Home Entertainment Hollywood Mourns Participant, the Oscar-Winning Studio that Wanted to Save the World

Hollywood Mourns Participant, the Oscar-Winning Studio that Wanted to Save the World

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End of an era, end of a business model, end of a gravy train, end of the world. There were plenty of mixed emotions this week in response to the closure of Oscar-winning production company Participant, and at the very least the industry has agreed something has come to an end.

When Variety broke the news Tuesday that billionaire Jeff Skoll’s 20-year-old company will shut down — after fetching 21 Oscars and introducing a business model that prioritized social impact a bit more than profits – many in the industry were rattled. Not just that mid-level, standalone financier and producer had left the market, but what that means for the viability of movies and TV shows that ask vital questions about justice and the humanity’s future.

“The end of Participant Media is devastating news to anyone who cares about documentaries,” director Julie Cohen wrote bluntly on X. She’s the co-director behind notable nonfiction films like “RBG,” “Julia” and “My Name is Pauli Murray.” Participant ushered in the era of prestige docs in 2006 with “An Inconvenient Truth,” about Al Gore’s devotion to climate action, which won the Academy Award for best documentary.

Dozens of industry players mourned the studio in Instagram stories and on group text threads, terrified that Participant’s co-productions like “Roma,” “Spotlight,” “Murderball,” “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “Flee” might not get made in a present-day Hollywood obsessed with cost-cutting and mired in a slowed-down streaming revolution.

“It’s very sad, but perhaps inevitable,” one C-suite Hollywood executive told Variety on the condition of anonymity. The exec, and two other top show business agents, agreed that Participant’s output had slowed too dramatically over the pandemic and in the wake of last year’s Hollywood labor strikes.

“If you’re coming out with one or two movies per year, you’d better blow the roof off like Legendary,” one the agents said, referencing the company which financed Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” series and just released the latest hit Godzilla film.

Participant had always chugged along with fewer than 10 theatrical film releases per year, but compensated for volume with critically acclaimed work from auteurs like Steven Spielberg and Alfonso Cuaron. The company did so running head-first into global issues like systemic corruption, climate change and human rights. Those values permeated the company culture and trained a generation of executives to think beyond box office grosses.

“After working at Participant, for every script I read or project I work on, I can’t help but question whether the finished show or movie will actively make the world a better place. And if the answer is no… then why bother?” said one former Participant staffer. “[They] didn’t always succeed in achieving their desired reach or goals, but if more companies in media followed their lead and put a world-bettering mission or product first, the planet would be a vastly different place. For that reason, Participant’s closure is a blow to us all.”

In a missive to his staff, Skoll nodded to the changing economics of how content is financed, produced and distributed, saying it was time for him to reevaluate how he could respond to the world’s most pressing issues. Others have openly wondered if perhaps Skoll got tired of writing checks. One report suggested he could’ve lost up to half a billion dollars over two decades, comparing his reported net worth prior to founding Participant ($5 billion) to today ($4.5 billion). Other industry players observed that activist investment is not, and perhaps never has been, a successful play in this town.

Participant’s folding will undoubtedly inspire questions around the survival of peers its size in the business. There is, perhaps, a faint silver lining for Skoll’s loyalists.

“Participant let me live my dream. Me, an immigrant starting from zero knowing zero people in the business. Showed me that entertainment and social action was possible,” wrote brand partnerships executive JL Hernandez, another former employee, on LinkedIn. “It was hard. But possible. Participant got me on this career track and gave me a path. But it never felt like work. Participant was home. I always say Participants are a different breed. And I’m grateful to be one.”

Angelique Jackson contributed to this report.