Skoll Pioneers “Filmanthropy”

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 2004

Movies with a political message are hardly a new phenomenon, but never before has a donor made social change via film the main focus of his philanthropic investing. In 2004, eBay co-founder Jeffrey Skoll founded Participant Media, into which he poured “hundreds of millions of dollars…with much more to follow,” understanding that “everything I put into Participant, I don’t expect to get back.” The company began to produce films with a liberal-activist tilt, paired with accompanying media campaigns aimed at translating public sentiment stirred up by the films into legislation or other political action.

By 2015 Skoll’s venture had produced more than 65 films, convinced stars like Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch, and George Clooney to take roles for far less than their normal fees, and charmed Hollywood into more than 30 Oscar nominations. The movies included titles like An Inconvenient Truth (which won Al Gore his Nobel Peace Prize for climate-change alarmism), Citizen Four (extolling Edward Snowden’s national security leak), Food, Inc. (attacking modern farming), Good Night, and Good Luck (skewering McCarthyism), Syriana (big oil threatens the world), Charlie Wilson’s War (right-wing Americans planted the seeds of al-Qaeda), The Help (on mistreatment of African-American domestic workers), and many others. Corporate abuses, violence against women, gay rights, and environmental and union causes are other favorite topics of the studio. One of the studio’s early films, Waiting for Superman, drew acclaim from school reformers on all parts of the political spectrum.

Each Participant movie is launched with a companion “social action campaign” (coordinated by a separate division) that prompts consumers to take some political or economic action, promotes the film for use in school, holds special screenings for legislators and journalists, and so forth. Participant has even teamed up with the Gates and Knight foundations to fund work at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism that aims to create reliable measures of whether, and how, entertainment can spur citizens to become social activists.

Though none have made a commitment to “filmanthropy” on the scale of Jeff Skoll, other philanthropists have funded moviemaking in an attempt to influence cultural and political trends. These have included AOL founder Ted Leonsis, backer of a website for short documentaries known as SnagFilms, and businessman Philip Anschutz, who financed major movies like the Narnia series, and others based on classic children’s books, in order to encourage popular entertainment that is more friendly to families raising youngsters.