Q&A: Jeff Skoll And Jim Berk On Participant Media

Mike Fleming Jr. is Deadline’s film editor. This article appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of AwardsLine.

While it’s typical for film directors to build their careers on their mastery of particular genres and themes, few producers approach their work with a specific angle. But Participant Media’s founder and chairman Jeff Skoll and CEO Jim Berk are taking the road not taken by many studios when it comes to shepherding great cinema: Financing and developing socially conscious films geared toward adults, titles that are bolstered by their advocacy campaigns. Following Skoll’s success as eBay’s first president and full-time employee, Participant enabled his dream to create stories that would enlighten viewers to the globe’s most daunting issues. Berk, the former CEO and president of Hard Rock Café, continues to extend Participant’s financial arm and its brand with TakePart.com, a social-action website. Skoll has served as executive producer on 41 films that have collectively received a total of five Oscars and 22 noms, and this year Participant is back in the awards conversation with three contenders: Lincoln, Promised Land, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

AWARDSLINE: When Participant gets involved in a movie, what sort of input do you seek out? Do you consider yourselves to be creative producers?

JEFF SKOLL: It depends on the film. In some cases, it’s our idea, it’s our development. In a film like Contagion or Waiting for Superman, they all started with an idea on the blackboard, and at that point you bring in the people. And then there’s some like Lincoln where you really defer to the creative.

JIM BERK: And then there are others like Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or The Help. We were involved in the early days of investing, when the script was in early form, and so we were part of that process all the way through. Where we were able to really play an active role in Lincoln was in positioning the marketplace around ingenious folks that would be useful in putting this film into the zeitgeist.

AWARDSLINE: Jeff, you made your fortune when eBay went public, and then you devoted yourself to using your money as a force for change and exposing global issues. What initially led you to see Hollywood as an effective outlet for something like this?

SKOLL: Well, it started as a kid. I read a lot of books that made the future world seem like a scary place with terrible weapons, diseases, and wars. I wanted to be a writer to tell stories that would get people interested in the issues that affect us all, but I didn’t want to make a living as one, so I decided to get to a point where I could afford to write these stories, so I became an entrepreneur. And lo and behold with eBay, all of a sudden I had far more resources than I ever would have dreamed of, and a light bulb went off that I didn’t necessarily have to write the stories myself—I could find writers to do that, and I could get those stories in film and TV and other forms of media. That’s how Participant was born. And in 2003, I went around L.A. with the idea, trying to understand if anybody had done this before, and if so, how? Most people were pretty skeptical about an outsider coming in to tell stories and make movies in Hollywood. But I would ask everybody that I was talking to, whether it was a writer or a director or an agent or a banker in the film industry, what they were proud of over the course of their career, and invariably, it turned out to be a project about an issue that they cared about.

Alan Horn, who was president of Warner Bros. at the time, understood the concept immediately. We made our first three movies with them: Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, and North Country. Those films broke through with the idea of what we were trying to do and the fact that I wasn’t just trying to write checks but was trying to make a difference with the films.

AWARDSLINE: Let’s look at the Participant films that are in the Oscar conversation. What swayed you in each case to want to be involved? We’ll start with Promised Land.

BERK: When Matt (Damon) and John (Krasinki’s) draft came into us midway through the process, the setting was about a few issues that were the primary focus of the company. We’ve done four films with Matt—he’s a partner that we really are attracted to. We looked for three things: Commercial reliability, social relevance, and quality. Given the cast and the distributor in place as part of the whole package—and the issues looked impactful to small towns—it became a perfect film for us to be involved in. The issue comes first. There has to be a tangible issue that affects millions today where the film can make a difference for those people. It’s not our role to tell people what to think, but it’s to put these issues into the zeitgeist and give them information to think about it. So when we look at material, the purpose is ultimately a role of peace and sustainability, but it has to be done around empowering people with information and ways to get involved. Whether they choose the left or the right or somewhere in between, we have to trust that they’re fully empowered, and they’ll make the right decisions.

AWARDSLINE: From that same vantage point, what about Lincoln? You’re looking back at a period in history. How did this fit into your criteria to get involved in this?

SKOLL: It’s really about a divided country and leadership to get through it: Civic engagements, dealing with complex issues, and getting to a point where you can actually move things forward. (When) I read the script, and the book beforehand, it made it seem, even a few years ago, (like) such a resonant issue in this country.

