How Participant Media Tries to Spark Social Change Through Film

This edition of the Business of Giving features David Linde, CEO of Participant Media. Participant is an independent media production company founded by Jeffrey Skoll of the Skoll Foundation. Participant Media is dedicated to spurring social change around the world, and Linde discusses how many of its movies, TV shows, and digital programs arise from social-impact campaigns. Films include An Inconvenient Truth, Roma, Human Flow, and the recent Dark Waters and Just Mercy. Media like this is achieving new levels of commercial success and reaching millions of viewers through streaming services.

To accelerate activism on issues like climate change and the global refugee crisis, Participant works with artists, distributors, as well as “NGOs, foundations, and nonprofits all around the world who are doing the boots-on-the ground work.”

Listen to the podcast, which is hosted by Denver Frederick, or read the transcript below.

Denver: It is a real challenge to create extraordinary content that will inspire social change, while also being commercially viable, but a company that is doing that with exceptional skill is Participant. And it’s a pleasure to have with us tonight their Chief Executive Officer David Linde. Good evening, David, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

David: Thank you.

Denver: Participant is a 15-year-old company. Tell us how it got started, David, and who’s behind this idea?

David: The company is the brainchild of Jeff Skoll, who was the first employee of eBay. He created the company, as you said, 15 years ago under the very, very basic belief that very, very high-quality storytelling can be inspirational to audiences in trying to attach themselves to positive social change around the world.

Denver: He was a little bit ahead of his time.

David: Completely.

Denver: You have an exceptional roster of films, starting with An Inconvenient Truth, that have inspired cultural conversations on really relevant and vital topics. Tell our listeners some of the other films that you guys have produced or financed.

David: What we try to do is: we’re trying to make movies that are about a conversation – or TV shows or short form digital content – but everything that we make should be about an important conversation. And four or five times a year, we take these specific pieces of content, and we try to essentially ramp them up towards what we call “social impact campaigns” in conjunction with the release of the movie or the television show. But films that you mentioned, like An Inconvenient Truth, but most recently Spotlight, Roma, Green Book, The Post in the narrative feature department… We have an amazing documentary out on Netflix right now called American Factory that we’re incredibly proud of. But a lot of what we do, we like to think about our content in terms of three different types of change: behavioral, cultural, and institutional. One of my favorite movies that I always think about consistently is Food, Inc. where you literally saw legitimate behavioral change around the world, around people who decided that they would actually address the way they ate every single day to improve their lives.

Denver: There are so many issues out there right now and so many great stories. How do you choose what films to work on?

David: Unbeknownst to a lot of people, we are probably one of the biggest independent creators of content in Hollywood. We make or invest in about four or five narrative feature films every year; four or five documentary films every year; up to three television series; and another about 30 hours of short-form digital content, which is distributed through our YouTube channel called SoulPancake. Each one of those strands of content has its own department that is constantly out there looking for and developing new ideas. But, to be honest, we really, really rely on artists. Our very strong belief is that artists can effectively see around the corner on an issue. If you try to make a movie that’s just to issue, you’re going to end up making spinach, and nobody likes spinach. A really good example would be a documentary that we made about the global refugee crisis a couple of years ago by Ai Weiwei called Human Flow. We had no idea when we got involved in the film that that issue would literally explode in Europe the exact summer that we brought the film out. We never would have anticipated that, but we believed that what Ai Weiwei was doing would be important.

Denver: Well, these artists that you talked about, they have an ability to see around the corner, and you have the ability to really trust them.

David: I’ve been around a long time.

Denver: You’ve talked about your target audience being the conscious consumer. What motivates that audience, and who is it comprised of?

David: We’ve talked a little bit about the films that we’ve made, so you can imagine the kind of audience that we typically have engaged with around our content. What’s happening around the world right now, especially with the growth of the Millennial and the Gen Z generations, is that they are increasingly looking at the world for as much value as they can get out of the transaction, quite honestly. A perfect example would be TOMS® shoes, which is you can buy shoes and actually make a contribution to somebody’s life. So, we believe strongly in that generation, and we believe strongly in trying to create content for them because they are actually leading. What they’re doing is they’re leading other consumers, their friends, their neighbors, their partners in actually trying to identify more value around the way that they spend their money.

