Magazine article Screen International

Participant Media: Game Changers

Magazine article Screen International

Participant Media: Game Changers

Article excerpt

As Participant Media celebrates 10 years and 55 films, Jeremy Kay talks to CEO Jim Berk about the company's growth and further global expansion.

The leadership at Participant Media prefers a low profile, but heading into Toronto with three films in selection and a 10th anniversary party scheduled, it is difficult to look away.

Imminent premieres of animation Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, professional sceptics documentary Merchants Of Doubt and one other Toronto title - to be confirmed after Screen goes to press - illustrate the broad reach of Participant's film ambitions and hint at what is to come. (Sony Pictures Classics acquired world rights to Merchants Of Doubt in the run-up to its world premiere in Telluride and the Toronto screening.) CEO Jim Berk, tall and wiry-haired, meets Screen in the lobby of the company's Beverly Hills headquarters. A former educator, CEO of Hard Rock Cafe International and head of publicly traded resort specialists Fairfield Communities among other posts, he is outgoing and professorial.

Berk is the man whom Jeff Skoll, the Participant founder, eBay billionaire and philanthropist, hired in 2006 to take the company to the next level.

Berk's is the face that Hollywood sees. At a party in Cannes earlier this year, it was Berk who greeted guests warmly while Skoll stayed back slightly, smiling.

As he leads the way to his office he mentions early August release The Hundred-Foot Journey. The film stars Helen Mirren and marks the company's 55th film. It shot in India, like Participant hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its 2015 sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, hinting at a bright future.

Participant has forged relationships with every major studio, launched a finance fund with Image Nation Abu Dhabi, nurtured thriving divisions such as the Pivot TV network, TakePart online portal and social action team and set its sights on global expansion.

On the last point, Screen understands a second major international initiative after Participant Pan America is about to be unveiled. "This year alone we'll greenlight a dozen narrative and documentary films and we expect that pace to continue and expand as we look into international territories," says Berk.

"What we want to do is replicate what we do in the United States in other parts of the world," he continues. "We've started to tip-toe in with the establishment of Participant Pan America, which was born out of our success on [Chilean Oscar nominee] No and we looked at the Spanish-speaking market and recognised there was an opportunity to support a film-making community that was very robust.

"The first slate we've committed to over the next five years is 12-15 films." The first title to emerge from the alliance with Mexico's Canana, Colombia's Dynamo and Chile's Fabula - Berk calls it a "United Artists approach of production" - was Cannes selection El Ardor. They expect to announce the second shortly.

For a company that employs about 250 people across offices in Los Angeles, New York and Washington DC, Participant packs a punch. Skoll's deep pockets and the leadership expertise of Berk and an executive roster that includes documentary guru Diane Weyermann and narrative films head Jonathan King provides know-how and enables flexibility.

"Every film is different," says Berk. "We've taken 100% of films; we've taken 25% of films. We've been the lead production entity; we've been just a financing entity. We've been a co-distribution partner like we did on Middle Of Nowhere or [acquisition titles] Internet's Own Boy or Ivory Tower. It's a mix."

Simple P&A plays are rare but not out of the question. The chief goal is to invest early in projects. "We come from a viewpoint that we're willing to put our money side-by-side with others. This idea of everybody having skin in the game is worthwhile and applies to us too."

On Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, for example, Participant is one of the financiers, along with Doha Film Institute, Code Red Productions, FFA Private Bank, mygroup, and Financiere Pinault, whose director Francois-Henri Pinault is married to the film's producer Salma Hayek. …

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