“I would describe what we do, whether it’s on the documentary side or on the narrative side, as foremost, really great stories,” says Diane Weyermann when we spoke to her during her recent visit to Australia for the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC).
“They’re films about something that matters, and there’s a social relevance to everything that we do. I don’t usually describe the documentaries as impact documentaries, I would describe them as great stories. We work with great filmmakers who are passionate about the story that they are telling, and it tends to have some element of global resonance – not always, but generally. It’s about the world that we live in, and it allows the audience that connects to it to consider that world; or consider something that is brought up in the film. Hopefully in a way that maybe they haven’t considered it before watching it.”
Participant Media was founded in 2004 by Jeff Skoll, founder of eBay, with “a commitment to producing entertainment with socially relevant themes.”
Films produced by Participant include Lincoln, The Help, Spotlight, A Fantastic Woman, Wonder and more recently, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind and Roma. Their documentaries include An Inconvenient Truth and its sequel, He Named Me Malala, CITIZENFOUR and Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow.
What are the criteria for Participant to back a project?
I go back to what engages me, what makes me want to be involved in films and support them, and champion them, and collaborate with filmmakers making them is that they’re just great stories. To me it really is foremost about the storytelling that we can hopefully get out in a way that can reach the largest audience that we can possibly reach. Because what we don’t do is make films to make films. We do have a specific mission, which is social change, social impact, some way of engaging an audience around the stories. That is the aim of the company, and that’s really why it was established by Jeff Skoll 15 years ago.
To me, the way to be effective is to actually make great films, and have great stories, and great characters. I think that has the best chance of having some greater kind of impact rather than going at it the other way around, which is you’re issue driven, you’re impact driven – that immediately puts you into this category of, ‘I think I know what that kind of film is’, and that’s not how we approach the stories we tell.
It seems like the world’s getting worse than better. Do you ever get despondent?
Sometimes it’s challenging because we want to get stories out there that people will hopefully engage with and be inspired by. Sometimes that’s really hard when you’re dealing with these massive issues that we’re facing. Whether it’s climate change, which is the end of the planet as we know it, the end of humanity. Some of these things are really, really major… we recently did one on the global refugee crisis [Human Flow], which is just mind boggling, mind numbing, it looks like it’s going to get worse before it gets better. What’s going on globally with divisiveness… So, it can be tough, yes. I have friends that are sometimes like, ‘My God, how do you sleep at night? You’re working on all these films that are these really major problematic, sometimes seemingly unfixable issues…’ What do we do, how do we turn things around? That’s just what we do, we’re filmmakers, we’re storytellers. That’s where my energy goes, that’s where the people I work with put their energy, that’s what we can do as individuals or in the case of the company, Participant, that’s what we as a company try to do. It’s the way that I can move forward. I’m privileged to be able to do this work. A lot of people do other things that are far more difficult and despairing.
I’m in a position where I can actually help get films made and out there that hopefully speak to us, and speak to us in a way that can also inspire us and help us to try to move things down a path that’s not going to lead us to a bad life.
Do you gauge success in financial terms or in social change terms?
That’s a really good question, because we’re not a non-profit. We’re a for profit company with a double bottom line, and the second bottom line is social change, social impact. Particularly with the documentaries, we look at the docs as usually over delivering on the second bottom line. They’re the films that we very often can do rather substantial meaningful campaigns around. We go into everything we do hoping that it’ll make its money back. Sometimes they make money, and sometimes they don’t. If we don’t make money, it’s not seen as a failure by any means. If we’re able to connect the film to audiences and raise awareness around something, whether it’s through the press, impact screenings, sometimes it even goes up to the policy level, legislative level; sometimes it’s just seeing meaningful reactions by individuals in their daily lives. All of that is a huge part of why we make these films in the first place.
I will say that when we green light every film, whether it’s doc or narrative, we go through that process of – do we believe that it has at least a chance of being commercially viable? We have our business people running numbers and looking at comps [comparable titles]. So, we certainly look at that, and that’s an important part. Obviously when they do work, they’re generally reaching a lot of people, and we just put that back into more films. But by no means is it considered a failure if the films don’t make the money back if we really feel that we’ve been able to achieve something on the impact side. I think in that sense the company is pretty unique, at least a company working in LA, in Hollywood.