Denver: You said a moment ago you’ve been around for a while, so let me ask you this: How do you use storytelling to deliver maximum impact?

David: We’re a partnership company. We partner with great artists who make great content. We have a distribution system around the world for all of our films and television shows with the best and strongest distributors in the world, which is vital because, quite honestly, if nobody sees your film, there is no social impact. So, distribution is really key. But what differentiates us as an entertainment company or as a media company is our partnerships with what we call “impact organizations”— NGOs, foundations, nonprofits all around the world, who are doing the boots-on-the- ground work around impact. What we do is we take the awareness factor that is created by a great movie, and we combine that with the work that these organizations are doing to effectively accelerate the work that’s going on. The way that I like to look at it is – and, obviously, we’re on the radio, so you’ll have to imagine what it is I’m doing – but you can see the work of great organizations like the Sierra Club or the International Rescue Committee who are sitting there day in, day out addressing the issues and contributing to real positive change; and here comes the movie, and the movie essentially pushes that campaign along a little bit. We’re not the organization that’s doing the work; the IRC and the Sierra Club are the ones doing the work. What we’re trying to do is make a contribution that effectively creates so much awareness– additional awareness around a specific issue– that people are inspired to actually join up.

Denver: Are there other points on that continuum? Because I’m thinking about the movie; I’m thinking about the awareness, and then you talk about at the other end, the action. How does it go from awareness to action? Are there some milestones along the way to help you get there?

David: Every piece of content is different, but the future for what we call impact media is that campaign or the work that’s being done is not singular. Typically, when you look at the work that’s being done around impact media, it tends to focus specifically around one movie. But movies have a lifespan of about 12 to 18 months, and then they begin to disappear; as Alfonso Cuarón likes to say, “They go into the library.” And I think that the future for the kind of work that we and others do is that it’s a sustained version of this work where the movie provides its version of an accelerant around social change, but the campaign itself lives well beyond just the life of a movie. I can give a couple examples in a few minutes, but that’s, I think, where digital short form really comes into play. As contentious as the conversation can be around these big platforms like Facebook and YouTube right now, one of the beauties of these platforms is the mass reach that they have. And what’s amazing about short form content is that it’s relatively inexpensive to make; you can make it very, very quickly; and you can reach an audience very, very quickly on a mass scale.

Denver: Let me ask about one or two of those examples, if I can, because we have a lot of nonprofit organizations who listen to this show. So, cite an example of a film and an NGO you work with, and the ultimate impact that was realized.

David: Well, this can be kind of a long answer, so I’m going to go for it, but it’s also the most current example of what I’m talking about, which is Roma. Roma came out well over a year ago. If you’d like to see it, you can see it on Netflix right now; you know where it is. We pursued two campaigns on Roma – one in Mexico and one in the United States. Here in the states, I think that’s probably not very well known that in the 1930s, when the National Labor Relations Act was passed, two forms of work were excluded: farm work and domestic work. It was obviously racially-based, and it was a “give” to the southern Democrats at the time. So domestic workers in this country really have no rights, have no social security, have no benefits program, do not have paid time off. And there’s an amazing organization called the National Domestic Workers Alliance – you know Ai-jen Poo who leads it—

Denver: She’s been on the show.

David: —who have been working for decades to bring these kinds of rights to domestic workers. We’ve been working very closely with them in creating awareness around the issue and actually trying to get a Bill of Rights passed in the United States for domestic workers. Last March, Senator Kamala Harris and Representative Jayapal began that process by sponsoring a national Bill of Rights for Domestic Workers.

Denver: Wow! So, you’re getting legislation, potentially.

David: Well, we’re contributing. What we’re doing is raising awareness through a beautiful movie, in a campaign that’s been going on for decades. And so, I would never want to put Participant out there to attributing that kind of work to us.

Denver: No, but it could be a tipping point sometimes.