BERK: When we had the opportunity to become involved with this, the election and these surrounding issues were really setting this particular story’s tone. It’s pretty unique when you think about how we’re having this conversation today with a lame-duck congress that’s struggling with a very large issue and the president needing to reach out across his own party in order to carve out a deal that would allow the country to move forward. Obviously, it’s not at the same impact in terms of the specific task at hand as maybe President Lincoln saw, but, nevertheless, it’s pretty weird how it’s actually duplicating something that exists today.

Finding The Right Backdrop Was Key For Promised Land Script

Ari Karpel is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of AwardsLine.

Matt Damon and John Krasinski are well aware that Promised Land is facing what Damon deems “an uphill climb.” The film, about a community confronting the rock-and-hard-place decision of whether to frack or not to frack—that is, whether to allow a major corporation to come in and drill for natural gas in exchange for millions of dollars and, potentially, the townspeople’s physical health—faces a marketing challenge that teeters on the same fine line Damon and Krasinski walked while writing its screenplay.

“It’s a minefield,” says Damon, mindful of the taint that can adhere to a movie thought of as “an issue movie.” “You can’t get too heavy-handed, and it can’t feel like it’s some polemic.”

And yet that hardly compares to the ups and downs he and Krasinski faced in getting the movie off the ground.

It all started with Krasinski, who wanted to write a screenplay about “some sort of abuse of power in…the green energy movement.” The actor, best known as Jim Halpert on The Office, had previously written and directed 2009’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and starred in Away We Go, written by Dave Eggers, who also consulted on the film. “I brought it to Dave because these are issues close to his heart, too,” Krasinski says. They hashed out characters and a story, set against the backdrop of the wind-farming industry. (Eggers has a “story by” credit.)

Krasinski then took the idea to Damon, who had just finished working with Krasinski’s wife, Emily Blunt, on The Adjustment Bureau, and was looking for a movie that would be his directorial debut. They decided to write it together. Damon, who hadn’t written a script since he collaborated with Ben Affleck on Good Will Hunting (he is also credited with writing 2002’s Gerry, a movie Damon says is mostly improvised), says he can never find the time. “It takes a lot of time to write. I’m so busy, and I do need a partner to write,” Damon confesses.

They hired a news reporter to find a story they could fictionalize. The reporter produced “mountains of research,” says Damon, which they used as the basis for the script. When they were done writing, he and Krasinski traveled to upstate New York to scout locations. There they met people who thoroughly debunked the narrative. “It was one of those situations where the reporter came back with the story we wanted to hear,” says Damon, who thought they had reached an impasse. “But after a few horrible days, I read it again, and I called John and said, ‘I love these characters!’ ”

So the cowriters transplanted the characters to a mountain in Alaska, and they set their story amidst salmon fisheries being poisoned by run-off from nearby copper mines.

But that just didn’t work. “To John’s credit, he wouldn’t give up,” says Damon. “I was thinking, ‘This is dead, he just doesn’t know it.’ ”

Krasinski saw a 60 Minutes segment called “The Shaleionaires” and was inspired to do a pass of the script on his own, this time about a community dealing with fracking. He brought the draft to Damon in Vancouver, where the actor was shooting Elysium, a visual-effects-heavy movie set to come out next summer. “I realized we had something much better than wind farming,” says Damon. “Because the stakes are so high. It’s not really a choice—between losing your family farm or not.”

When Damon and his family moved to Malibu to shoot We’ve Got a Zoo, Krasinski went to their house every weekend where they would hammer away at the script, empowered by their new subject matter.

At the end of 2011, Damon was doing press for Zoo and planning to direct Promised Land in the new year—until he had a change of heart. “I was done with all my work for the year and I looked at the reality: I just could not do it,” says Damon, who couldn’t imagine spending so much time away from his family again, this time to direct, which would mean longer hours and weeks in prep and post.

“It was like someone telling you Christmas is not happening this year,” recalls Krasinski.

And then a Christmas miracle occurred. Damon was heading to Florida for a much-needed vacation with his family. “It was that moment on the plane when they’ve told you to turn off your phone, and you’re surreptitiously sending emails,” says Damon, who got one out, with the script attached, to Gus Van Sant, who had directed Damon’s first script, Good Will Hunting.

By the time Damon landed, Van Sant had agreed to direct the film. “I like to joke that as a producer I clearly know what I’m doing: I fired myself and replaced myself with Gus,” Damon says.

The movie went ahead, but not without some measure of caution. In speaking about Promised Land, everyone involved had long stuck to talking points that portrayed the movie as being about a community that comes together in a crisis. “Once it came out that it was anti-fracking,” Krasinski says, “it’s hard to shake that until people see it.”