Q&A: Participant Media's Jim Berk


PARK CITY -- Five years into its mission to make both issue-oriented entertainment and money, Jeff Skoll's Participant Media can now develop its own projects, fully finance them thanks in part to $250 million from Abu Dhabi's Imagenation, and get them into theaters via one-off arrangements or its five-year, nonexclusive, 15-feature distribution pact with Summit. Now Participant and its CEO Jim Berk are reaping the benefits of those deals with a broad slate of films, including next month's bio-toxin horror pic "The Crazies" and April's environmental-themed family comedy "Furry Vengeance." He's also making a splash at Sundance with four documentaries, including Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for Superman," about the troubled U.S. public education system, which Paramount picked up last week.

The Hollywood Reporter: You might have the best job in the film business because your films don't necessarily have to be financial hits to be successful.

Jim Berk: It's a unique position because we have this double bottom line. One part of our mission is entertainment that inspires people for social change. But on the other side, we're a for-profit company. Sometimes those goals are very much aligned and sometimes they're not. So you balance.

THR: How often do you say to Jeff, "We will probably lose money on this"?

Berk: It's a credit to what Jeff set up that we don't sit and have individual conversations with Jeff. A film could lose money but actually be "profitable" for us in terms of its impact on the issue. Look at a film like "The Soloist," which had an impact of 250,000 pairs of jeans collected across the country and distributed to the homeless. Programing in schools across the country. Tool kits were created. It was a massive undertaking.

THR: But the film lost money.

Berk: Well, we don't know that yet. (Laughs.) Yes, it wasn't a financial success at the boxoffice, but the film had an impact. You look at whether the social impact equalizes that loss. It's a portfolio approach. Some will be successful, some will be modest, some will not be. And we accept that going into it.

THR: Despite that dual-goal approach, you attracted a significant investment from a for-profit entity in Imagenation. How do you manage expectations in that relationship?

Berk: The partnership with Imagenation was based on them looking at our films and saying, "Those are the types of films we want to be associated with." We were very clear from the start what our mission is, what we focus on, our positioning in the marketplace.

THR: But if you told them what you just told me about "The Soloist," what would they say?

Berk: From a financial standpoint, we have the same measurements as other for-profit companies. We want to make money. We have these two measures of success, but the financial one is equally important to us. They want to be involved in films that have social impact. For them, it's a long-term establishment of a brand.

THR: Did the oil-money background of the company ever raise a red flag, given Participant's mission and the types of films you make?

Berk: No. The controls are in place to allow us to continue with our business plan unabated. The reality is we're taking that money and leveraging it for the public good. We're the same company that financed "Syriana." We said, "This is what we do. We take on issues." Participant's position is we don't have a position that's left, right, conservative, liberal -- we're open to all issues.

THR: The Sundance crowd loved "Waiting for Superman" but wondered how Paramount will sell it to the masses. What's the plan?

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Berk: When you take an issue like the American education system, there is a core audience of people who are activated around that issue. From PTAs to reform groups to people involved in the various reform schools and charters, and public schools that have reformed and public schools that haven't reformed. How do we engage that audience and build up an amount of visibility and credibility around the film? We have a network of 116 (nonprofits) that represent 47 million people in the country through our social action network. We will interact and market to them. And separate from all the traditional things that Paramount will do, we have an advocacy division that creates digital content, curriculum and organizational outreach that reaches millions of people before a film comes out.

THR: Bill Gates is in the film. How involved will he be in the release?

Berk: Bill said to us that he's committed to do whatever it takes to make sure this film gets as wide an audience as possible.

THR: Will he contribute money to the marketing budget?

Berk: I would expect that over the coming months you'll see a series of very positive announcements around this film. Corporations and organizations are going to be heavily involved. It's clear that Bill, (education reformer) Geoffrey (Canada) and others, by putting themselves in it, are committed to doing whatever they need to make sure the film is successful.

THR: When studios or agents pitch you, should they focus more on the commerciality of a project or the social-change aspect?

Berk: Yes. (Laughs)