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Sneaking the Spinach in with the Popcorn: Participant Media Makes Commercially Viable Social Issue Films

By Joseph Jon Lanthier

From Lucy Walker's 2012 film <em>Countdown to Zero</em>. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Unleashing a panoply of expert talking heads and devastating graphics that swoop in and surround us, Jessica Yu's new documentary Last Call at the Oasis makes one thing resoundingly clear: The earth is running out of water. Moreover, human beings are locked in a deadly cycle of self-sabotage when it comes to this precious fluid, and Yu is particularly successful at addressing how waste and prejudice have gone hand-in-hand in the making of this disaster. For example, purifying sewer water is one of the cheapest and most reliable methods of recycling our current supply of H20, but this potable liquid's unclean source causes squeamishness among drinkers. In the film, a company attempting to market a new brand of sewer water brings in an academic who tidily locates the "psychological barrier" involved with such a solution. In order for most consumers to surmount such mental obstacles, deft persuasion is required.

Watching this scene, I thought instantly of Participant Media, the company that financed and fostered Yu's documentary (Last Call at the Oasis premieres in theaters May 4 through ATO), and has also been responsible for some of the most widely acclaimed issues-based feature films of the last decade: An Inconvenient Truth, Murderball, The Cove and Food, Inc. among them. Founded in 2004 as Participant Productions by former eBay executive Jeffrey Skoll, the group has since helped to release fiction movies and documentaries that, in a sense, help audiences to pass through the psychological barriers keeping them from engagement with crucial issues. In some instances, Participant's goal has simply been the dissemination of accurate information or thought-provoking material on a topic. But in other cases, Participant has built out full social-action campaigns that market films to specific audiences and compel them to act--sign petitions, show up at events or even start changing their consumption habits.

Unique to Participant's model is its devotion to content that entertains first and compels social change second, a prioritization that speaks less to the commercial nature of the company than to the order in which audiences are inspired to get involved. As Wendy Cohen, Participant's senior director of film campaigns, puts it, "A well-told story is part of the mission. We have to ask if a film is going to be entertaining and engaging before we ask if it's going to move people. If [audiences] aren't going to be moved and inspired by the story, then they aren't going to take the bigger leap to take action."

Chad Boettcher, who joined Participant as executive vice president of social action and advocacy in 2011, stresses that the company maintains a strict "double bottom line" to engender success. "We want to create media that is commercial viable," he says. "But it's equally important that the content has some demonstrable social impact. Part of the conversation that happens around films that we're given the chance to develop or distribute is about that push and pull--between what we can do with a film from a social perspective and from a commercial perspective, and try to see where that balances out. A home run is to do both."

Cohen and Boettcher's respective jobs don't exist at most film studios. As members of Participant Media's Social Action team, they connect movies with audiences around calls-to-action; their work is an odd mix of marketing and grassroots advocacy. As Boettcher states, "Our job is to offer points of entry--so that people who see the film can get involved in the issue it represents. If we think a film is going to be directed at policymakers, we make a campaign that's totally designed for that. If the film might appeal to a larger consumer base, then we divine some call-to-action around that." The result of their efforts is a kind of butterfly effect of awareness that has taken on diverse shapes: The theatrical success of a Participant Media film could promote an issue, or the advocacy campaign surrounding a movie could subsume the cinematic product. Over two million people, for example, have signed Participant's petition to end the Taiji dolphin hunting drive--far more than the estimated number of individuals who have seen The Cove.

Cohen points out, however, that the call-to-action promoted by The Cove was one of the simplest and most direct they've ever had. "We weren't trying to transform an education system [as with Waiting for Superman]," she maintains. "We were just trying to stop this one horrible thing from happening in this one specific spot." A larger problem, in Cohen's words, is that "It's hard to measure whether or not people actually shift their thinking," especially after watching what is presented to them as essentially a piece of entertainment. To Participant's credit, however, this is precisely what it keeps attempting to measure. A recent study the company conducted with the Norman Lear Center focused on the qualitative impact of the movie Food, Inc. on a group of survey participants, over half of which claimed that the documentary persuaded them to change their eating behaviors.

 "We're moving more towards measuring outcomes," claims Boettcher. "Did the film actually move towards impact? One of the keywords we're looking at now is 'shift.' What shifted from before the film to after? And can we maintain that shift? It's great if we can make change in the short term, but how do we sustain it?" Each of Participant Media's social action projects requires Boettcher and Cohen to improvise a new set of success metrics related to "shifts," and with Last Call at the Oasis, snagging even several million signatures on a petition won't necessarily be enough to proclaim a "home run."

 "Last Call at the Oasis concerns itself with a global crisis," Boettcher explains. "Related to that is a patchwork of legislation all over the world, and also consumer behaviors. There are policymakers whom we want to influence, but also consumers, from a conservation standpoint." And yet Last Call at the Oasis is ironically a harder sell than a film like The Cove, despite the former's staggering relevance to virtually every person on the planet. How does one go about promoting social change at that level?

The Internet is one obvious answer, though both Cohen and Boettcher admit the slipperiness of online interaction--the latter went so far as to contend, "A Facebook 'Like' is not engagement." Participant Media has, however, developed as an online advocacy arm--the site is a full community with frequency social blogging and forums on which users are encouraged to organize locally to take action. Not all of the issues discussed on the site are related to a specific Participant Media film, and yet the site has, in a way, provided an environment where certain "shifts" can be measured more precisely. Food, Inc. inspired one of's most vibrant sub-communities, and the same may happen for Last Call at the Oasis.

A dry lake in Australia from Jessica Yu's <em>Last Call at the Oasis</em>. Courtesy of ATO Pictures

"Water is a very interesting topic," Boettcher comments. "It's a global issue, but the concern is hyper-local. It could be what you're drinking. It could be the opportunity to water your lawn. It could be limits on showering or flushing the toilet based on conservation needs in certain cities. If you were to talk to my dad in Minneapolis, he probably wouldn't care that much about the Hoover Dam and the Colorado Basin and what's happening in the Southwest. But he cares a lot about the water he's drinking." How, then, does Participant plan to bridge the gap between the international crisis limned in Yu's film and the private concerns of theater-goers in select cities?

 "On the website, we have a list of ten things you can do about water," Boettcher responds. "We're also distributing the first-ever national bill of water rights based on community needs. We want people to sign this and send it to local politicians and congressmen, because there are so many different needs at so many different levels." But this time, Participant's Social Action team will be following up with every signature and providing localized news and opportunities for involvement in the water solution as it affects their region. "We're going to give everyone a specific call-to-action over the summer," Boettcher continues. "Tell them to write their mayor, or show up for an event, or whatever. It's going to depend on the issues that arise. We don't have a list of legislators yet [to target], but we're going to activate as the issues appear, and then close the loop--follow up with people who signed the petition and see if they made a difference."

There's something aesthetically impressing about this approach. Participant Media does what no art-house distributor of documentaries or otherwise would do: It tells audiences not only how to feel about what they're watching, but how it's relevant to them, and furthermore what they can explicitly do to convert those feelings into impact. The company makes films that, curiously, don't fall within the typical cinematic spectrum between endlessly interpretable and slight confectionery; they're more like documents of inchoate social movements, begging us to finish them. And this modus operandi, whatever its social importance, informs singularly compelling filmic experiences. "You want to sneak the spinach in with the popcorn," quips Cohen. "You want to make sure there's an important message, but it has to be entertaining and it has to be fun and a great story."


Joseph Jon Lanthier is a California ex-pat who writes about art and media.