For-profit

Participant

This image is Participant's new logo released September, 2019. (link) by Participant Media is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0 (link)
Website:

participant.com/

Tax ID:

20-0867726

Formation:

2004

Participant (formerly known as Participant Media) is a film production company founded by Jeffrey Skoll, a left-leaning billionaire who was formerly the president of eBay. [1] [2] As of January 2020, Participant had produced more than 100 films. [3] [4] A 2013 profile of Participant in The Guardian, a left-leaning British newspaper, said Skoll “produces blockbusters that feature political or social messages,” and that his overall mission in films and elsewhere was investing in “progressive causes” and “galvanizing world opinion” through Participant’s productions. [5] For as many as five films per year Participant creates “social impact campaigns” to promote the message featured in the movie projects, often in partnership with a like-minded left-leaning advocacy group, examples of which include the Sierra Club, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Represent.Us, and Move to Amend. [6] [7]

One of Participant’s earliest and most successful left-leaning message films was An Inconvenient Truth, a 2006 environmentalist documentary featuring former Vice President Al Gore in which Gore presents what he believes to be the inevitable consequences of climate change. [8] The film was promoted with a trailer[9] stating it was “the most terrifying film you will ever see” and would “shake you to your core;” and a lawsuit against a plan to show the film to secondary students in the United Kingdom led a judge to rule that Gore’s presentation was “one sided,” arrived at “apocalyptic” conclusions, and contained nine “significant errors” occurring within a “context of alarmism and exaggeration.” [10] [11] A “distinctly alarmist” claim was Gore’s assertion that sea levels would rise by 20 feet within the “near future.” [12] [13] September 2019 estimates from NASA showed average annual sea level increases since 1993 had been 3.3 millimeters—roughly the thickness of a penny stacked atop a nickel—a rate of increase that would put off a 20 foot sea level rise for more than 18 centuries. [14] [15]

A few examples of other left-leaning causes and persons that have received sympathetic and promotional portrayals in Participant films include Occupy Wall Street,[16] Voters Not Politicians,[17] U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,[18] [19] and former President Jimmy Carter. [20] Conversely, Participant films are reliably critical of right-of-center individuals and causes,[21] with one example being former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. [22] Participant also produces documentaries and dramatic portrayals of historical events that have no discernible ideological alignment, one of the most successful being Charlie Wilson’s War. [23] [24]

Background

Participant (formerly known as Participant Media) is a privately held film production company founded in 2004 by Jeffrey Skoll, a left-leaning billionaire who was formerly the president of eBay. [25] [26] As of January 2020, Participant had produced more than 100 documentary and feature films. [27]

The objective of the firm’s projects is to align with and advance Skoll’s left-leaning societal or ideological agendas. For as many as five films per year Participant creates “social impact campaigns” to promote the message featured in the movie projects, often in partnership with a like-minded advocacy group. The Sierra Club, a left-of-center environmental advocacy organization, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an advocacy organization funded by left-leaning labor unions and foundations, are examples of two such partnerships cited by Participant CEO David Linde in a January 2020 interview. [28]

In March 2015 the Hollywood trade newspaper Variety said “Participant measures the success of its films not just by the awards they win, but by the number of viewers they move to action” and described the firm’s influence with its audience as “3.1 million individuals accessible via email” and  “777,000 “actions” (signing petitions, writing lawmakers, pledging behavioral changes) taken in a single recent month.” The filmmaker behind two of the firm’s projects—including An Inconvenient Truth, featuring former Vice President Al Gore—told Variety that Participant was “the best place to build a social action campaign, and give a cause movie a really, really long life.” [29]

A 2013 profile of Participant in The Guardian, a left-leaning British newspaper, said Skoll “produces blockbusters that feature political or social messages,” and that his overall mission in films and elsewhere was investing in “progressive causes” and “galvanizing world opinion” through Participant’s productions. [30]

“My goal was to leverage the power of movies and the reach they have and include important messages,” Skoll told The Guardian. “Of course, they still have to be entertaining so that people will watch them, but I wanted to make sure there was a message, a takeaway.” [31]

In an early 2015 interview with Variety Skoll announced he was considering significant restructuring of Participant, also telling the newspaper his firm had not yet become profitable. [32] A February 2019 analysis of this era in the New York Times declared Participant seemed to have “lost its way” by 2015. [33]