David: Absolutely. In Mexico, there’s an amazing organization called CACEH, which has, literally for a decade now, been lobbying the Mexican Legislature and Senate to pass Social Security legislation for domestic workers in Mexico. Literally a decade. Alfonso Cuarón was absolutely focused on making a legitimate contribution to the work that CACEH was doing, and we partnered with them in not just getting people to see the movie, but actually having the conversation, going into the Senate, pulling them in through the movie, allowing them to identify with the issue at hand. And earlier this year, Social Security legislation was passed in Mexico, which was an incredible victory and something we’re really, really proud to have been involved with. But it doesn’t stop there. And this is what I’m talking about sustained impact. Social Security, of course, you have to sign up for it. And it’s not just the domestic worker, it’s also the employer because that’s where the benefits are coming from. So, we have been working with Wieden and Kennedy, which is the big creative advertising agency and brand agency. They, pro bono, are working with us to create a PSA in Mexico that explains – and it’s being directed by a friend of Alfonso, a director and cinematographer named Rodrigo Prieto; very, very high quality – which the Mexican government has agreed to broadcast across every television channel in Mexico. So, the sustained campaign is beginning to work. Roma is, right now, it’s a little bit in the library, but it lives through the campaign. It lives through the campaign work. What we’re hoping is that within two to four years, we’ll have all two-and-a-half million domestic workers signed up for Social Security in Mexico.

Denver: That is a great story. That really is. That really brings the point home. How do you decide what films you’re going to do a campaign around? It’s probably less than half the films you do. We see why you did it for Roma. Are there kinds of campaigns that just don’t lend themselves to that kind of outreach through a nonprofit?

David: Everything that we make really is about something, and it should spark a conversation. But we’re not that big of a company, and if we ran very robust social impact campaigns on everything that we did, we would have thousands of employees. So what we try to do is focus in on what we call four “flagship campaigns” every year, where a specific piece of content really lends itself to impact work that’s going on, where we are able to identify organizations that can benefit from working with us or can benefit from our working with them on a specific campaign that they’re engaged in. A good example, for instance, and one of the first things that I was able to engage in when I got to Participant was when we made An Inconvenient Truth sequel, and this I think is a relevant example. The Sierra Club has been and is actively out there trying to convert.. I think it’s 50 American cities…. to renewable energy by the year 2030. So, the movie itself is about converting to renewable energy. And so, we were able to partner with them in providing the movie to the kinds of convenings and meetings that they’re holding around the country to effectively put a little bit of gasoline in their campaign. The work that they’re doing is tremendous, but just to be able to give people the opportunity to spend 90 minutes actually seeing the work in progress is an incredible inspiration for people. So, we were really, really pleased to be working with them.

Denver: Just great stuff, David. Let me digress for a moment and ask you about nonprofit organizations who make their videos for their volunteers and their donors, and they show it at the gala, or they show it on their website or YouTube. Are there any common mistakes you think that many of them make?

David: I’m going to answer that question in an indirect, but direct way, which is the power of storytelling, I think, if I were to contextualize it in three words is: it has the ability to inspire people; the work that you’re describing through these organizations empowers people to actually take advantage of the inspiration that they’ve experienced; and last but not least, by connecting the two – inspiration and empowerment – you’re scaling, you’re connecting everybody together to scale up the work. I think that that’s the power of content. And so, I think that the important thing in creating something that you believe is representative of what it is that you’re trying to accomplish is to think about those three things: think about why the work that you’re doing is so inspirational; think about why the work you do is so empowering to people; and think about why, by connecting everybody around your work, you’re actually scaling up the work. And if you can capture that, which is not easy – and we have a lot of professionals who work really, really hard, making drafts and drafts and drafts of everything that we do – if you can capture those three things, it really works, and it’s incredibly satisfying.

Denver: Not easy, but it’s a good mental checklist for people who are trying to do that to have and work from.

David: And also, with technology changing so rapidly, you’ve had a lot of young people who are very, very talented, who are beginning to really express themselves in very, very exciting ways. People are becoming better at the kind of work that you’re doing because technology has enabled them to become better at it.

Denver: We all know that the movie industry is one challenging industry, and it can be even more difficult when you’re trying to find that sweet spot between social impact and commercial success. When you arrived, David, in 2015 at Participant, they were having some difficulty in doing just that. What are some of the things that you’ve done that helped get the company back on track?

David: We really followed Jeff’s vision, and you said it earlier, but 15 years ago, his idea that he expressed was prescient.

Denver: It sure was.

