Register Monday | June 17 | 2019

Celluloid Soldier

Jeff Skoll is saving the world, one film at a time

"The gall of that bastard!" my friend Andrew screams as we leave the theatre. "He made the terrorists into heroes. That scene where they drove the boat into the tanker was like Rudy running for the bloody touchdown."

Andrew continues in this vein until long after the post-movie drinks. While he may be the loudest, he isn't the only one in our little group to take issue with Stephen Gaghan's Syriana. Claire fulminates over Gaghan's paranoid world view. Her boyfriend Alex derides the film for its assumption that its audience must all hold subscriptions to Foreign Affairs. Me, I just want to know why the hell George Clooney's character waits so long to speak after flagging down the emir's convoy at the end-his actions through the final quarter of the film are a complete mystery to me.

But the post-movie drinks don't really feature much debate. We all agree on the basics; the film was good-if perhaps a tad unrealistic and opaque-and we're glad we saw it. Upon reaching this consensus, we all go to bed.

If Jeff Skoll knew that four university-educated North American adults could put Syriana's issues to bed so easily, he'd choke. Skoll is Syriana's executive producer and the founder and CEO of Participant Productions, and is also perhaps the most important movie mogul to have emerged in Hollywood in years. While Skoll must be happy about Syriana's healthy box-office figures, its critical acclaim and its still-swelling take of awards (Syriana is up for the Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay Oscars), his aims in the film industry extend beyond prestige and the bottom line: he wants to change the world.

Don't laugh-you'd be thinking big too if your track record looked like his. Skoll was the President of eBay and its first employee; but in 2000 the thirty-five-year-old, whom the Financial Times recently labelled one of the world's eight most eligible billionaire bachelors, left the online auction service with US$2 billion in his pocket, claiming he had a bad back and an altruistic itch in need of a scratch. According to Canadian Business Magazine, Skoll is now worth over CDN$5 billion and, as the head of Participant and his own epononymous $600 million foundation for social entrepreneurship, he's working his butt off to give it away as quickly as possible.

To understand why, you have to start at the beginning.

Skoll grew up the son of a Montreal chemical salesman. A suburban childhood meant that books provided Skoll with the only real glimpse of the world beyond the horizons of his block. Between the ages of eight and fourteen, Skoll would head to upstate New York with his family on camping trips, and it was there that the young man discovered the works of Ayn Rand, James Clavell and James Michener. The more he read, the more he became convinced that the world was in peril. "I got really worried about what the future would look like," Skoll recalls. "I looked at the state of the planet, the advancement of military technology, overpopulation and the increasing discrepancy between the rich and the poor, and I felt it was my mission to do something."

Skoll wanted to write big novels about big ideas, fiction that could inspire people to planet-saving action. The problem, of course, is that only a fool believes he can live by his pen alone-Jeff Skoll was, and is, no fool.

The first member of his family to go to university, Skoll received an engineering degree from the University of Toronto before he ran a computer rental shop in Toronto. When he recognized he'd never get anywhere without business skills, he applied to the MBA program at Stanford, where he met computer programmer Pierre Omidyar, whose personal website featured something called "Auctionweb" (alongside a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Ebola virus). After selling a broken laser pointer to a collector for $14.83 in 1994, Omidyar's Auctionweb grew and grew, becoming eBay in September 1997 and going public a year later. Skoll was still paying down his student debt when he started at eBay as an unsalaried employee but by 1999 had become Canada's youngest billionaire.

Skoll now had the money to write. After leaving eBay, he could have bunkered himself in Palo Alto and spend his days pounding away on a PowerBook in his dressing gown but, oddly enough, when Skoll re-examined his childhood dream, he found that his attitude toward it had changed. "It dawned on me that the act of writing wasn't the important part for me," he recently told the National Post. "It was actually the message. ... In the time that it would take me to write one story, I could hire and supervise twenty writers and twenty stories."

When he considered this realization, alongside the fact that films reach a far wider audience than genre fiction, Skoll began approaching Hollywood producers and asking them why more socially engaging films weren't being made. Wherever he went, Skoll was met with the kind of looks that say, "I know what you mean and I wish I could change things, but it's a systemic problem beyond my control, so I can't."

"The cost of creating films has been going up and the industry as a whole is on the point of dislocation [because of] new technologies," Skoll says. Because of problems in the market, studio heads had begun claiming that they had to rely on bankable and reliable genre formulas rather than take risks with provocative content. This, Skoll felt, left a huge market open for the type of movies he wanted to make. People had seen Philadelphia, Gandhi and Erin Brockovitch, after all, and these films had won Oscars and made back their money. Didn't people still crave these types of movies?

Participant Productions was born out of a belief that, yes, people did. Since its formation in 2004, Participant has helped distribute Murderball (currently nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar) and Arna's Children, and has co-produced Good Night, and Good Luck (nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor), North Country (nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress) and Syriana. Two more Participant documentaries appeared at this January's Sundance Film Festival: The World According to Sesame Street, a documentary about the way the children's program has been used to teach children in developing countries about AIDS and human rights; and An Inconvenient Truth, David Guggenheim's film about Al Gore's lifelong commitment to fighting global warming. Coming down the pipe in 2006 are Richard Linklater's adaptation of Eric Schlosser's bestselling book Fast Food Nation and American Gun, which promises to take a good, hard look at gun culture in the US.

If films with political themes make you yawn, it's probably because our screens were overloaded with them in 2005. Moviegoers have been faced with everything from urban racism to the trials of transgendered people to the unethical practices of multinational drug companies in the developing world. The Academy could scarcely dig up an apolitical film to nominate. Next thing you know, Harry Potter will be working at a refugee camp in Uganda and Bono will be the new Bond.

