His goal: To get film audiences worked up enough about something that they've seen on the big screen to get involved. Skoll has some Hollywood heavyweights in his corner: George Clooney, who stars in both Good Night and Syriana, and Oscar winners Matt Damon and Charlize Theron, who star in Syriana and North Country, respectively. BusinessWeek's Jessi Hempel recently spoke with Skoll about his desire to make a difference and why he's looking to Hollywood. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Can you tell me a bit about what you're trying to do with Participant Productions?
The goal is to be a long-term, independent, sustainable media company focused on the public interest. Today, we're focused on feature films and documentaries.
Where did your idea for this company come from?
When I was a kid, I used to read a ton. I was 14 or 15, and I had a sense a lot of problems were developing in the world -- pollution, environmental problems, terrible new weapons and diseases. I thought they had a lot to do with ignorance -- particularly ignorance on the part of people who could actually make a difference. The suburbs were ignoring the crumbling inner cities, and rich nations were ignoring what was going on in developing nations.
And I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to tell stories that showed the world was a small and interconnected place?" That was the early genesis of what became this new company -- Participant -- which was designed to tell stories about important things going on in the world and how to make a difference. Once I had the resources, it struck me film and TV was the most effective way to reach a lot of people in an effective way.
Is Participant a nonprofit?
Well, we'll see [laughter]. It's not set up as nonprofit profit because it's very difficult to do these kinds of projects under a nonprofit rubric. But for me, it's philanthropy. I don't expect ever to see any money come back to me personally. Everything that would come back gets rolled into more projects of this kind.
What do you do in addition to funding a portion of each film?
For every film, we put together a social-action campaign. For example, with North Country, our partners are the National Organization of Women, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and the Family Violence Prevention Fund, among others. Harassment and discrimination and domestic violence are still, unfortunately, big problems in this country, and we're trying to raise awareness and get people involved.
Why doesn't Hollywood make more of these types of films?
The traditional system of media doesn't really cater to the public interest. Before I started the company, I came to Los Angeles and spent a lot of time with writers, actors, directors, people in the studios, and I was asking those very questions. The Hollywood system is really set up for safe bets -- sequels, superhero stories, romantic comedies, things like that. The studios actually don't put out that many movies every year.
Will Hollywood folks work for less money to be involved with your projects?
Absolutely. Every actor and every writer seemed to have a cause they cared about. Their causes were often different -- it might be the environment, refugees, AIDS -- but there was something they were so passionate about and if there was a film that dealt with that issue in a compelling way, these people wanted to be a part of it. A lot of people have taken a haircut off their normal [salary] so they could be part of these films.
How do you measure the company's success?
For us, the most important metric is that we make a difference in the causes that we're highlighting in each of these films. In the foundation world, it's often hard to measure your effect because the measures aren't hard and fast. That said, we will measure what we can measure. For example, all of our campaigns will live on a Web site called participate.net.
Some of the things we'll measure are contributions made directly to these [nonprofit] partners and the number of people who sign up and are active on the site. Also, the number of people who sign petitions and the number of people who bring in other people who get involved.