Shortly after his interview with Variety Skoll replaced then-CEO Jim Berk with David Linde, a former chairman of Universal Pictures. As part of the restructuring, Linde laid off half of Participant’s staff and closed three subsidiary divisions begun by Berk, including a cable channel and a digital publishing project. Noting the firm’s previous challenges and citing the 17 Academy Award nominations given to Participant films in 2019, a New York Times profile declared Skoll’s company to be a “comeback story.” [34]

Left-Leaning Films

Participant films with a recognizable ideological position reliably give favorable portrayals of left-of-center policy ideas and personalities or criticize of right-of-center positions and personalities. Some examples include:

An Inconvenient Truth

An Inconvenient Truth was a 2006 documentary featuring former Vice President Al Gore in which Gore presents what he believes to be the inevitable consequences of climate change. Promoted with a trailer stating it was “the most terrifying film you will ever see” and would “shake you to your core,” it was one of the Participant’s earliest films and most successful documentaries. Jeffrey Skoll was both one of the executive producers of the film and one of the individuals who persuaded Gore to transform his stage show presentations about climate change into the film. [35] [36]

Gore’s most “terrifying” conclusions were highly controversial and not supported by the climate science he purported to be representing. A plan to show the film to secondary students in the United Kingdom led a judge in October 2007 to conclude it contained nine “significant errors” occurring within a “context of alarmism and exaggeration.” A report in the The Guardian, a left-learning British newspaper, said the judge allowed the film to be shown in schools, but only if accompanied by information to balance out what the judge called Gore’s “one sided” and “apocalyptic” conclusions. An ABC News report stated the judge’s decision found that the film “violated laws barring the promotion of partisan political views in the classroom.” [37] [38]

One “distinctly alarmist” assertion, according to the judge, was Gore’s prediction that sea levels would rise by 20 feet within the “near future”—a warning the film presented along with computer-generated images of half of Florida and a lot of Manhattan being submersed underwater. [39] [40]

A 2008 report from New York University’s environmental program stated that Gore’s prediction significantly contradicted the most recent findings from both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the journal Science. The IPCC report, according to NYU, was then predicting increases of “0.18 to 0.6 meters (0.59 to 2.0 feet) over the next 100 years,” with the researchers published in Science projecting an upper-end estimate of 6.5 feet. [41]

A September 2019 estimate from NASA (the U.S. federal government’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration) reported a 3.3 millimeter per year sea level rise for measurements dating back to January 1993—an annual increase equal to slightly less than the thickness of a penny resting atop a nickel. At this rate of increase it would take 1,847 years for the oceans to rise 20 feet above the 2006 level, putting the former Vice President’s prophecy on a path to being fulfilled sometime in the middle of the 39th century. [42] [43] [44]

Examples of two other dubious assertions were Gore’s report of polar bears drowning after “swimming long distances to find the ice” and that the persistent snow cap on Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro would melt away “within the decade” (i.e.: by 2016, ten years after the film’s release). [45] [46]

The judge ruled that the only “scientific study” to be found with evidence of drowned polar bears was one showing “four polar bears have recently been found drowned because of a storm.” [47] Subsequently, a 2012 study by the U.S. Geological Survey reported on the tracking of 52 female polar bears over a five year period and found them to have been spectacular long-distance swimmers, with one-third recording swims exceeding 30 miles and one bear going for almost 220 miles. [48]

Similarly, regarding Mt. Kilimanjaro, the judge declared “it is common ground that, the scientific consensus is that it cannot be established that the recession of snows on [Mt.] Kilimanjaro is mainly attributable to human-induced climate change.” [49] Photos submitted from summer through winter 2019 to the travel site TripAdvisor.com showed significant and persistent snow atop Mt. Kilimanjaro. [50]

In 2017 Participant released An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, a sequel to An Inconvenient Truth which—like the original—featured Al Gore and was produced by Jeffrey Skoll. [51] In a January 2020 interview, Participant CEO David Linde explained how the agenda of the film was advanced through a cooperation between his firm and a left-of-center advocacy organization:[52]

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. [53]

In 2015 Participant released Merchants of Doubt, a climate activism film described by Entertainment Weekly as the “the scrappier, angrier second coming of An Inconvenient Truth.” [54] The agenda of the film, according to Skoll, was to “explain to people why there’s still so much doubt in public about climate change” and show that “the fossil fuel industry is funding campaigns for disinformation and misinformation.” [55]

