Real Leaders

Movies With a Message Make Impact Beyond Oscars Glitz

Three Academy Awards nominations were produced and financed by Participant Media, a pioneer among a group of companies aiming to advance social missions through movies.

The movie “Green Book” explores racial inequality, “Roma” reveals the emotional toll placed on domestic workers, and “RBG” chronicles the fight for women’s rights.

The messages in these three Academy Awards movies are no accident. All were produced and financed by Participant Media, a pioneer among a group of companies aiming to advance social missions through movies.

Participant was founded in 2004 by billionaire and former eBay President Jeff Skoll. The company’s credits range from Al Gore’s climate-change documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and Steven Spielberg’s historical drama “Lincoln” to “Spotlight”, a best picture winner about journalists who exposed a cover-up of abuse by Catholic priests.

“We often gravitate toward stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, becoming leaders for change in their own and others’ lives,” Participant Media Chief Executive David Linde said by email.

“Roma” is a prime example, Linde said. The black-and-white drama, which was distributed by Netflix Inc, revolves around Cleo, an indigenous Mexican housekeeper who displays courage in the face of serious challenges.

It competed at the 2019 Oscars for best picture against “Green Book” (the winner), a Participant movie released by Comcast Corp’s Universal Pictures about a black pianist on a 1962 concert tour of the segregated U.S. South.

“RBG,” about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was a nominee for best documentary – feature.

Participant’s movies are paired with off-screen activism. For “Roma,” the company joined the National Domestic Workers Alliance to push for labor protections and supported the launch of an app that provides benefits to house cleaners such as paid time off.


Scott Budnick, who quit his career producing comedies such as “The Hangover” to advocate for prison reform, is also working to spark change through compelling and commercially successful entertainment.

His new company, One Community, is aiming to raise $10 million to mount a year-long campaign around the January 2020 release of the film “Just Mercy,” a biographical drama starring Michael B. Jordan as a lawyer fighting to free a man wrongly convicted of murder.

The campaign is expected to kick off within the next two months and will be designed to prompt changes on issues such as the death penalty and juvenile sentencing, Budnick said in an interview.

One Community, which is co-financing “Just Mercy” with AT&T Inc’s Warner Bros., “is the branch between philanthropy and politics to the entertainment community,” he said.

While many philanthropists and politicians want to tackle problems such as poverty or homelessness, “they are never aligned with a major studio that may be spending $20, $40 or $60 million to sell that issue to the public,” Budnick said.

“We’re here to be that aligner,” he said.

A co-producer of “Just Mercy” is Macro, a company committed to developing TV shows and movies that represent a broad range of stories featuring people of color. Past films include the critically acclaimed dramas “Fences” and “Mudbound.”

Macro was founded by former talent agent Charles King and is funded by organizations that support the company’s mission, including the Ford Foundation that invested $5 million.

“Affecting which stories are told, by whom, and from what perspective, is an extremely powerful way to change the discourse in this country,” said Cara Mertes, director of a Ford Foundation initiative called JustFilms. “For us, this is social justice impact.”

Budnick’s One Community is funded by a variety of investors, including Endeavor Content and Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin.

It is set up as a “double bottom line” company to generate profits and social change, Budnick said. Executives are working with social scientists to develop metrics to gauge success.

That framework is not for every investor, Budnick said.

If someone is looking for a return of 10 times their investment, “they could go to Twitter, Uber, Instagram,” Budnick said. “This is not that. This is a company modeled to make money, and it’s modeled to make impact.”

By Lisa Richwine. Editing by Paul Tait.

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