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.

Veteran Supporting Actresses Could Dominate The Newcomers

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of AwardsLine.

A strong set of previous Oscar winners could annihilate the chances for a promising group of newcomers who are hoping for their first nomination in the supporting actress category. Sally Field, Helen Hunt, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Nicole Kidman, Frances McDormand, Shirley MacLaine, and Susan Sarandon—not to mention three-time nominee Amy Adams—all shine brightly in their respective films. So will the veterans, who have successfully played this game before, dominate the field (as they are threatening to do in the corresponding male supporting category) or can a new class break through and triumph? And then there is the case of Les Misérables:Universal started screening the film Thanksgiving weekend and will continue through its Christmas Day release. It offers strong female roles to at least four actresses who could fill a category all by themselves. Can Les Mis be the first movie since Tom Jones in 1963 to nab three supporting actress nominations all for itself? It’s the stuff that makes the Oscars so damned interesting. Here are the contenders.


The two-time best actress winner (Norma Rae, Places in the Heart) and three-time Emmy winneris now 66 and actually insisted on being tested for the role of Mary Todd Lincoln, which she says she knew would be hers even though Steven Spielberg said it wasn’t to be. She proved him wrong, and voters might really respond to Field’s pluck in landing the role and bringing it on in a series of emotional scenes opposite Daniel Day-Lewis. Will Oscar like her, really like her, a third time?

Anne Hathaway as Fantine in Les Misérables.
Anne Hathaway as Fantine in Les Misérables.


As Fantine, Hathaway has been out front ever since Universal began releasing snippets of her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream,” one of the signature songs in the Les Mis score. The role just has the smell of Oscar all over it, plus she’s got that deglammed down-and-dirty look, but will competition from three other women in the cast lessen her chances or can she rise to the top?


Hunt reveals all physically and emotionally as the sex surrogate who offers her professional services to a man in an iron lung who longs to be deflowered at the age of 38. Hunt nails every aspect of this real-life surrogate and should easily earn a spot in her first Oscar race since winning the best actress statuette for 1997’s As Good as It Gets.

Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman star as a cult power couple in The Master.
Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman star as a cult power couple in The Master.


With nominations in this category three previous times for Junebug, Doubt,and The Fighter,Adams seems to be primed to actually win one. Will playing the strong wife of a religious cult leader in The Master give her that opportunity? A fourth nomination seems like it is in the stars, but polarized response to the movie could dampen her chances for an actual win. Whether it is this year or not, her destiny is with Oscar.

Nicole Kidman plays white-trash-fabulous in Lee Daniels' The Paperboy.
Nicole Kidman plays white-trash-fabulous in Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy.


Oscar voters love to see actors take risks, and no one does it better than Kidman playing a Southern tart and giving it her all in one edgy scene after another. The movie and her peeing scene were the talk of Cannes Twitter feeds, but it came and went quickly upon its release this fall. Still, actors might sit up and take notice anyway for this past winner’s impressive ability to take a shot and deliver the goods.


As the meanest woman in a small Texas town who strikes up an unlikely relationship with funeral director Bernie (Jack Black), MacLaine creates another indelible character in a career that has provided more than a half-century of them. The question is, will enough voters see the indie hit or even remember it came out this year? A Golden Globe nomination could help her chances here.


As a fellow addict who befriends Denzel Washington’s alcoholic pilot, the British-born Reilly makes a strong impression and holds her own in a few riveting scenes with the star. It seems the stuff of which Oscar nominations are made.


McDormand and Matt Damon are business associates who represent a big corporate entity trying to win oil-drilling rights from the economically challenged citizens of a small town, and as usual this reliable Oscar winner turns the role into a living, breathing human being. The late release date of the film, though, could prove a problem in getting the film widely seen by the time voting starts. She also gets bonus points for her turn in May’s specialty hit, Moonrise Kingdom.

Scarlett Johansson plays Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock.
Scarlett Johansson, center, plays Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock.


As Janet Leigh during the making of Psycho,she hits all the right notes, deftly capturing the warmth of the bright movie star and the insecurity of an actress taking on a daring role for Alfred Hitchcock. Leigh won her only Oscar nomination in this category for the 1960 film but lost, so wouldn’t it be ironic if Johansson managed to do the same thing playing Leigh playing Marion Crane?


If it’s not going to be Javier Bardem, could Dench be the first actor in a James Bond film to be nominated for an acting Oscar? Dench’s role as M is larger in this 23rd Bond adventure, and it provides an emotional wallop. A nom would be especially sweet, considering no actor in Oscar history has ever been first-time nominated for a role they have already played in six previous films. Got all that?

Also in the mix


As Éponine, this British relatively unknown actress has perhaps the meatiest of the supporting roles to play and could be the most likely to join Hathaway on the nomination list.


As the colorful Madame Thenardier, Bonham Carter gets a larger-than-life role and is working again
with director Tom Hooper, who directed her to a nomination in this category two years ago for
The King’s Speech.


As sweet Cosette, Seyfried might not have the killer scenes of the others in Les Mis and thus could be the odd supporting actress out in this competition.


As Bradley Cooper’s mother and Robert De Niro’s wife, Weaver—nominated in the category two years ago for her extraordinary role in Animal Kingdom—has the least showy part of all the main players, but could get swept in here with the Silver Linings tide.


As the seamstress who becomes Mary Todd Lincoln’s confidante, the former ER star is quietly touching, but Field’s showier role is far more likely to prevail here.


As the bitter, racist one in the ensemble cast, Smith is terrific as usual, but voters might actually prefer her lead role in the similar Quartet and leave this increasingly crowded category to others.


Tarantino’s western is a late-breaking entry, but Washington has a meaty role in it, so don’t discount her chances of finding her way into the race once voters get a look at the film.


Sarandon’s killer scene, in which she puts her cheating hubby Richard Gere right in his place, could be just enough to do the trick, but Roadside has to make sure voters see the movie.


Here’s a shoutout for the great never-nominated Danner, who shines as the mother of a divorced woman who moves back in with her parents. But did anyone actually see the movie?


Sensing a lack of heat in the best actress race, Focus has made a last-minute switch and moved Linney from lead to supporting for her low-key work in Hyde Park. However, the role she really deserves recognition for in this category is her wildly amusing turn as the over-sexed, needy neighbor in The Details,but the Weinstein Co. isn’t even bothering to campaign the film and sent it almost directly to VOD. Too bad. Linney’s great in it.


With Jessica Chastain in lead and Ehle in supporting, it could ironically be the women that really shine in Kathryn Bigelow’s testosterone-driven military film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.


Blunt is always good and again makes her mark as a mother living with her son on a farm in this scifi quasi hit, but it’s not a genre close to the hearts of Academy voters.


With this long-gestating film based on the Jack Kerouac book, Stewart breaks out of Bella hell and shows off some real grownup acting skills, but it likely won’t be enough to move her into real contention in this race.


As the fast-food restaurant manager facing off against a man who says he is a police officer, character-actor Dowd earned raves, but the film was not widely seen. The real potential, though, of critics awards for her riveting performance could bring it back into the conversation and force voters to take notice.