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The Medium and the Message, Participant Productions and Working Films Catalyze Awarness for Social Issue Docs

By Tracie Lewis

Former Vice President Al Gore, from An Inconvenient Truth, a project of Participant Productions. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Editor's Note: On October 21 at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Los Angeles, IDA will present Davis Guggenheim in conversation with Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. The two will explore his wide-ranging body of work that includes culturally significant and brilliantly crafted films. Learn more and purchase tickets.

Did you know there are thousands of orphaned children living in Rwanda? Or that quadriplegic rugby players compete all over the world in wheelchairs? Or that ex-Soviet cargo planes arrive daily to Tanzania and exchange fish for ammunition? Thanks to the power of such documentaries as, respectively, God Sleeps in Rwanda, Murderball and Darwin's Nightmare, the social issues intrinsic to these films are as vital to their critical success as how the stories are told. Yet, without a carefully considered and conceived marketing campaign, the issues that underscore a well-told story may not reach the audiences.

That's where such companies as Participant Productions and Working Films come in. While not distributors per se, these companies--one for-profit, the other nonprofit--help to catalyze the distribution component, developing a context for awareness and social action so that the vital role that documentaries play in communicating or making audiences aware of issues is not dissipated in the distribution process.

Jeff Skoll, who founded Participant Productions in January 2004 after having served as president of eBay, always thought he would write about these kinds of stories. "It struck me that by telling stories that made people aware of these issues from the start--to inspire them that there was something to be done and get them involved--could make a big difference in the world," he maintains. While he doesn't write the stories, he makes sure that important social issue stories are told.

Having launched Participant Productions with a feature film department, Skoll started a documentary division in May 2004 after serving as a juror for the Tribeca Film Festival. "While we try to create projects that we feel will be commercially sustainable, we are also willing to take a risk that we may lose money on projects," he explains, in discussing Participant's entry into the documentary field, to complement its slate of features that includes Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana and North Country. "But if it does a lot of good in the world, then that is a success, and the reason we have our own separate documentary division here is that I don't think anyone else has that kind of double bottom-line approach."

Participant's involvement in documentaries ranges from production financing to marketing and advertising to social action campaigns. The first documentary Participant Productions took on was Arna's Children (Juliano Mer Khamis and Danniel Danniel, dirs./prods.), the story of legendary activist Arna Mer Khamis, who founded a theater group at a refugee camp for Palestinian children.

Subsequent to the release of that film in October 2004, veteran filmmaker Davis Guggenheim and his assistant, Courtney Sexton (now Participant's director of documentary production), recommended Murderball (Henry-Alex Rubin, dir.; Dana Adam Shapiro, dir./prod.; Jeffrey Mandel, prod.) to the documentary division at Participant. They had seen the film at Sundance in 2005.

Ricky Strauss, Participant Productions' president and a 17-year veteran of the motion picture industry, says, "Without being distributors, of course, there is always going to be the need for finding distribution for our films." There isn't a true model that Participant uses for becoming involved with a film, and films are considered at various stages. Being involved earlier on is always more beneficial. THINKFilm and A&E Indie Films were the early partners on Murderball, THINKFilm handling theatrical distribution and A&E Indie Films securing cable rights; MTV Films came in as a promotional partner. For its part, Participant created an awareness campaign, "Get Into the Game," on its companion website, The campaign, which encourages users to register for a free DVD of the film and a tool kit about hosting screenings and fundraisers, is designed to inspire post-screening discussions about the stigmas and biases attached to people with disabilities.

With the upcoming The World According to Sesame Street, which debuted at Sundance 2006, Participant fully financed the doc from the beginning after a meeting with filmmakers Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins Costigan. The film explores the drama and complexities behind producing international versions of the world's most-watched children's television program.

In the case of Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth (Laurie David, Lawrence Bender, Scott Burns, prods.), Strauss confirms, "That was a movie that was also home-grown at Participant. It was something that we had all been inspired by [former US Vice President] Al Gore's global warming initiative, and producers persuaded Participant to make a movie of the presentation with Gore and Guggenheim's aid." An Inconvenient Truth will be released by Paramount Classics and in theaters in late May. In concert with the film's premiere at Sundance this year, Participant launched its campaign to create awareness of the repercussions of global warming on

Last October, Diane Weyermann, former director of Sundance Institute's Documentary Film Program, came on board as Participant's executive vice president of documentary production, further signaling Participant's intention to put documentaries on equal footing with features. "We don't see documentaries as a different category from feature film," Weyermann asserts. "It's just about storytelling and the power of film, and fortunately docs in the last few years have taken a bigger place in the marketplace in terms of being accepted as film on that storytelling level; this is something that you can put out in cinemas and people would want to see."

