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Jeff Skoll and Political Cinema

John Simkin

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Interesting article about Jeff Skoll in the Guardian. Maybe he can be persuaded to make a movie on the assassination of JFK?


The scene is the back room of a shop in Tehran. A middle-aged American is making a delivery - but there is a hitch: one half of his lethal cargo disappears, at gunpoint, behind a curtain, in the hands of a man whose language he does not understand. As the American escapes the scene down a dusty road, he glances up towards a rooftop. A car explodes behind him.

This is Syriana, the most political film to have come out of Hollywood since there was a war in Vietnam. Both subtle and contorted, it has launched a thousand cover stories and been hailed as the crowning product of a newly politicised Hollywood; liberals have welcomed it as a throwback to the days of Warren Beatty and Robert Redford. Conservatives have gone so far as to suggest that it condones terrorism.

Written and directed by Steven Gaghan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Traffic, Syriana plots the ways in which American interests in Middle Eastern oil lead to the very acts of violence that America most fears. George Clooney, who plays the nervous American spy - bearded, overweight and fluent in Farsi - executive-produced the movie. His own political allegory, Good Night, and Good Luck, was released in the US a month earlier, and with these films he has become a kind of hero for our time: more powerful than any producer, a vocal source of dissent, giving performances modest to the point of invisibility. He is behind the scenes, you might say, even when he is in them.

The New York Times film critic AO Scott wrote that Syriana made the darkest of Seventies paranoid thrillers look as sweet as Capra. David Denby in the New Yorker described it as offering 'not so much a story as a malaise'. This is a large part of its novel provocation: it's a film about an ideology, not a government, a single conspiracy or any given war, which is more subtle and more insidious, in a way, than many of the films of the 1970s to which it is being compared. 'Corruption is our protection,' says an oil executive played in the film by Tim Blake Nelson, 'Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why we win.'

In left-leaning America's new favourite blog, the Huffington Post, the holistic guru Deepak Chopra gave Syriana the following review: 'We are quickly learning that when the right hand is cut, the left hand bleeds ... Something like global co-operation must emerge if this new reality is ever to make sense. The first step, as Syriana suggests, is to realise that we are all part of its cast, one way or another.'

That last line could serve as a motto for Participant Productions, the company behind Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck. Set up in 2004 by Jeff Skoll, billionaire co-founder of eBay, Participant's express purpose is to make movies that will help to change the world. In the words of Meredith Blake, the firm's executive vice-president: 'Our product is social change, and the movies are a vehicle for that social change.'

But if a film is too preachy, as Participant knows, no one will listen, so the films must also be commercially viable. So far, they have been a spectacular success: in its opening weekend, Syriana got the second-highest box-office rating of the year. Participant's second film, Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney's drama about the downfall of Joseph McCarthy, has grossed more than double its budget and triggered widespread discussion about the freedom of the press. North Country, a film starring Charlize Theron as a miner involved in a sexual harassment case, has been disappointing at the box office but effective in its social impact. This is what Skoll refers to as a 'double bottom-line' - he has different criteria for measuring success.

Other recent Hollywood films have had a basis in politics - Jarhead, Munich, The Constant Gardener - and many movies are now independently financed by people with non-Hollywood backgrounds: there are internet entrepreneurs such as David Sacks and Mark Cuban; the Christian Republican communications mogul Philip Anschutz is behind Ray and The Chronicles of Narnia; real-estate entrepreneur Bob Yari helped finance Crash and Thumbsucker. Jim Stern, part owner of the Chicago Bulls basketball team, funded Hotel Rwanda

But no one is doing what Skoll is doing. Inspired by such films as All the President's Men, Erin Brockovich, Hotel Rwanda and Gandhi - which he has paid to have dubbed into Arabic by Palestinian actors to spread peace in the Middle East - Skoll saw that the films he loved didn't have much 'follow-up in the real world' and decided to provide an infrastructure that would allow movies to make a difference far beyond the cinema. Participant Productions creates partnerships with activist groups, organises an action campaign around each movie, and has set up a community website (participate.net) where people can become involved in group blogs with high-profile experts - and even, in the case of Good Night, and Good Luck, with real people on whom the film's protagonists are based.

