Michael Cieply: Participant Sank When Everyone Jumped In

At first, I was shocked by the news that Participant Media was dying. Such an appealing company. Smart. Mindful. Vibrant. Forward-thinking. The producer of intelligent films like Spotlight and Green Book, with a distinctly progressive message.

How could this be?

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Then it finally hit me. Whatever else may have happened—announcing the shutdown, proprietor Jeff Skoll cited “revolutionary” changes in the entertainment business—Participant went under, I believe, because most of high-end Hollywood jumped into the company’s basically sound but modestly sized boat. The purpose-film niche was swamped.

It’s almost hard to remember that 20 years ago, when Participant was founded, the notion of a self-consciously message-oriented, activist film company was actually novel.

But, cinematically speaking, it was a much different world in 2004. The top movie that year was Shrek 2—not much message there. Culturally, the big story was a religious film, The Passion of the Christ. That hasn’t happened since. Most of the year’s popcorn pictures—The Notebook, Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Ladder 49, Cheaper by the Dozen, Ray—were looking more for ticket sales than social change.

Somewhat incredibly, Disney and Pixar were suspected back then of mildly subversive conservative messaging in The Incredibles. (The story “is likely to resonate more in conservative-leaning ‘red’ states than in liberal-leaning ‘blue’ ones,” opined The New York Times.) Best Picture winner at the Oscars that year was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Fantasy ruled.

Against that backdrop, the Participant experiment seemed daring, but not foolhardy. Skoll and company had comfortable shelf space for films like Murderball, Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana or An Inconvenient Truth.

Idea movies like that were easy to write about, and festivals loved them. More, the folks at Participant were always fun to know. Even when their efforts seemed a bit ethereal—I think of the Participant Index, a data-driven attempt to pin down what elements in entertainment spur concrete social change—the company made for good copy.

But turn to Hollywood as it is now, and Participant, the do-good studio, becomes just one more voice in fairly uniform, somewhat left-leaning cultural chorus. Two of the last nine Best Picture winners, Spotlight and Green Book, came from Participant; but the other seven, with the inclusive messaging of a Moonlight or the liberal warning notes of an Oppenheimer, could easily have fit the Participant formula. Everyone’s in on the game. Gone are the days when show-business eccentricities like Birdman or The Artist or a frolic like Chicago could take the big prize.

The winners now have a message—even a picture as weird as Everything Everywhere All at Once was, at its core, about recognizable immigrant struggles.

Indeed, even Barbie had a socio-political ax to grind. The film Academy requires it from contenders, either in content or hiring practices.

So the business got on board with Participant. Every year brings a new batch of films with a conscience, honoring what they like to call the double bottom line, commerce and good intention.

And suddenly Participant, no longer special, is gone.

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