Perspective | The death of Participant Media is ‘grim news for serious movies’

The film world was shaken up recently by the news that Participant Media is dissolving. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, a few familiar titles should: Participant co-produced such Oscar winners as “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Roma,” “American Factory” and “Green Book.”

Founded by former eBay executive Jeff Skoll in 2004, the company was established to produce and distribute films addressing such pressing concerns as climate change, civil rights, democracy and a free press. Skoll coined the term “double bottom line” for his business model, which strove to make commercial entertainment but also movies that moved the needle toward (mostly) progressive social change.

Puck’s Matthew Belloni has convincingly suggested that the double bottom line had increasingly been skewing in an unprofitable direction for Participant, which couldn’t find a buyer when Skoll embarked on selling the company last year. Still, for two decades, that model produced exceptionally smart, engrossing and influential films. The real-life protagonist of Participant’s Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” Martin Baron — who led the Boston Globe when the paper investigated sexual abuse within the Catholic Church — reached out to me the day after the news broke about the production company’s demise. “Grim news for serious movies,” he wrote.

At its best, Participant made films that have become more and more precarious in an ecosystem dominated by superheroes and escapist spectacle. There was a time when audiences were entertained and enlightened in equal measure by such straightforward dramas as “All the President’s Men,” “Network,” “The China Syndrome” and “Silkwood.” Today, if filmmakers want to make a statement, they’re more likely to couch it in genre exercises like the elevated horror of “Get Out” or the satirical comedy of “Don’t Look Up” than traditional dramas. The most-talked-about movie of 2024 thus far, Alex Garland’s speculative action picture “Civil War,” is set in a vaguely recognizable America riven by tribal division and deep distrust. As a reality-adjacent allegory, it doesn’t play as sharp-eyed critique as much as a conventional — albeit queasily close-to-home — war film, with the form’s requisite battle scenes, car chases and Grand Guignol of a climax.

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It’s not that Participant was all Big Issues, all the time: Although its slate was dominated by righteous outrage and earnest uplift, the company was known to put its imprimatur on old-fashioned crowd-pleasers like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Begin Again.” And not every Participant movie was a home run, as was evident in one of its most recent releases, the well-meaning but plodding Shirley Chisholm biopic “Shirley.”

Still, the much longer list of Participant successes points to a company whose core competency was marrying classical style with relevant substance, resulting in the kind of films that have only become rarer in the past 20 years: “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Bridge of Spies,” “The Post,” “Contagion,” “A Most Violent Year,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Syriana,” “Judas and the Black Messiah.” (The covid-era shift from theaters to streaming surely hasn’t helped, when you consider such top Netflix and Prime Video performers as “Rebel Moon,” “Woody Woodpecker Goes to Camp,” “Road House” and “Ricky Stanicky.”)

It’s particularly poignant to lose Participant in a high-stakes election year, when the timeliest movie on screens is a plea for moderation and whose politics are safely and fuzzily uncontroversial. It wasn’t that long ago — 2018, to be exact — when Participant didn’t just confront but also eagerly embraced the political realities of the era by providing free screenings of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary “RBG” just days before the midterm elections.

That kind of moxie demonstrates the gap that Participant is leaving in the cinematic landscape, even as similarly minded companies, such as the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions, and philanthropists, such as Melinda French Gates and Laurene Powell Jobs, have followed its arts-plus-activism lead. (As has Angel Studios, from a different end of the ideological spectrum.) Participant’s disappearance from an already too-timid film industry is grim news, indeed — not just for serious movies, but also for necessary ones.

We now have one less company taking the right lessons from “All the President’s Men” from nearly half a century ago: For maximum impact, make good movies. Then — politics be damned — let them speak for themselves.

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