Film Studio Behind Spotlight, Green Book

Participant, the 20-year-old film and television production company whose mission was to inspire social justice and humanitarian action, is shutting down.

Founder Jeff Skoll broke the news to a staff of roughly 100 on Tuesday. Established in 2004, Participant co-produced or co-financed a number of notable movies including best picture Oscar winners “Spotlight” and “Green Book,” as well as Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and the breakthrough documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Almost all of Participant’s employees will be dismissed, multiple sources familiar with its plans said, and no new content development or production will be pursued. What’s left will be a skeletal holdings company overseeing the Participant library, which represents interest in the 135 films it has made.

“I founded Participant with the mission of creating world-class content that inspires positive social change, prioritizing impact alongside commercial sustainability. Since then, the entertainment industry has seen revolutionary changes in how content is created, distributed and consumed,” Skoll wrote in a companywide memo obtained by Variety.

As Skoll’s message suggests, Participant and companies like it face an uphill battle in the current media landscape. Amid the ongoing economic downturn, the nightmare of making streaming business models work and the pain from production stoppages after last year’s Hollywood labor strikes, there exists a larger reality: the studios are just not making as many movies for adults, especially ones with a conscience.

Participant had a long track record of producing movies and shows that earned strong reviews, earning prestigious honors in the process. The company won 21 Academy Awards out of 86 nominations, and 18 Emmy nods across five television series. Its titles grossed more than $3.3 billion at the worldwide box office, and the shop has been honored by the American Cinematheque and the Producers Guild of America. Like all operations in show business, output from Participant sputtered over the pandemic to only two films released in 2022 and 2023, down from around three times that in years prior. Its most notable TV effort came in 2019 with Netflix’s “When They See Us.” Participant will remain involved in a handful of projects – including the Hulu series ‘Interior Chinatown” with Jimmy O. Yang – which is in post-production.

More than trophies, Participant served as a model for “do-gooder” content — seamlessly working with nonprofits and activist groups to make and promote work touching on the environment, human rights, institutional corruption and social justice. Participant’s mission, often referred to as a “double bottom line” of creating premium content with a strong social impact element, has been widely integrated by the legacy studios and streamers (especially on social media platforms).

“Our titles drove tangible real-world change. We got out the vote and championed investigative journalism. From the passage of landmark legislation to enact labor protections for domestic workers in Mexico, to spurring state and federal action to address forever chemicals in the United States and Europe,” the Skoll memo said, “Participant content has made the world a safer, more just place for millions of people. “

Skoll has not actively run Participant for years, having brought in former Universal film executive David Linde as CEO in 2015. Under Linde, Participant became the largest certified B Corp (a designation that means a company meets “social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency” according to B Lab) in entertainment. He oversaw titles from the likes of Alfonso Cuaron, Ava DuVernay and Taika Waititi.

Participant also worked to affect change off-screen, becoming an early adapter of carbon neutral film sets and a provider of carbon offsets for its releases (like “Inconvenient Truth,” an Oscar winner for Best Documentary, which made former Vice President Al Gore a climate action star).

It’s unclear who might take up Participant’s mantle in the industry or if such a feat is sustainable. Social impact has become an amorphous hallmark of talent-driven production labels, like President Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground. Skoll’s farewell address said it was time for him to “evaluate my next chapter and approach to tackling the pressing issues of our time.”

Now there’s one less player doing just that for Hollywood.

Read Skoll’s full letter to staff:

Dear Participant Team,

For 20 years, Participant has stood as the leading global media company focused on timely and emotionally transformational stories which speak to the world’s most pressing issues. When I founded this company in 2004, I set out to maximize impact. It was a groundbreaking philanthropic venture that was the first – and for a long time, the only – of its kind.

As many of you have heard today, after much reflection, I have made the very difficult decision to wind down company operations. This is not a step I am taking lightly, but after 20 years of groundbreaking content and world-changing impact campaigns, it is the right time for me to evaluate my next chapter and approach to tackling the pressing issues of our time.

I founded Participant with the mission of creating world-class content that inspires positive social change, prioritizing impact alongside commercial sustainability. Since then, the entertainment industry has seen revolutionary changes in how content is created, distributed and consumed.

Although I have not been active in the day-to-day management of Participant for some years, this is a farewell to one of the most gratifying ventures of my career and there is much to be proud of. We succeeded in creating something truly one-of-a-kind: an impact media company with a double bottom line. This was intentional, and by all measures, we have been incredibly successful in driving the impact we set out to create. We have achieved the highest levels of critical and commercial success. We have released 135 films and 5 series, won 21 Academy Awards, including 2 Best Pictures, 4 Best Documentaries and 2 Best International Features, won 18 Emmy Awards, earned more than $3.3 billion in global box office revenue and partnered with the greatest storytellers and changemakers of our time. Together, we have built a category-defining media pioneer with an iconic, globally recognized brand whose legacy will live on through our people, our stories and all who are inspired by them.

The global conversations sparked by films and series like “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Contagion,” “Good Night, and Good Luck.,” “Waiting for Superman,” “Lincoln,” “Spotlight,” “Roma,” “Food, Inc.,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “RBG,” “Just Mercy,” “American Factory” and “When They See Us” gave all of us a new roadmap to engage – earnestly and meaningfully – in the unending pursuit of a better world. It’s not an overstatement to say that Participant films changed the way we think and talk about impact-driven films, building a new lexicon for the power of transformational storytelling.

Our titles drove tangible real-world change. We got out the vote and championed investigative journalism. From the passage of landmark legislation to enact labor protections for domestic workers in Mexico, to spurring state and federal action to address forever chemicals in the United States and Europe, to driving increased global awareness and willingness to act on climate change – Participant content has made the world a safer, more just place for millions of people.

I am so grateful to our global community of Participants, who remind me every day that even one person can change the world with the right tools and enough determination. That community includes you all – I can’t thank you enough for everything you have given to this incredible company in your time here. I’d also like to thank David for his vision, leadership and continued growth of the company over the past 8 years. Whether you have been with us for months or years, if there is one thing you take from your experience, I hope it’s that sense of purpose we have cultivated among our community.

As this chapter of Participant comes to a close, I am emboldened by the efforts of the next generation of storytellers and content creators who are building upon and reimagining this work. From philanthropists, to producers, to distributors, to social impact agencies, more and more individuals and organizations all over the world are recognizing and adopting impact models as core to their approaches. The ripple effects of Participant can be felt far and wide – what we have started together is just the beginning.

Thank you all for your hard work and unwavering dedication to Participant. I have nothing but respect and admiration for each and every one of you, and I know you will continue to carry the legacy of what we built together far into the future.

Sincerely,

Jeff

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