Promised Land

In January 2013 Participant released Promised Land, a fictional story portraying alleged dangers of natural gas extraction. Hollywood actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski both star in and direct the feature film. The plot portrays hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. “fracking,” in real-life a popular and highly effective process used to extract domestic natural gas) as the cause of contaminated water that kills cows. A fictional energy company in the film is portrayed as deploying an elaborate and sinister conspiracy to conceal the supposed fracking dangers. [56]

Shortly before the release of Promised Land, Participant confirmed that Image Media Abu Dhabi was a financier of the film. A Heritage Foundation report showed that Image Media Abu Dhabi was “wholly owned by the government of the UAE [United Arab Emirates].” The UAE is a major exporter of oil and natural gas and a prominent member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) price cartel. The UAE government has a major economic interest in preventing non-OPEC nations such as the United States from becoming more significant oil and natural gas producers. [57]

In 2011 Congressional testimony, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson stated she was “Not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.” [58]
Similarly, in a 2015 draft report on the safety of fracking the EPA stated the agency “did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.” [59] In a late 2016 finalization of that 2015 draft, the EPA omitted the preceding sentence but—according to the Washington Post—“the report still can’t make a detailed assessment of how often any given activity results harms water quality, or how serious the effects are on a broad scale.” [60]

The EPA’s finalized report was released following the election of Republican President Donald Trump, but before Democratic President Barack Obama left office. Noting the executive branch agency still had found no evidence of worrisome levels of water contamination, Reason magazine science correspondent Ronald Bailey concluded the omitted language in the final edition betrayed the appearance of “a parting gift to anti-fracking activists from the Obama administration.” [61]

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, U.S. annual domestic natural gas production in 2006 was slightly lower than it had been in 1970, and in the intervening 36 years production had either been flat or declined. But after 2006, fracking and enhanced geological mapping technology touched off a revolution in domestic oil and natural gas production, with natural gas production alone jumping 58 percent by 2018. From 2014 through 2018, the United States produced consecutive historical records for natural gas withdrawals. In 2017 the U.S. became a net exporter of natural gas for the first time in 60 years and maintained this position as of the conclusion of 2018. [62] [63]

The lower cost and greater abundance of domestic natural gas led U.S. electricity producers to begin replacing coal (the previously largest fuel source) with natural gas, and natural gas became the largest source of electricity fuel in 2015. [64] Additionally, using natural gas for electricity produces only half the carbon emissions of coal. [65] According to the International Energy Agency, U.S. total carbon emissions in 2018 were 14 percent lower than 2007. [66] (By way of comparison, Canadian carbon emissions in 2018 were 2 percent higher than in 2007). [67]

A 2012 report from TD Bank projected a direct economic benefit for American households because of the natural gas fracking boom. A Canadian newspaper commentary on the TD Bank report noted: “American residential consumers can expect to save around $75 billion in home heating and electricity costs in 2013 — equivalent to about $650 per household,” and that more than “half of U.S. homes are heated with natural gas, which is also used to run appliances like stoves and water heaters.” [68]

In his 2012 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama boasted of the ongoing success of the American natural gas industry, saying U.S. reserves were abundant enough to last another century. [69]

Slay the Dragon

Slay the Dragon is a documentary from Participant that criticizes so-called “gerrymandering” in general (which has occurred since the founding of the United States), but particularly the electoral success some Republican politicians have had since the 2010 redrawing of state and federal legislative boundaries. [70] Slay the Dragon was pre-released outside the United States in 2019 and was planned for a premier within the United States on March 13, 2020. [71]

The main person featured in the film is Katie Fahey, a Michigan political activist who founded Voters Not Politicians (VNP), a left-of-center advocacy and lobbying group. Fahey and VNP organized a successful petition drive to place a proposed state constitutional amendment on the 2018 Michigan ballot (Proposal 2 of 2018) that created a new process for drawing political district maps. [72]

Many if not most reviewers have concluded from watching Slay the Dragon that Fahey and Voters Not Politicians were the epitome of an outspent and underdog “grassroots campaign.” [73] A Yahoo! News reviewer says Fahey and VNP were up against a “well-funded opposition campaign, supported by substantial donations from the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos,” and that Fahey had to navigate accusations of “being a tool of big Democratic donors.” [74] The Philadelphia Film Society promoted it as more than “just a David versus (an absurdly huge, rich, powerful, and amoral) Goliath story.” [75] Variety, the Hollywood trade newspaper, portrayed the movement as “a bunch of ordinary citizens, with no power beyond what the Constitution gave them, building the crusade for voter rights into the ultimate liberal holy war.” [76]

