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Forbes Piece by Jeff Skoll

Participant Media Founder Jeff Skoll On The Power Of A Good Story


When I was a kid, I read a lot. By the time I was a teenager I formed a view that the world of the future might not be pleasant, with overpopulation, competition for resources and terrible new weapons and wars. I wanted to be a writer and tell stories to get people interested in the big issues. I didn’t think that would be the best way to make a living, though, so I decided to become an entrepreneur. Fortunately I was the first full-time employee and president of eBay. When the company went public in 1998, I suddenly had more resources than I could imagine.

A few years later I revisited my childhood dream of telling stories that would change the world. I realized I didn’t have to write them myself but could hire writers and, better still, turn stories into movies, TV shows and other forms.

In 2004 I started Participant Media to tell stories to inspire and compel social change. I was met with encouraging remarks like, “The streets of Hollywood are littered with the carcasses of people who thought they were going to make movies in this town.” Or, “The surest way to become a millionaire is to start as a billionaire and go into the movie business.”

In 2005 we released our first four movies: Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, Murderball and North Country. They earned 11 Oscar nominations. North Country was about the groundbreaking sexual harassment lawsuit that had led to the original Violence Against Women Act. Now we were concerned that the act would not be renewed. While Congress debated the issue we screened the film on Capitol Hill and met with legislators. Partly as a result, the act passed.

In 2006 we went to Sundance with two films. I was convinced that one would be a big hit but the other would go straight to PBS. Of course, I got them exactly backwards. The World According to Sesame Street went straight to PBS, and An Inconvenient Truth became one of the biggest documentaries of all time. It won the Oscar for best documentary, and Americans who believed climate change was a serious problem rose from 33% before the film to 87% immediately after. Al Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And five countries incorporated An Inconvenient Truth into their high school curricula.

To date Participant has released 44 films, including Lincoln, The Help, Contagion, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Charlie Wilson’s War, Waiting For “Superman” and The Kite Runner. Every film is paired with a social action campaign that puts its issue front and center. We put the campaigns online through TakePart, our digital home for social activists, which gets about 4 million unique users a month.

One of the best parts of being in Hollywood is working with celebrities who have their hearts in the right place. From Matt Damon to George Clooney, Natalie Portman to Charlize Theron, we have found good people doing good things. It is an honor to help advance their good causes.

This year we embarked on a new adventure, launching a TV channel called Pivot on Aug. 1. The channel will be for TV what our movies have been for film, entertainment that inspires and compels social change.

After a decade of this work I still love a story well told, and I even occasionally get to write.

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Participant MediaAbout Participant Media

Founded in 2004 by Jeff Skoll, Participant Media’s (www.participantmedia.com) content combines the power of a good story well told with opportunities for real world impact and awareness around the most pressing global issues of our time. As an industry content leader, Participant annually produces up to six narrative feature films, five documentary films, three episodic television series, and more than 40 hours of digital short form programming, through its digital subsidiary SoulPancake—all aimed at entertainment that inspires social awareness and engaging audiences to participate in positive social change. Participant’s content and social impact mandate speaks directly to the rise of today’s “conscious consumer,” representing over 2 billion consumers who are compelled to make impactful content a priority focus. Through its worldwide network of traditional and digital distribution, aligned with partnerships with key non-profit and NGO organizations, Participant is positioned uniquely within the industry to engage a rapidly growing audience while bringing global awareness and action to today’s most vital issues.

Participant’s more than 80 films, including Spotlight, Contagion, Lincoln, The Help, He Named Me Malala, The Look of Silence, CITIZENFOUR, Food, Inc. and An Inconvenient Truth, have collectively earned 56 Academy Award® nominations and 12 wins, including Best Picture for Spotlight and Best Foreign Language Film for A Fantastic Woman. Participant’s digital entertainment division, SoulPancake (www.soulpancake.com), is an award-winning provider of thought-provoking, joyful, and uplifting digital content including such widely popular series as Kid President and The Science of Happiness and reaches an audience of nearly 9 million fans. Follow Participant Media on Twitter and on Facebook and Instagram. Follow SoulPancake on Twitter and on Facebook and Instagram.