The trend clearly owes a great deal to the same social phenomena which has produced contests of giving in the wakes of the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina and which was responsible for the huge wave of support for Live 8. It is also closely linked to the new appreciation for "soft power" in international relations and development studies. As former University of Toronto sociologist Metta Spenser has argued, narrative art is far more effective at galvanizing mass support and interest than the mere presentation of plain facts. Citing a study by Arvind Singh, Spenser tells the story of an episode of the CBS daytime soap The Bold and the Beautiful, in which a featured character contracts HIV. At the end of the episode, the actor speaks directly to the audience, giving them a number to call for information. The call centre apparently received 1,400 calls in the episode's wake, while a 60 Minutes program on AIDS that ended with a similar message received only 95 calls, despite a larger viewership.

"The survival of humankind," Spenser argues, "requires that every citizen be motivated to address the global challenges confronting us. The most effective means of stirring up our commitment is by producing excellent serial dramas showing lovable, wise, entertaining characters at work on these problems."

There has obviously been a lot of interest in applying soft-power principles to converting the "hearts and minds" of those in Iraq, as well as to those still turning a blind eye to the AIDS pandemic and the suppression of women's rights in the developing world. So why not apply these principles to the developed world as well, especially when it is our consumption patterns, willed ignorance and unwillingness to spare our coffee money that is playing such a huge role in deciding the future of the planet?

Skoll has opted to do exactly this (though Participant has also paid to have Richard Attenborough's Gandhi translated into Arabic and played in the Palestinian territories). The challenge of course is that, after people have seen a film about the Rwandan genocide or government corruption, Skoll doesn't want their intense emotional response to be defused once the cold night air outside the theatre has delivered its first shot to the system-he wants them to talk about it with their fellow citizens and moviegoers.

In the developing world, films and episodes of TV shows with didactic intent are often followed by naturally occurring town-hall-style discussions-but we don't do that here. Too often, we instead climb into our cars, get a call from a friend who wants to gossip and head home to prep for work the next day. Understanding this, Participant Productions has adopted a strategy that employs Web-based community action campaigns to pick up moviegoers once the onscreen fantasy has ended.

Like Skoll himself, the program has a great deal of faith in both the power of film and in humanity's capacity for caring. If you go to www.participate.net, you'll find that Syriana's release was accompanied by the commencement of a campaign called "Oil Change." On the site, you can sign a petition telling US Congress that you demand a national commitment to reduce oil consumption by 2.5 million barrels per day within ten years. You can also see tips for cutting your personal energy consumption as well as download a toolkit for hosting your own post-film discussion about the issues of oil dependence (including advertising fliers and sample discussion questions). "Remember that it's important to discuss the problems, but what you really want to talk about are the solutions," the kit reminds us.

All of the films have similar action campaigns. Good Night, and Good Luck's campaign connects you to a site where you can download how-to kits for putting together short pieces of video reportage. An Inconvenient Truth's campaign asks you to buy a TerraPass, a third-party certificate stating your promise to reduce the CO2 produced by your car. By working with media partners such as Salon.com and PBS, and NGOs like the Sierra Club, particpate.net essentially offers added value to its films, giving the audience a sense that they can enact change. Thus, Participant's movies are, in their words, new kinds of "action films."

When I asked Skoll and Meredith Blake, director of Participant's social action campaigns, what kinds of films they back, their answers impressed upon me just how difficult their company's mission is. Skoll assured me that they only consider projects that "illuminate a problem that everyone can see and can agree is a problem, and that we can suggest solutions to." What, I wonder, would they say to a documentary like Fahrenheit 9/11?

A no-go, it seems. "We try to avoid partisan politics," Skoll says. "If we marginalize a film, we limit its potential impact. We want to unite our audience behind a cause." Further, before any project is given the green light, Blake performs a "social sector review," to determine whether a film brings out its individual issues in a clear and effective manner, and whether there are sufficient willing partners in the NGO and media community who will contribute to building Participate.net's network.

But what do you do about people like me and my friends, who take issue with a film's plotting, direction and character development, rather than its politics? How do you get them to the computer in the first place?

In the case of Syriana, it would appear Participant backed a worthy film, rather than one that subscribed to its mandate. Gaghan's film sketches out the complex web of actions, motives and aftershocks that link western oil addiction to Middle Eastern instability and the rise of Islamism. But the overall effect of the film is to blanket its audience in a mix of confusion and apathy rather than spurring it to immediate action. As my friend Alex correctly points out, to decode the film would require multiple viewings (with a rewind function) and a briefing by Robert Fisk. Furthermore, as the New Yorker's David Denby points out, "What Gaghan offers is not so much a story as a malaise... this is an epic movie without a hero." Where the hero should be is an empty space with George Clooney's face on it. Were he somehow able to navigate the world in which he's placed, Clooney's character might provide a model for potential action. Instead of hope, however, the film gives us something that tastes more like truth: the reality of the situation is complex and bleak.

That said, Syriana is a good film. The problem is that it doesn't inspire change the way a story with a discernable hero on an identifiable quest could. As Ricky Strauss pointed out while speaking at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, "Free Willy could have been a Participant movie." Yes, it could have, and it would have perhaps done a better job of achieving the company's objective. The Bambi and the David-and-Goliath stories are the ones that tend to get the most tongues wagging-the problem is that those are rarely the better movies.

This is Jeff Skoll's challenge. He has the vision and the money to get great films made. He has the potential to make anything happen, long after contemporary fashion in Hollywood changes and political, socially conscious films are viewed as square and risky yet again. Which way will he go, and how will he know if he's making a difference?