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Participant Media Creates Entertainment for Social Change

Participant Media Creates Entertainment for Social Change

RomaGreen BookA Fantastic Woman, and Spotlight are films with more in common than Academy Awards. They were produced by Participant Media, the fifteen-year-old company founded with a mission to use visual storytelling to amplify social issues and catalyze social change.

Founded in 2004 by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jeff Skoll, Participant Media has produced more than 100 films and garnered 73 Academy Award nominations and 18 Oscars. But beyond critical acclaim, the company has furthered Skoll's vision of reaching socially conscious consumers by partnering with nonprofits and NGOs to create campaigns that can move the needle on pressing social issues.

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, the story of a live-in housekeeper for an affluent family in Mexico City, is the latest example of Participant Media's dual pursuit of aesthetic and social value. The film garnered critical acclaim and awards while also highlighting the plight of domestic workers.

"We launched a campaign in the United States with Ai-jen Poo and the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and in Mexico with the Center for Support and Training of Household Employees (CACEH) and their leader Marcelina [Bautista] to advocate for workers' rights for domestic workers," says Holly Gordon, Participant Media's chief impact officer. "This spring, a bill was passed by the Mexican legislature, [which] for the first time in Mexico's history protects two-point-five million domestic workers across Mexico."

As that film premiered in November 2018, Participant Media and NDWA implemented a campaign strategy that included screenings of the film accompanied by panel discussions around rights for domestic workers. In the United States, the organizations partnered on a reception for members of the U.S. Congress where domestic workers shared their stories with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and discussed their vision for a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. In July, the two lawmakers announced plans to push the legislation.

"The level of public consciousness around who domestic workers are, the value of the work that they do, that's something that clearly shifted," says NDWA's Gender Justice Campaigns director Mónica Ramírez. "We saw expansion in the amount of public awareness there was around the domestic workers’ movement as a direct result to the film and the social-impact campaign that NDWA and Participant rolled out."

Ramírez says that she's seen a shift in conversation on the state and federal levels for domestic workers' rights and protections since Roma's release. In addition to the proposed federal legislation, there are efforts in Washington, D.C., to extend anti-discrimination laws to domestic workers. A domestic workers bill of rights also was recently introduced in Philadelphia.

"The introduction of these bills and local ordinances is tied to the long track record of domestic workers organizing over more than a decade. There's an increased pressure to do something to fix the situation," Ramírez says. "Now we have this very visible example [in Roma] of the ways in which domestic workers are being isolated and sometimes [experience different kinds of indignity] and harm. It spurred a public conversation that we weren't having in the same way before."

A Dual Vision

Canadian engineer Jeff Skoll became a Silicon Valley superstar as the first president of eBay, where he helped launch the eBay Foundation. A onetime major stockholder in the auction site, Skoll built his fortune there before exiting the company in 2001. He also founded the Skoll Foundation, which continues to invest in social entrepreneurship, before launching Participant Media.

In a 2007 TED Talk, Skoll said he had created the media company out of a combined desire to invest in organizations and businesses working for social change and to make morally compelling films such as Gandhi and Schindler's List — the kind of films that had inspired him but weren't being made at the time he founded the company.

In 2005, Participant Media launched its first slate of films, including the narrative features North CountrySyriana, and Good Night, and Good Luck, as well as the documentary Murderball. The company partnered with organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, PBS, and the Sierra Club on social campaigns in conjunction with those early films.

Participant Media began primarily as an investor in quality content, but it soon shifted to producing. "In the earlier years, the company came in primarily as a financier or co-financier of content," says Gabriel Brakin, Participant Media's COO. "It always had its mission of looking for content that inspires social change. We were always looking through that lens for the right type of content to get involved with."

In his eleven years at Participant Media, Brakin has seen the company embark on a "steady evolution" from financing and working with partners, to co-financing projects, to taking the "lead from a creative perspective on 80 percent to 90 percent of the projects that we're involved with at this point. The world is catching up to the vision that Jeff had when he started [Participant] that our company really has to [make] a positive contribution to society."