David: It’s what it is that we’ve been doing for 15 years. Lots of people are now joining us, which is fantastic. We welcome more participants, trust me. What Jeff asked me to do is refocus the company. The company had gotten into some businesses that it was at a disadvantage in. It was: the scale that you needed to compete in certain businesses lies with very, very big companies. So, we refocused the company around what it is that we do very, very well, which is content. And I gave the people who run the content division, which is run by an amazing woman named Diane Weyermann, who’s our chief content officer, gave them some more resources to be able to develop and control more material. I come from a film distribution background; that’s sort of in my blood.

Denver: You were the Chairman of Universal Pictures, among many other jobs in the industry.

David: And so I, with a lot of really talented executives at Participant, we rebuilt the distribution system around that content to give it the greatest opportunity to reach audiences.

Denver: Who are some of your distribution partners?

David: I wouldn’t say that we are distribution-agnostic, but we work with a lot of different companies, primarily because you don’t want a distributor to distribute something that they don’t feel connected to, or that they don’t value themselves. So, we spend a great deal of time targeting specific distributors for specific content, but: Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, Focus Features, Magnolia, Sony Classics, Netflix, Amazon. We’re in business with just about everybody.

Denver: And also, I might add, it just seems like it’s a good time to be at Participant. The timing of everything that’s going on, it really is a very sweet time to be doing this kind of work.

David: Look, it’s incredibly rewarding, but one of the reasons it’s so rewarding is because it’s working. When we made When They See Us, the television series that broadcast on Netflix earlier this year, it was seen by more people in the first week that it aired than any limited series in the history of Netflix.

Denver: Goodness!

David: So how valuable is that to watch a great artist like Ava DuVernay develop and curate and create an incredible piece of art and then see audiences around the world embrace it so quickly? And yes, it is about something. It is a story that needs to be seen. It is a conversation that needs to be had. And when it happens like that… you don’t have that experience in the film business very often. And it’s tremendous when we did so well at the Oscars last year – Participant’s a very young company. The average age is about 31 years old. You take me and a couple of other people out of the picture, and it drops below 30.

Denver: We don’t need to go there.

David: Well, my hair is gray. But one of the things I said last year, “We’re incredibly lucky. We won a bunch of Oscars for a couple of great films.” And I said to everybody afterwards, “It doesn’t happen that often. I’ve been around long enough to have had some success, but enjoy it.”

Denver: Right. This is not typical.

David: Right, not typical, but you did it. Enjoy it.

Denver: And you just underwent a major rebrand. What’s the message you want to deliver with that rebrand?

David: The message that we’re trying to get across is very straightforward, which is: there is a legitimate business now called impact media. We are at the confluence of art and activism, and that is a very, very powerful meeting point. We felt that after 15 years, we could begin to talk to the power of impact media, and we could begin to allow people to identify with the kind of work that we and others do. That’s what we’re trying to get across. But the other thing that we’re trying to get across is very straightforward, which is: we’re not alone and we’re not the only ones doing it, but we want you to come and join us. And we mean it: Participants wanted.

Denver: Well, let me ask you that. On the whole, do you think the industry is living up to its responsibility in terms of creating that kind of impact, that social responsibility? And if there are places they need to get better at, what would those be?

David: I think that if anybody sits on their laurels and says, “Oh gee whiz. We did really well today, so we can sit back and have a second cup of coffee,” then we’re all making a tremendous mistake. I think that the industry – because I presume what we’re talking really about is Hollywood and the media business – is I think what we’re seeing is the industry is beginning to embrace change. They’re doing it for several reasons. One of which is they understand that it’s an obligation. They understand that it’s something that their employees want; it’s something that they understand they have an obligation to their community and to society; and they’re digging in and trying to find ways of doing it, and doing it what I would call “authentically” and in real life terms that have real positive effect on the people who work at these large companies. So, I’m encouraged. I’m seeing a lot of really good work around especially inclusion and diversity right now, which is exciting to me. I think one of the opportunities for companies these days is to take leadership roles because there is no specific way that you have to go about creating a more, in this case, inclusive environment for the people that work for you. But I also think it’s a business opportunity. You see big, for instance, big financial institutions like BlackRock literally saying to the world, “We have that obligation. And if we don’t adopt a more proactive and dynamic approach to our business and how we can make a contribution to the world, then we as businesses will suffer.” I think that that’s something that we as a company like to reflect – that we have that obligation, but it’s not just an obligation to do better. It’s an obligation to change because that’s what our consumers, and that’s what our employees are asking us to do, and they are right.

