Toronto: Jeff Skoll Wants Participant Media in Every Country in 10 Years

7:20 AM PST 09/07/2013 by Etan Vlessing
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Jeff Skoll

The Silicon Valley billionaire talked about exponential growth for a company tackling tough social issues, rather than aiming only to win the weekend box office.

TORONTO – It was just another day at the office for Participant Media CEO Jim Berk, where his boss Jeff Skoll dreams the world and leaves his top executives to execute on the vision.

"My dream is that Participant is producing content in every language in every part of the world," Participant Media founder Skoll told a moguls panel at the Toronto Film Festival on Friday when asked about his foreign-language production.

"I believe 10 years from now, the majority of our content will be in languages other than English, and [produced] in countries other than the United States," he added.

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That bold statement prompted Berk to break in, telling the Glenn Gould Studio audience: "You see, he does this all the time. He goes to a public forum and tells you about something he wants to do 10 years from now, [how] he's going to put us in every country."

Then, Berk said, they'll exit the stage and Skoll will tell his top execs to fulfill the promise.

Skoll, a Silicon Valley billionaire who planted roots in Hollywood 10 years ago, plays in the film game with his own money -- but that didn't gain him easy entry.

Upon first arriving in Los Angeles, Skoll found no shortage of studio heads willing to put his money to work on their film slate. But he countered with his vision of a company working in the public interest to make socially responsible films. Talk like that will cause a lot of eyes to start glazing over.

"One of the lines that people kept saying [to me] is, 'The streets of Hollywood are littered with the corpses of people like you who think you're going to come to this town to make movies,'" Skoll remembered.

But the dot-com entrepreneur also recalled those Hollywood execs speaking passionately about movies they'd made that dealt with an issue close to their hearts, whether it was AIDS, foster care or women's rights.

So in 2004 Skoll started Participant Media with the mission of making more of the type of socially conscious films that spur debate and activism, knowing he'd get Hollywood's support.

And it get it he did.

An early break came when former Warner Bros. head Alan Horn backed Participant's first three movies: Syriana; Goodnight, and Good Luck; and North Country.

"That got us on the map," Skoll recalled.

After the success of global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Participant grew its film slate to include recent box-office winners like Contagion, The Help, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Lincoln.

Participant also brought The Fifth Estate to open TIFF on Thursday night.

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Skoll also cited Pivot, launched Aug. 1, as part of Participant's shift into TV, another plank in his grand vision.

"This is only the start," he insisted, as Skoll cited a mantra of "10x in 10 years" for company growth.

"If we have 220 employees [currently], I'd imagine 2,000-plus -- and I'd like to be in every country in the world; I'd like to be tackling issues of concern in different geographies and different languages, and have multiple channels in different countries. So there's a lot to go," he told the TIFF audience.

You can imagine the shifting in seats at that moment for Berk and his other top executives.

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