Given the direction of the world in recent years, it’s perhaps no surprise that Participant — Jeff Skoll’s socially conscious production powerhouse — has been as prolific as ever. But its output isn’t all about shining a torch on today’s most pressing concerns, as Academy Awards winners such as Roma, Green Book and Spotlight attest.
That said, the studio comes to Venice with two somewhat topical documentary features. In All The Beauty and the Bloodshed, Laura Poitras (an Oscar winner for her Participant film CitizenFour) follows artist and activist Nan Goldin in a deeply personal battle as she fights to hold the Sackler family to account for the opioid crisis.
Meanwhile, A Compassionate Spy from Hoop Dreams director Steve James (also behind Participant’s first TV series, America to Me) tells the story of Ted Hall, who as a physicist on the Manhattan Project concluded that a U.S. post-war monopoly on nuclear weapons would lead to catastrophe, so began slipping key information to the Soviet Union.
For Participant’s executive vice president of content and platform strategy Liesl Copland — an industry vet who joined in early 2021 after a lengthy spell at Endeavor (where she worked closely with Participant on projects including America to Me) — the two films tap into the company’s ability to work with artists who can “see around corners” and hit issues in a “moment of relevance.” Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Copland likens documentarians to animals (in that they can see things coming before humans do), discusses the need to “smuggle in the messaging” with the creative and says that, while the 12 years since Participant’s An Inconvenient Truth has only seen the climate crisis get worse, she considers the influence of the company’s social impact mandate to be part of “death by a thousand cuts.”
How close are the two docs you have in Venice to your heart and how do they represent what Participant is all about?
It’s hard for me not to speak from just a pure personal place. When I moved to New York in the 90s, Nan Goldin was a hero to many of us living in the East Village. So to see this one fierce woman risk her career by fighting the Sacklers and hold them accountable in the art space, where they really made their reputation, and then [in a documentary from] a heroic filmmaker like Laura Poitras, who has really put herself into these intense important stories, probably at great personal risk, at least for her past films… that was a call to arms for anyone like myself. I feel like that is one of those once-in-a-lifetime stories that you get to be a part of. And the first time I met Steve James I was at Cinetic and it was for the Criterion Collection of Hoop Dreams, and I’ve had the great opportunity to work with him over many projects over the years. A Compassionate Spy is really about a person, a wunderkind who was tapped to go into the Manhattan Project but had a conscious and was worrying about world superpowers and what’s fair and what’s morality. And what a great opportunity to revisit that story and its impact on nuclear history when you’ve got the [Christopher] Nolan film [Oppenheimer] coming out.
We like to work with artists who sort of see around the corners right ahead of what issues are going to be the important issues of our time and hit them in a moment of relevance. And I feel like looking back at the opioid crisis, and you know how to stand up and show up, and then looking into the moment where we’re re-examining the global superpower world where right now wars are mostly digital…. just looking back that history and thinking about being a person on the world stage with a conscience I think are things that are sort of juicy.
Is it just a happy coincidence that A Compassionate Spy is coming out just when buzz around Chris Nolan’s Oppenheimer is building?
I think so, but Steve has his tuning fork that he responds to. People like the Rosenbergs are being revisited, and then there’s McCarthyism. So I do think that artists, in the same way that animals hear earthquakes or tsunamis coming before people do, see it coming. So it’s no accident that you’ll have projects that touch on the same subject.
Given that you’ve got two docs in Venice, has there been a move towards documentaries at Participant?
When you think about COVID, so much production stopped and documentarians were like, well, I’ve been working on this thing for 12 years. And they can shoot more leanly. So I think across the industry docs had a much more nimble way of staying in production. But I joined in March 2021 and the first 12 months were entirely focused on the feature business, because it was just getting back to production. We invested in the film Costa Brava, Lebanon, we’ve got Shirley with Regina King and John Ridley on Netflix, we’re doing a Disney+ film based on the YA novel Out of My Mind, we’re working with A24 on Khalil Joseph’s BLKNWS, and White Bird, part of the Wonder universe, with Lionsgate. I don’t think we did it on purpose, but next year we have around 12 movies coming out. But now we’re now in the wave of the docs this year hitting festivals.
Taking into account Participant’s ethos of making projects with a social conscience, when it comes to strategizing distribution how do you juggle wanting to ensure they’re seen by as many people as possible and wanting a return on investment? Is that a balancing act?
I think that’s exactly the question, because the breadth of audience for us creates a platform for really long impact work. So for Roma, which had a cinematic rollout on Netflix, it had a feeling of longevity to it. The campaign for that project ran for two full years and changed laws in Mexico about domestic workers and had a tremendous longtail for us. For us, that audience reach is really important. My motto is “selling is pre-selling”. For instance, with Lowndes County, the doc we made with Sam Pollard and Geeta Gandbhir that premiered in Tribeca, we were talking to Peacock, who had done a tremendous marketing work around Black History Month, and it ended up being a nine-month-long conversation before we really had a deal with them. So I think you have to create that understanding. Everything’s moving so fast. Everyone has such big slates. But there’s the opportunity to really really pace out how to partner with distribution. And it’s the deep strategy work that brings some really great rewards. It’s not just sales, it’s much more collegial.
Given the current state of the world and what’s going on outside people’s doors, do you think audiences still have the appetite to watch films or TV shows that come with a socially conscious message?
We know distinctly that you can’t sort of shake your fingers at people or say they must know this because it’s important. That methodology has come and gone. Some of my colleagues say that you have to smuggle in the messaging or the social impact with the creative. To me, something like Everything Everywhere All at Once comes with a message, and it was amazing to watch. We have to know that that’s how to do it. To me, Triangle of Sadness has a lot to say. So we think about how to evolve the boundaries of the brand to be, for example, in the genre space. Even something like Brittany Runs A Marathon can have so much impact. Or CODA. It’s sort of everywhere now. But what we have to do is keep pushing that forward because we think of ourselves the axis of that.
And, sorry for keeping the hat of negativity on, but it’s been 12 years since An Inconvenient Truth and the world is currently facing what is considered to be a climate catastrophe. Is there any sense that, for all the people watching these films, it’s not making a blind bit of difference?
You’re not going to find me being negative. I think it’s practically been scientifically proven that we wouldn’t have gay marriage if it weren’t for Will & Grace. I think things fall by death by a thousand cuts. And that’s why we made An Inconvenient Sequel. I remember Al Gore said being able to watch so many documentaries was like the Guttenberg Press. It creates an open mind and allows people to think differently and those things accumulate over time.
Participant produced Contagion which obviously got a lot of attention at the start of the pandemic. Have you been going through the back catalog to see what might be coming next?
That movie did get a tremendous audience at the beginning at the pandemic which seems both extremely exciting and counterintuitive at the same time. I joined about a year later. But we do think about that and there’s so much rabbit hole opportunity. We talk with our international partners a lot about it, whether it’s their back catalog or our back catalog, to maybe bring to the fore something that’s feeling relevant again. But I can’t say there’s going to be a pandemic sequel. But it’s a very telling thing how prescient that film, unfortunately, was.