So who is this social messiah? Business Week has repeatedly voted him the most innovative philanthropist.The Financial Times has named him one of eight most eligible 'billionaire bachelors'. Others refer to him simply as 'the filmanthropist'.

Skoll, who turns 41 next week, grew up in Montreal and Toronto, the son of an industrial chemicals salesman. When he left to study for a BA in electrical engineering, he was the first person in his family to go to university. He ran a computer-rental company in Toronto for a while, then went to Stanford University to do an MBA. It was there that he met Pierre Omidyar, with whom he founded what was to become eBay. (On being told of his raising venture funding, Skoll's parents said: 'Hey, that's great, and your cousin Leonard just opened a dry cleaners.' No one in his family suspected what eBay would become, until one day it went public and his parents saw it on CNN.)

EBay went public in 1998, and the following year Skoll, the company's president and first full-time employee, became Canada's youngest billionaire. He immediately sought philanthropic outlets, one of his schemes being a sort of developing world eBay in which craftspeople could sell their wares over the internet directly to the West and make a living instead of making pennies by selling to distributors. He left eBay in 2000, retiring at the age of 35 with an estimated $2bn in his pocket.

Skoll, universally said to be earnest, boyish, shy, thoughtful and down-to-earth, has, by his own reckoning, wanted to change the world since he was 14. He firmly believed in 'the power of storytelling to do good' and planned to make enough money to be able to write stories himself.

You might say he got a little waylaid. But in a sense, Participant has brought him back to that purpose. 'When I first started talking to people about investing in movies,' he has said, 'I heard over and over that the streets of Hollywood are littered with the carcasses of people like me.' He remained undeterred, because, as he told Time magazine last month: 'Traditionally, people come to Hollywood for financial reasons or they think it's glamorous. I'm doing this because I believe that movies and documentaries can be a wonderful pathway to change the world.'

Still, there are perks. A few years ago, he was a geek in Silicon Valley. Now he's going to parties where Paris Hilton is tapping him on the shoulder and giving him her number.

Skoll describes Participant as a venture that straddles business and philanthropy. He's not trying to buck the system, he's trying to help it, in the form of what he calls a 'virtuous cycle: the movie helps the non-profits, the non-profits help the movie.' Redford, who collaborated with Skoll on a TV series called The New Heroes, has said he has 'not come across anyone who was so genuinely altruistic about their purpose. I've usually come across people who want to do good, but they are looking for a return.'

Redford is one of the Seventies 'heroes' to whom people constantly refer when they speak about Participant's current crop of films. Yet one of the surprising things about Skoll is that he does not fit into the liberal tradition of Hollywood. In a move that cleverly removes him from the knee-jerk backlash against Hollywood lefties, he has said that, although he is Canadian and therefore doesn't vote in America, had he been a US citizen he would have voted for Reagan, and for Bush Sr as well as for Bill Clinton. He calls himself a 'centrist' and has asserted that he would be equally open to making films that speak to conservative moviegoers.

Production meetings at Participant stray wildly from the usual Hollywood fare. Where other companies might discuss the astronomical fees demanded by actors or complicated shooting schedules, Participant's executives are more likely to dwell on windmill facilities or the use of cow manure as a source of alternative energy.

Meredith Blake explains how they decide to make a film: 'We have a pretty unusual three-step review process,' she says from their office in Beverly Hills. 'First the creative team looks at it, then finance, and then I do a social sector review.' Blake, a lawyer who founded Break the Cycle, an organisation devoted to putting a stop to domestic violence, greenlights films on the basis of the issues they raise. A project will only move forward if she finds it has a valid social or political message. She also selects the non-profit, corporate and media partners that will help audiences to get involved.

I ask if Participant has contributed money to causes touched on by films they decided not to make. 'No,' she says, 'but there have been movies proposed that have been creatively fantastic but been found to be socially falling short.' These, she says, are turned down without question.

