Jeff Skoll's Participant Media: A Business, or a Hobby?

Participant is making fine movies, but no money, by the admission of Jeff Skoll. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi's Imagenation may have had enough

There’s an interesting story in Monday’s New York Times about how Participant, backed by eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll and run by James Berk, has in seven years failed to turn a profit while trying to make movies that promote social change.

This is a discussion I’ve had at least three times over the years with Skoll, as I've tried to understand whether his real purpose is to run a business, or to change the world.

On every occasion he’s told me that his aim is both, but that he absolutely intends for the company to turn a profit.

He’s still making that argument. “This is the very early stage, as far as I’m concerned,” Skoll told the Times, acknowledging that he has invested “hundreds of millions to date, with much more to follow.”

How long will that last? Perhaps a very long time. Skoll freely offers in the article that he has given about $1.5 billion of his personal wealth to philanthropic work.

So money is not the object.

Still, Participant was supposed to be different, but the studio has had one financial flameout after another with its films, most recently with “The Beaver.” That, despite winning Oscars for “The Cove,” the documentary about dolphin-killing in Japan, and “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore’s environmental tour de force. 

Last year’s hope for the Oscar, “Waiting for Superman,” a doc about education, stalled out early in the season after garnering good buzz and valiant marketing efforts. It made $6 million, a lot for a doc, but not the kind of numbers that keep a studio in business.

Meanwhile, Participant’s flame-outs have given pause to one of their partners. I’ve learned that Imagenation, the Abu Dhabi film fund now under new management (Michael Garin and Frank Mooty have taken over in the wake of $100 million in losses) does not intend to renew the $250 million funding deal they have with Skoll.

Also read: Meltdown at Abu Dhabi’s Imagenation: $100M Losses, Executives Ousted

Abu Dhabi is already knee deep in another high-cost movie, financing half of Matt Damon-Steven Soderbergh movie, “Contagion,” which one source told me has a production cost of $80 million.

As an aside, one of Participants’ films is a documentary about the New York Times, called “Page One,” which screened at Sundance this year. There’s a beautifully tortured paragraph in the piece about Times reporters’ travel expenses related to promoting the movie which makes no sense unless you understand the the paper’s unique paranoia. I am guessing no one on earth cares but them, but I paste it here for your general amusement:

(In promoting “Page One,” some Times employees have made appearances for which expenses were paid by various film festivals, and one promotional trip by a reporter was paid for by Magnolia, which receives a contribution from Participant for social action screenings and panels. Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for The New York Times Company, said The Times would reimburse Magnolia for the trip.)

But we digress.

Perhaps Skoll should just admit that this is not an enterprise based on financial imperatives. It’s a hobby. One that may help improve society, raise consciousness and create change where it’s desperately needed.

But so far it’s not really a business. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.