These perceptions are significantly contradicted by the financial reality of the 2018 Proposal 2 campaign. Voters Not Politicians raised $15.6 million to promote a “Yes” vote on Proposal 2, with the “No” campaign raising just $3.2 million—a 5-1 financial advantage favoring the victory for Fahey and VNP. [77]

Noting that Fahey and VNP had “long portrayed themselves as a bipartisan coalition fueled by a grassroots army” a pre-election report in the left-of-center Bridge magazine stated instead that “VNP had received a staggering $14 million in direct and in-kind donations over the past three months, much of it from out-of-state dark money groups with a history of supporting Democratic causes,” and had spent “nearly $11 million, most of it on consultants, strategists and media specialists who serve Democratic causes and candidates.” [78]

Six left-of-center organizations, some with ties to left-leaning labor unions and the Democratic Party, provided almost $12 million (77 percent) of the total funding for Voters Not Politicians’ Proposal 2 campaign. Two out-of-state organizations alone collectively provided two-thirds ($10.6 million) of the donations:[79]

  • The Sixteen Thirty Fund was the largest single donor, giving $5.5 million to the VNP campaign. Bridge described Sixteen Thirty as “a Washington, D.C.-based group that has poured millions into progressive causes around the country” such as “ballot measures in other states to increase the minimum wage and expand access to Medicaid.” Bridge requested information regarding Sixteen Thirty’s financial support but reported the organization “declined to disclose” its donors. [80]
  • The second largest donor was the Action Now Initiative, which gave $5.1 million to VNP. Action Now’s only donors, according to information it provided to Bridge, were Laura and John Arnold. Bridge reported Action Now (i.e.: the Arnolds) had also funded similar redistricting campaigns Colorado and Utah, and a proposal to “tax sugary beverages in Oregon.” The Huffington Post reported the Arnolds had given between $85,000 and $135,000 to support President Barack Obama’s two presidential election campaigns. [81] [82]

The other large left-of-center donors to VNP included the SEIU-United Healthcare Workers ($500,000); the left-leaning Quadrivium Foundation ($500,000); the National Redistricting Action Fund, a lobbying arm for a Democratic Party-affiliated redistricting committee ($250,000); and the National Education Association ($125,000). [83]

For the March 2020 American release of Slay the Dragon, Deadline.com reports Participant is “ramping up a social impact campaign (with screening events, curated discussions, and outreach to grassroots activists) timed to the theatrical release that beats the drum for gerrymandering awareness and reforms that lead to a fair and equitable electoral system.” [84]

Roma

In 2018 Participant produced Roma, which IMDb describes as a “year in the life of a middle-class family’s maid in Mexico City in the early 1970s.” [85] Participant launched an “awareness campaign” around the film that promoted the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA)—a left-leaning advocacy organization supported by American labor unions that Participant CEO David Linde called an “amazing organization.” [86] A page on the Participant website encouraged readers to help NDWA sign up new members.” [87]

99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film

In 2013 Participant produced 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, a documentary that glorifies the radical-left Occupy Wall Street public disturbances that began in 2011. The phrase “You Can’t Evict an Idea” is emblazoned atop the promotional material produced for the film, and the official trailer begins with the statement “They gave a voice to our need for change.” [88]

To promote the agenda of the film, and the Occupy Wall Street movement, Participant formed an official partnership[89] with Represent.Us, an advocacy organization funded by left-leaning donors that promotes using taxpayer dollars to fund the campaigns of politicians and other restrictions on political free speech; [90] [91] and Move to Amend, a pressure group endorsed by dozens of left-leaning organizations that promotes an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would repeal the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling. [92] [93]

Bias Favoring Democratic Party

As of January 2020, at least five of the 107 feature films that have been promoted by Participant feature either highly sympathetic portrayals of Democrats and individuals closely aligned with Democratic politicians, or sharply critical portrayals of Republican politicians and individuals closely aligned with them. [94]  Examples include:

