the movie industry leaders that not long ago felt the same way. When Jeff Skoll, Participant’s founder, was attempting to get the company off the ground eight years ago, he met with studio heads to find support for socially relevant films. “They looked at it as a nice thing to do, but not particularly smart from a financial return basis and as a stand-alone business,” remembers Berk.

Still, Skoll refused to give up on his vision because of one simple undeniable fact: movies can move viewers. “Media can create the opportunity for masses of people to look at things in different ways; to change policy and behaviors on a massive scale,” explains Berk of the company’s long standing philosophy. “You do that through storytelling.” By 2004, Participant was able to launch its first few films—Good Night and Good Luck, North Country and Syriana—and all met with success. Eight years and 39 films later, that success has won over their original doubtful industry leaders thanks to the accolades they’ve collected: 22 Academy Award nominations, four Oscars, six Emmys and box office gold with films like The Help and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Continuously gaining momentum, Participant focuses on three elements for each of its film projects: quality, well-told stories, commercial potential, and social relevance. “We’re focusing on issues—fracking, education system, contagious diseases, nuclear disarmament, hunger, access to clean drinking water, mental illness/treatment, poverty—that are important for people to know about. At end of day, the purpose is to reach as many eyeballs as possible,” says Berk.

Also key for Participant is the timing of their film releases. On November 9, Participant debuted its newest movie Lincoln (opening in wide release November 16), a look at one of the most revered American presidents—timed a week after arguably one of the most divisive and expensive presidential election campaigns in history.

“We try to create an opportunity for these issues to be crystallized and part of the zeitgeist at the time when they’re really important,” says Berk. He cites the releases of North Country and Food, Inc as timed for when the Violence Against Women Act and Food and Nutrition Acts were up for reauthorization. Berk is quick to point out that Participant Media is non-partisan. Instead, he says, “Each film is looking to develop a sense of awareness and empowerment about an issue that’s worth your time, focusing on, changing your personal behavior about and being diligent about the people you elect having an interest in.”

Along with their films, Participant has produced more than 1,000 accompanying events, a practice that the studios, suspicious of cause marketing, had initially requested they not do. Small, bridging advances were made, with the studios first agreeing to campaigns around the DVD release, then after the film had been released. “Now it’s moved to the point where we’re contractually required to do social action and it’s paid for out of the advertising budget.”

The company has found lasting ways to support changes. “The Visitor, which took a look at detainees who had no rights for representation, came out at a time when the Patriot Act had just been passed,” says Berk. “We created the first national database of case studies for people being represented and the first pro bono training program for lawyers.” So, too, did Waiting for Superman create attention around the tenure system in education as well as Darfur Now when 17 states divested from Sudan. “Contagion resulted in Congress passing a world coordination act that allowed for countries to work more closely together in dealing with contagious disease, which could save hundreds of thousands of lives,” says Berk. “This type of impact comes across every film.”

Each film has a carefully planned social action campaign around each topic. “They’re designed to create a coalition of NGOs, nonprofits and key influencers who are using the film as a way to further the social impact.” To enable filmgoers to get involved and connect, Participant launched Take Part in 2009, a platform that acts as a network for cause-related sites and social issues with ways for individuals to take action.

As for Skoll, Berk reports that the founder has no interest in cashing out, but plans on reinvesting and building Participant for the rest of his life. Berk himself compares Participant’s blend of entertainment, business and social impact to the Holy Grail. “Transforming ourselves into a global media company focused on the public interest means millions of lives could be positively impacted.”

Participant’s vision of being a global media company is already blossoming. “We’re becoming a cause provider,” says Berk. Currently, they’re doing so by serving as a cause agency, producing a cause magazine for MSN and a newly lanched cause channel for YouTube. Acquisition investments have been made in television channels in both Canada and the United States, moves towards aspirations of having a global television network with 24/7 programming. Beyond their current offices in Los Angeles, New York and Palo Alto, Participant will launch its first foreign outpost in 2013. Already in place is a film fund with Image Nation Abu Dhabi to finance multiple feature films over the next five years. Their sites are also set on creating Participant divisions in Latin America, Europe, India and China.

And while Participant has shown that Hollywood movie studios can reach beyond the superficial to unite entertainment with social impact, Berk is quick to point out that it’s a passion, not a playbook, that’s guided them. “The coolest part [is that] there is no road map. No wrong answer. Put together a business plan around an opportunity you’re totally obsessed and passionate about. Then you’ve got a sense of meaning.”

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