In 2017, Participant Media became a certified B Corporation, a designation for businesses that "balance purpose and profit" by using business for good. 

"Social impact and responsibility are in our DNA," says Participant Media CEO David Linde of the B Corp designation. "Changing the world for the better is why we were formed and remains central to our mission. [The] B Corp Certification not only allows us the opportunity to learn from our peers, it reinforces and reflects our continued commitment to inspire, empower, and connect audiences worldwide around today's most [critical] issues."

Adapting to Consumer Tastes

Participant Media currently produces up to six narrative feature films, five documentary films, three episodic TV series, and more than thirty hours of digital short-form programming annually through its digital subsidiary, SoulPancake.

Since Holly Gordon joined the company in 2017, she's overseen the launch of social-impact campaigns around this content, including the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG and its narrative counterpart, On the Basis of Sex.

Even with Participant Media's success in tapping socially relevant content, Gordon repeatedly faces the question of how to use storytelling to deliver maximum impact. With RBG and On the Basis of Sex, she had to navigate the wave of national conversations about sexual harassment and women's equality upon her arrival at the company. The 2017 Women's March and the #MeToo and Time's Up campaigns provided additional opportunities to delve into Ginsburg's career as a lawyer and spark conversations around women's equality in law firms before expanding those discussions to other companies. 

"What if we could use RBG as a way to create visibility for the commitment at the corporate level, at the senior leadership level, to gender equity and workplace equity?" Gordon says about her thinking at the time. "Give law firms and companies a way to talk to their employees about their own commitment to these issues of equity, and, externally, give them a way to share with their community, either through pro bono work that lifts women or, again, their commitment to lifting women within the community."

Participant Media teamed with Lyft, Bank of America, Salesforce, and advocacy organizations like the ACLU to host more than seventy screenings of the documentary that were tailored to law firms and corporations, including Bank of America. Screenings of the film encouraged transparent discussions about women's visibility and roles within the company.

"We talked about those women in leadership, the number of women that we employ at the bank, our board composition, the number of programs," says Pam Seagle, Bank of America’s global manager for women's programs. "Sometimes they were able to take it down to a local [level] by talking about justice organizations that we support that are there for women.

"There’s a real connection in what they're [Participant Media] doing and what we're doing. Overall, it really helped support both our women's and influencer strategy."

Participant Media’s social mission for gender rights also extends globally. Its 2018 film A Fantastic Woman is a dramatic story about a Chilean trans woman, played by trans actress Daniela Vega, who struggles to cope with her grief following the sudden death of her partner and the subsequent isolation and violence she's subjected to as a trans woman. The buzz around the film catalyzed a gender-visibility campaign in Chile, and the film's cast and crew were received at the Presidential Palace of then Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, where Vega delivered a speech about the need for identification markers for transgender people. A few months later, Chile adopted new laws for gender markers on identification cards.

Over the past several years, Participant Media has expanded into the streaming market — notably with Roma and its first scripted series, Ava DuVernay's When They See Us — to keep pace with the public's changing viewing habits. "We've been sort of leveraging the brand that we've built to move into television, and that's been an organic response to how the business is evolving," Gabriel Brakin says. "TV has become much higher quality, with a much higher budget. Some of the economics of television have shifted as streamers have entered that world. All of a sudden you've got the same or higher budgets available to you to produce on the TV side." 

Participant Media has a new slate of projects in the works across film and streaming platforms, including Slay the Dragon, about election gerrymandering; Just Mercy, which deals with criminal justice reform; and Dark Waters, about Americans' exposure to harmful chemicals in drinking water.

The media landscape has changed dramatically in the years since Jeff Skoll had his initial big-screen vision. But Participant Media, like other Silicon Valley success stories, has demonstrated a consistent ability to adapt.

Tracy E. Gilchrist is the feminist editor at The Advocate. This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of the magazine with the headline "Movies That Matter."