Participant Media's Dynamic Duo Jim Berk and Ricky Strauss (Q&A)
Billionaire Jeff Skoll's production and co-financing shop is on top with "The Help" and "Contagion" as its leaders look to bring their social activism next to Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln."
The house that billionaire Jeff Skoll built is a happy place these days. Participant Media CEO Jim Berk, 51, and president Ricky Strauss, 44, are enjoying back-to-back box-office success with The Help and Contagion. Thirty-six films in -- including two Oscar-winning documentaries, An Inconvenient Truth and The Cove -- Berk and Strauss have succeeded in fulfilling Skoll's mission to combine moviemaking with social activism.
When Skoll, who was in on the start of eBay, formed Participant in 2004, the Hollywood establishment thought he was just another billionaire wanting to bask in the glitz and glamour of showbiz. The naysayers were wrong. Participant's first big movie, Syriana, came early on -- as did its first dud, North Country (another low point was the May release The Beaver). Help is Participant's top-grossing movie so far, earning $171.4 million to date, and Contagion has turned in a handy $76.2 million.
The company has become a trusted studio partner and grown its own ranks to 70 full-time employees (plus an army of interns). Like Skoll, Berk -- a high school principal-turned-CEO -- was a Hollywood outsider. He headed several companies, including Hard Rock Cafe International, and was founding executive director of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences Foundation (he's got a sophisticated-rocker vibe). Berk lives in Beverly Hills with his wife, Jane -- their two daughters are in their early 20s -- and walks to work two days a week. The eloquent and always-smiling Strauss is a veteran production and marketing executive who lives in Hancock Park with his longtime partner, Tom Newman, an architect.
How did you find and develop The Help? Why do you think audiences like it? Was it difficult finding a studio partner before DreamWorks came aboard?
Strauss: I was on vacation when I read the book, and I knew it was a movie for sure. The best opportunity is when you have a story that's socially relevant but happens to be very commercial and entertaining. The Help is very approachable but has meaningful themes about human rights.
Berk: Almost every studio passed, but we've gone from film to film with DreamWorks, and they totally get what we do.
What is your next big project?
Strauss: We're going to partner with DreamWorks and co-finance Lincoln. To work with Steven [Spielberg] and follow the legacy of The Help with a movie about Abraham Lincoln feels very important.
Where is Participant's focus these days?
Berk: First, you have to get your core film business in order, which we've done. We're ramping up to do anywhere from seven to 12 films a year, from about six to nine. We're also moving into television and expanding our digital presence. Jeff brought me here in 2006 and said he wanted this to be a global media company. We've made key investments and are one of the two largest shareholders of Summit Entertainment. Vampires have been very good to us.
When you started making movies, be it Syriana or Good Night, and Good Luck, cause marketing and social activism were unusual concepts.
Berk: It's interesting because when we started, studios said, "Don't do it at all." Then it became, "OK, you can do it around the DVD release." Next, it was, "OK, you can do it when the film is released." Now these campaigns, which start before a film is released, are contractually required.
When did it change?
Berk: With The Visitor and An Inconvenient Truth. And then we got to a movie like The Soloist, and it was all about Nathaniel Ayers and the homeless. You had 1,000 orchestras generating over 1 million pounds of food for homeless shelters, and you had 300,000 pairs of gently worn jeans that were donated to shelters for teens leading up to the release of the film.
You've backed an impressive slate of feature documentaries, from Murderball to Food, Inc., but aren't they financially risky?
Berk: Documentaries are our primary social engagement tool in terms of being out front and center with the issues. That's the main purpose driving that side of the business. And Diane Weyermann, who heads up our documentary division, is the queen of all docs [the equally respected Jonathan King runs features].
On the feature side, what are your criteria?
Strauss: Quality, social relevance and commercial viability. The reality is, if a movie doesn't get an audience, we're not going to have a social impact. Everything is looked at with that retail sense, but then again, the whole mandate of the company is to inspire audiences to act and think differently. Embedded in films like Contagion are socially relevant themes that are being presented in a mainstream way. I always say, you have to hide the medicine in the popcorn.
Contagion seems like an especially tough sell. Disease isn't exactly a box-office draw.
Strauss: We take such pride of ownership in both Contagion and The Help because they were with us from the beginning. Contagion is a movie we developed with Steven [Soderbergh] and Scott [Burns]. The idea came from a scene in The Informant! where Matt Damon takes a phone after someone has sneezed on it and has a monologue in his head about how he's going to get sick, how his kids are going to get sick and it's going to ruin the whole weekend. When we found out that Steven really did want to take the project on and Scott was going to author the script from scratch, we were absolutely going to pay for development.
Is it true that you consulted with the CDC and the scientific community on Contagion? Do you think it has pushed the issue of pandemics to the forefront?
Berk: Yes. There's all this conversation about the movie. And there's been a groundswell of opposition to a reduction in the budget of the CDC. There's even a movement out of the film for an early-warning biosystem, though that's not what we set out for. We want the individual to feel empowered that they now have information they can use to make certain choices.
Is Jeff Skoll involved in the decision-making process as to what films you make?
Berk: From the standpoint of what our mandate is, we're not going to stray from Jeff's mission. Jeff's hand in this is very direct. We're a consensus organization. We get in a room with a document that each of the divisions has submitted [marketing, social action, digital], and the group decides whether it is worth pursuing. There has never been a time in my tenure here where Jeff has disagreed with the group.
What happens when one of your films, like The Kite Runner or The Beaver, becomes embroiled in its own controversy?
Berk: We look at it like any other company in terms of determining if the right thing was done. If not, how do you make it right?
Strauss: And, like any other company, we rely on very talented public-relations people.
Is Participant economically viable? Some say Skoll has poured hundreds of millions into the company.
Berk: This has been a very good year for Participant. We budget a slate, and we have returns on a slate. Sometimes we blow past it, and sometimes we miss it. Overall, we're doing very well. One of the great privileges of working here is that Jeff is incredibly generous about what we're able to do.
Why did Jeff leave Participant as CEO after two years?
Berk: It was very much like eBay. He's an entrepreneur, a creator who comes in and sets what he wants into place. There's a story Jeff tells about how you become a millionaire in Hollywood -- start with a billion dollars and invest in movies. When he came to town, everybody thought it was easy money, but he spent a year meeting and greeting, having lunches and working out of a corner of Peter Schlessel's office at Sony. This is the smallest company I've ever run, but it's unlike anything I've ever seen.
Strauss: Like a marching band.
PARTICIPANT MEDIA'S BOX-OFFICE REEL: The company's diverse slate of features and documentaries includes these top earners.
- The Help (2011): $171.4 million*
- Charlie Wilson's War (2007): $119 million
- Syriana (2005): $94 million
- Contagion (2011): $76 million
The Kite Runner (2007): $73.3 million
* Still in release. All figures worldwide. Source: BoxofficeMojo
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