The submission process to Participant Productions is similar to that of feature films, but please note: no phone calls. Submissions should include a treatment, budget, information on partners involved and biographies for the director, producers and other primary crew. If your film clears the first round, it goes on to a second review, then the filmmakers are called for a meeting if the project is a good social-issue match for Participant. The documentary division receives an average of 35-45 submissions per month. Planning to have four to six films at various stages of development at any year, Weyermann says, "It's not so much about huge numbers of films, but the right film." Accompanying each film is an action campaign designed to get groups involved with that particular issue. For more information, visit

Robert West, co-founder and executive director of the six-year old, Wilmington, North Carolina-based, nonprofit Working Films, knows a great deal about action campaigns. After curating a collection of films at a museum in Charlotte, North Carolina that a city council member thought was inappropriate, West wanted more for these films that inspired so many people; he believed that there was more to just having screenings with stimulating Q & As. "This was a huge opportunity," he recalls. "We had 200 people, they were hungry to do something. We should be able to plug them in in a way that is much more strategic and intentional than this." Realizing that the filmmaker is the storyteller and sometimes not the activist meant that there was a missing link for a much bigger plan.

West then met filmmaker/activist Judith Helfand, who had already developed relationships with organizers and activists and knew what was needed to get people to participate. Working as a team, Helfand and West determined that after the initial screenings or broadcast debuts, the films may go away, but the issues inherent in the films don't. "Our sole intent is to link high-quality documentary filmmaking with really concrete impact," West says. "We support life-changing media, organizing, that works for social, economic and environmental and racial justice, and we strive for strategic and measurable outcomes. Filmmakers can look back over the release of their film, maybe two to three years beyond the broadcast, where the film is still doing quite strategic and intentional work, and say, ‘This is the difference that my film made.'"

Working Films is not a distributor or production company, but will work with filmmakers at all stages with their films. The company provides a clear and precise method for reviewing films. It's all done through its website, After reaching the "connect" section and completing the information required, a free phone consultation within 10 days will be arranged. By explaining your film before it is completed and by partnering with other organizations, you will be able to see how your film can make a difference in advance.

Helfand made the documentary Blue Vinyl, which explores the environmental impact of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). The film screened at Sundance in 2002 and later aired on HBO; Working Films devised a three-year timetable of how to act on these resources. West learned that Greenpeace was planning to launch a campaign against Intimate Brands to shift from 50 percent PVC-free packaging to 100 percent PVC-free packaging for consumer products. Working Films joined forces with Greenpeace by providing 1,500 postcards to those who saw the film to send to the CEO of Intimate Brands, asking him to make company packaging PVC-free. As a result, West and Greenpeace secured a meeting with Intimate Brands. "Out of that meeting came the commitment for 100 percent of their packaging to be PVC-free by 2006," he says. "It's 2006 and they're PVC-free." Much like that initiative, during the week of the HBO premiere, organizers hosted 150 house parties that were tied to their issues and used it to promote the film.

Similar campaigns were devised for Marco Williams and Whitney Dow's Two Towns of Jasper, which aired on PBS in 2003, about the racially motivated murder of James Byrd, Jr., an African-American man who was chained to a pick-up truck and dragged for three miles. Two Towns of Jasper screened at Sundance, and after consulting with legislators in Salt Lake City, Utah, West found out that a hate crime bill had been on the docket for five years, failing to pass. After hosting screenings and meetings with the House and Senate, Working Films helped bring the hate crime bill to the forefront.

In mid-March, Working Films held a five-day work-in-progress workshop in Massachusetts called the MASS MoCA Residency and Projections Film Forum. Ten filmmakers were accepted into the program, which is designed to examine films and link with potential allies, strategically plan and build campaigns and receive feedback for films.

Current Working Films projects include Girl Trouble (Lidia Szajko and Lexi Laban, dirs./prods.), which documents the stories of three teenage girls in San Francisco's juvenile justice system; Every Mother's Son (Tami Gold and Kelly Anderson, dirs./prods.), a portrait of three women, each of whom lost an unarmed child at the hands of the law; and The Appalachians (Phylis Geller, prod./wtr.; Mari-Lynn Evans, exec. prod.), which profiles the rich history of the people of Appalachia and their struggle to preserve and protect their land.

In the next five years, Participant Productions plans to expand by exploring television, significant Internet outreach and possibly radio, but the long term goal remains to be an independent sustainable media company. Working Films is excited to embrace the new technology that the future will bring and become a more interactive organization.

With similar missions and different tools and strategies to attain them, both companies will continue to underscore the power of documentaries to provoke and inspire.


Tracie Lewis is the programs and events manager at IDA and recently produced a short documentary that aired on Showtime.