Denver: David, let me ask you about the role of technology in the entertainment industry. What advancements or developments do you feel have the most promising effect on storytelling?

David: I get asked all the time: What’s the world going to look like next year when all these big streaming services start? And when I talk about the streaming services for the audience, Netflix is obviously the biggest one, but the big media companies Disney, Comcast, Warner Media are all creating competing platforms or services to Netflix. So when people say “What’s the world going to look like in a year?” The answer is: I have no idea! But what I do know is that – and quite honestly, I’m a big believer in film. I come from film. I’m a big, big believer in the theatrical experience, and I do worry about the effect of streaming on the stability of the theatrical business. But I’m also an optimist, and I believe in the audience, and I believe in how audiences embrace content, and they’re interested in embracing it in as many ways as possible. But the beauty of streaming is the reach. We had a lovely movie that we licensed to Netflix called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. It was Chiwetel Ejiofor’s first film that he directed that we sold to Netflix. And while we’re not allowed to say how many people saw that… The streamers are very, very conscious of controlling or keeping data to themselves, but they were very cooperative in talking about how and who saw the movie. But tens of millions of people saw the movie. Tens of millions of people saw this incredibly beautiful, important story about a young boy in Malawi who saved his community. And those are the kinds of stories that we love, and the ability to reach tens of millions of people, as opposed to perhaps millions of people, is really, really exciting because you can just imagine the effect on our impact partners. They’re hoping that as many people are going to see the movie as possible. And suddenly, Bang! You’re connecting to tens of millions of people. That’s really exciting.

Denver: And they see it so quickly, as you said before. The intensity of the experience, it kind of is just viral. It’s not over a long period of time.

David: And also, I think that the other thing is, what I do think is going to happen is I think these streaming services will increasingly create communities. I think that they will have to be able to differentiate themselves in how they engage with their own consumers, and one of the ways that they’ll do that is create communities of conversation. That’s fantastic for impact because you can access those communities to actually then connect them to your impact partners and the work that’s being done, and that then scales everything.

Denver: I think you’ve called it the “fourth act.”

David: Yes. I have called it the “fourth act.”

Denver: Let me close with this, David. What’s ahead? What’s around the corner? What should we all be waiting for?

David: On November 22, we release through Focus Features a beautiful movie directed by Todd Haynes called Dark Waters, which stars and was produced by Mark Ruffalo. It’s the true story of Rob Bilott who is a lawyer and activist. It’s a thrilling story of his uncovering the scandal around the creation of Teflon and DuPont and the poisoning of tens of thousands of people around the world. You won’t see where the movie is going, and when you get there, you’ll be really amazed by how he got there. It’s really edge-of-the-seat, but also beautifully emotional and engaging because this is a real life human being. Very much in the tradition of Spotlight, for instance. And then later in December, we were incredibly fortunate to be invited by Warner Brothers to partner on a movie that they’ve made called Just Mercy, which is a story of an amazing advocate that maybe many of your listeners may know, Bryan Stevenson who runs the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. This is a movie about how people change the world, right? Bryan Stevenson is changing the narrative of this country. And to see how he started and how he connected to this one man, and how he and his organization dedicated years of their lives to freeing this man and getting him off of Death Row and allowing him to breathe fresh air again – I’ve never seen anything like it before. To be able to see how it happened and how it happens in such an incredibly dramatic and gripping way… it’s amazing, and we’re incredibly proud of it.

Denver: You have a great job, you know that?

David: Thank you very much.

Denver: Well, David Linde, the CEO of Participant, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening and for a great conversation. Where do people go to access some of this content? Do they go to those distributors you talked about, or are there things on your website, or online? What would you recommend?

David: You can always check us out online. We have a website, participant.com, which will guide you both to where the movies are and where the campaigns are.

Denver: Well, thanks, David. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.

David: Thanks so much.

Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.

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How Participant Media Tries to Spark Social Change Through Film

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