  • The Known Unknown, a critical documentary/interview featuring Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defense for Republican U.S. President George W. Bush. Participant’s official trailer for the film flashes quotes from reviews stating it is “chilling,” a “story of American power pursued and misused,” and a “nightmarish wake up call.” [95]
  • Jimmy Carter Man from Plains, a documentary featuring Democratic President Jimmy Carter. The Participant description says the film “explores both the private and public sides of Jimmy Carter, whose intense sense of justice compels him to pursue, with undiminished energy and hope, his lifelong and deeply spiritual vision of reconciliation and peace.” [96]
  • Two films about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: On the Basis of Sex, a sympathetic dramatic biography;[97] and RBG, a documentary Participant promoted as “a revelatory documentary exploring Ginsburg ‘s exceptional life and career.” [98] Justice Ginsburg was the second woman to sit to the U.S. Supreme Court after Democratic President Bill Clinton appointed her in 1993 during his first term in office. The first woman appointed to the High Court was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, selected by Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1981—his first year in office. As of January 2020, the only films Participant has made profiling U.S. Supreme Court justices appear to be the two favorable portrayals of Justice Ginsburg.
  • The Post, a sympathetic portrayal of the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in defiance of Republican President Richard Nixon’s attempt to make leaking the documents by U.S. newspapers an illegal act of collaboration with espionage. [99]

As of January 2020, the only discernible exception to this trend of favoring Democrats and criticizing Republicans was Lincoln, a feature film Participant promotes as a profile of the “moral courage and fierce determination” of the first Republican U.S. President, who was assassinated 139 years before Participant was founded. [100] [101]

Non-Political Films

Participant also produces films with no definitive ideological or political bias, including those advancing a social agenda or recounting a historical incident. Examples include:

  • Charlie Wilson’s War, a dramatic portrayal of U.S. covert military assistance provided to the resistance fighters in Afghanistan who fought against and ultimately expelled the Soviet Union from their nation during the 1980s. The film is a mostly sympathetic portrayal of a very colorful former U.S. Congressman, Texas Democrat Charlie Wilson. [102]
  • 7 Days in Entebbe, a dramatic portrayal of what Participant promotion describes as “the most daring rescue mission ever attempted”—the 1976 Israeli commando raid against an airport in Entebbe, Uganda, and the successful liberation of the passengers of an Air France airliner that had been hijacked and flown to Entebbe after departing from Tel Aviv, Israel. [103]
  • Waiting for Superman, a documentary analyzing the failures of the U.S. public education system. [104]
  • Ivory Tower, a documentary Participant promotes and an analysis of how U.S. universities “came to embrace a business model that often promotes expansion over quality learning.” [105]
  • Denial, a dramatic portrayal of Holocaust denier David Irving’s libel lawsuit against American historian Deborah Lipstadt. The case took place in a British court where the burden of proof in libel cases is on the defendant, forcing Lipstadt and her lawyers to mount a defense based on the historical record that the Nazi atrocities did take place. [106]

Funding and Donors

Participant is a for-profit company, but it has received a number of grants from nonprofits, many of them center-left.

In 2013, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gifted Participant $1,981,107. [107]

First Look Media, a nonprofit film producer founded by eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar (a major donor to liberal political causes), gifted Participant $33,000 in 2017. [108]

The left-leaning Robert Wood Johnson Foundation donated $248,000 to Participant in 2010 as part of a campaign to reduce childhood obesity. [109]

References

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  2. Faughnder, Ryan. “‘Green Book’ and ‘Roma’ producer Participant gets a makeover as it rides ‘conscious consumer’ wave.” Los Angeles Times. September 6, 2019. Accessed January 17, 2020. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2019-09-06/green-book-and-roma-producer-participant-gets-a-face-lift-amid-conscious-consumer-wave ^
  3. “About Participant.” Participant. Accessed January 17, 2020. https://participant.com/about-participant#block-views-team-block-1 ^
  4. “Films and Television.” Participant. Accessed January 22, 2020. https://participant.com/film ^
  5. Braw, Elisabeth. “Ex-eBay president and activist Jeff Skoll on making movies with a message.” The Guardian. November 29, 2013. Accessed January 17, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/ebay-jeff-skoll-movies-message-sustainability ^
  6. “How Participant Media Tries to Spark Social Change Through Film.” Chronicle of Philanthropy. January 10, 2020. Accessed January 17, 2020. https://www.philanthropy.com/article/How-Participant-Media-Tries-to/247828 ^
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  17. Gleiberman, Owen. “Tribeca Film Review: ‘Slay the Dragon.’” Variety. April 28, 2019. Accessed January 21, 2020.  https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/slay-the-dragon-review-gerrymandering-1203199856/ ^
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Directors, Employees & Supporters

  1. Jeffrey Skoll
    Founder and Chairman

Donation Recipients

  1. Rock the Vote (Non-profit)
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