One of the difficulties with 'the second, social part of the bottom line', she explains, is working out how to track it. 'Social return is harder to measure.' But they know what their non-profit partners are experiencing, metrics are being tracked behind the website, and they get anecdotal reports - from teachers, from college campuses, from women who have found lawyers to represent them in sexual harassment cases. 'Oil Change', their Syriana campaign on participate.net, is very active, she says.

One of the phrases used by Ricky Strauss, Participant's president, is 'passive activism'. He has suggested that there are small things people can do without giving up their entire lives, things that might be equivalent to wearing a Lance Armstrong bracelet.

An example of passive activism in relation to Syriana, Blake suggests, would be buying a TerraPass, 'which takes up three minutes of someone's time' and funds clean energy projects so that they reduce a proportionate equivalent of the carbon dioxide emissions from their car.

It's difficult to know how smooth the leap from discussion to action will be, but a good deal of discussion, at least, is already under way. JD Lasica, author of Darknet: Hollywood's War Against the Digital Generation, is participating in the group blog about Good Night, and Good Luck, and thinks Participant's project is 'a fascinating idea and a worthy experiment. It's still too early to tell whether it's going to pan out. As we're moving into the digital age, people in Hollywood are starting to grasp the idea that they have to do more than just put pictures on the big screen. They have to take into account where the audience is today, and more and more people are involved in the internet. It's more than just a gimmicky, viral marketing approach - they're looking for a serious conversation about the issues that are raised in the film.'

One of the other people participating in that blog is Milo Radulovich, the Second World War veteran who was accused of being a Communist by McCarthy, and with whose persecution George Clooney's film begins. On the blog, Radulovich says he has been inspired to see how many people who never lived through the McCarthy era have been to see the film and have understood Clooney's intended allegory about today's political climate. 'Truth is truth,' Radulovich writes, 'unconditional and flaming.'

One easily forgotten aspect of the politically charged cinema of the 1970s was the ease and swiftness with which the counterculture became the mainstream. As Ben Dickenson, whose book Hollywood's New Radicalism is due out this month, puts it: 'People like Warren Beatty, who had been on the fringes, were suddenly a part of the mainstream because they had something to say that the mainstream wanted to sell.'

Could the same not be said of the new politicisation of Hollywood? If, since Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, politics have become de rigueur, a cynic might suggest that organisations like Participant were just cashing in.

Lasica laughs at this idea. 'I think Jeff Skoll has enough money not to have to cash in,' he says. Clooney, for his part, has countered that he grew up during the civil rights era, during Vietnam, with the protest films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is what shaped him, he has said - his tastes are long-standing not opportunistic. John Boorman, veteran director of political films, thinks Participant's work is less like the movies of the Seventies than those of the Thirties and Forties, when studios produced 'problem pictures' intended to combat alcoholism or racism.

Which leads one to ask how comfortably Participant will continue to lie as bedfellows within the studio system. The studios, after all, own all the distribution channels. 'You wonder what would happen if the chips were really down over a particular film,' muses Dickenson, 'whether Skoll with his financial clout and Clooney with his star power would have the ability to get a film produced that really challenged the big media industries. Maybe they all feel they're on borrowed time, or maybe they think they've sussed the game enough to keep it going indefinitely.'

Next up is Richard Linklater's feature version of Fast Food Nation, and dozens of Hollywood stars have been lining up outside Participant's door. 'Who haven't we seen?' Skoll joked not long ago. Meg Ryan, Salma Hayek, Michael Douglas and all, it seems, have pet political projects. 'It's been a wild time,' says Blake.

In the end, though, whether Hollywood is newly politicised or not, each film will have to speak for itself.

Boorman speaks from experience when he says 'you have to be very wary about looking for trends. What we're looking at now is an experiment, perhaps, and both Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck are very welcome. But I think the key is not to draw any conclusions about Hollywood attitudes from these films. When you talk about politics in Hollywood, the politics of money is the only politics.'

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