Is Participant putting up the majority of the finance, or is your involvement a piece of the puzzle for a filmmaker?
I would say that the majority of the documentaries that we are involved with, we have a large amount of the money in the films. We don’t usually fully finance, although there have been exceptions to that. But we often finance at a substantial level. We often partner with either other equity financiers, or sometimes another company. Once in a while, it will be an international co-production, with broadcasters and/or film funds involved. Sometimes we finance with non-recoupable grant money, so there may be a foundation or organisation, or sometimes an individual that really wants to support an issue, so that’s another piece of the financing.
For the most part, I would say that the films that we do, we have substantial equity in, so in that sense we’re assuming the risk because we are not a distribution company. We have to turn around and sell the films that we finance every time. Particularly now, because it’s a sellers’ market, and a lot of the distributors are just waiting to see the films when they’re finished, which they can do because they don’t really have to get involved at an earlier stage, in a financing stage.
That’s changing, of course, with the streaming companies who are commissioning more and more, and making the films and putting them out on their platforms. For us, we generally make them, and then we go to market. We try to go to an A-list film festival, and out of the festival get distribution.
Are you having conversations with the streaming companies during production?
No, the streaming companies now, I would say, are more and more just creating their own work. It used to be that they were very much in the acquisition business, and they still obviously acquire because they have a huge amount of content they need to acquire for their platform, the 24/7 platforms. But they are also … Particularly Netflix, but also Amazon, Hulu, and now of course there are a whole other group of these platforms getting into the game like Disney+… They would just commission their own work because they own it, then they’d put it on their platform. We can sell something to Netflix or Amazon, which we have done, but we wouldn’t be co-financing a project with them. We could co-finance with an entity that only has certain rights, like a broadcaster that doesn’t have theatrical rights, or an international broadcaster where we would still have domestic or other territories that wouldn’t be taken up by a license of a particular broadcaster. So, there are ways that we can piece things together with some of the rights gone. But what we normally try to do is to keep all the rights available, because that obviously gives you the most options in terms of being able to sell it, then your possibilities are wide open as opposed to, if certain aspects are gone… an all rights sale is going to be really hard to do, for example.
In terms of social impact, though, there is something to be said about the streaming platforms, don’t you think?
Sometimes, those are the considerations. How is the film going to be served best? To be quite honest, sometimes the streaming platform is the best way because it’s available globally, a lot of people can access it, and sometimes that makes the most sense. Other cases you have a film that you really want out theatrically, and it has its own pathway, and eventually ends up on a platform, or on air and then on a platform. Every one of these films is looked at individually, what it is, what’s the best pathway to market it, to get it out. Roma is one of ours. There was obviously a big conversation around it. I think at the end of the day, and Alfonso [Cuaron] has talked a lot about it, and our CEO, who is one of the EPs on the film, David Linde, and our President of Narrative Film & Television, Jon King – Roma is such a beautiful, personal, poetic film, it is black and white, it is partly in Spanish… Even being Alfonso Cuaron, that’s a harder sell in terms of the theatrical marketplace… having it out there where a lot of these films go out for a short period of time, then they’re knocked off screens and replaced with a blockbuster… Alfonso was able to get Netflix to do something they’d never done, which was really to do a rather large global theatrical release of the film. So, in a way they were able to do both. We got the theatrical feel of seeing that film on a big screen with Dolby sound, which is a type of experience that puts you out in a different way, than if you’re watching it on a small screen. It just does. But then you have a lot of people who can’t access those theatres, who wouldn’t be able to see it otherwise. The thought behind it is … Did you know both could happen with this particular model?
The other thing, I think, that needs to be said on any of these films, is also about who really is passionate about the film. People ask, ‘where do you want this to end up?’ I want to see who loves this film. I want to see who’s passionate, who’s going to get behind it, who’s going to support it. That means a lot. It’s not necessarily the biggest; passion goes a long way with me. I think that so much of what we do is passion driven and not necessarily economic driven, but we care, we make films, we want them out there. So, all of these factors go into that.