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.

Premieres of animation Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, professional sceptics documentary Merchants Of Doubt and The Look Of Silence 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.

“Participant was founded on the basis of the double bottom line, which is financial success like any other for-profit media company and social impact,” he says. “We look at things through a dual lens so if a movie is successful and has social impact, that’s the highest level success.

“But a movie can also have social impact and not be as successful ― sometimes documentaries spark policy changes at the federal level but they might not have been big box-office hits, like Last Call At The Oasis or A Place At The Table, which were seen by the right people and led to national change.”

A Place At The Table inspired the West Virginia Feed To Achieve Act, which changed policy on school breakfasts. Middle Of Nowhere spurred the Federal Communications Commission to issue new guidelines on exorbitant ‘predatory phone rates’ in US prisons.

“We greenlight films that are really good stories,” says Berk. “Without that it doesn’t matter what the issue is ― we’re not doing the film… We just have that additional filter of saying, ‘OK can this film in success create a conversation, change personal behaviour, raise awareness?’

“Jeff’s interest is in creating a sustainable asset and creating value in that piece, so it’s allowed us to be bolder, to be innovative and take what we call ‘smart chances’.”

Lincoln and The Help are cases in point. “Virtually every studio passed [on The Help]. DreamWorks was kind of the last stop. Nobody saw a movie like that would have international appeal for a lot of good reasons ― African-American film, period piece, not starring one of the half-a-dozen bankable big stars and a first-time director for a film of that size.”

Lincoln garnered two Oscars including best actor for Daniel Day-Lewis and grossed $275m worldwide, while The Help finished on $216m worldwide and scored a best supporting actress Oscar for Octavia Spencer.

A growing remit

Berk thinks and speaks quickly, rattling off titles and deal points as his enthusiasm for a subject takes hold. Participant’s defiance of the risk-averse Hollywood zeitgeist really gets him going and he hoists himself up in his chair, sitting cross-legged.

He says that Skoll’s role as a hands-off yet involved benefactor creates a culture devoid of insecurity. “The media business, more than many others, deals in cycles, seasons, box-office years. There’s a fairly low threshold for not having a financial success.

“When you have private ownership in a company with no debt, no bankers, you’re in a very clear alignment with the mission of the person who is the owner of the company, you’re in a very unique position. He’s dealing in decades… It’s about building towards a larger goal.”

He first met Skoll in 2006 after a headhunter came knocking. “I came out and met him and in the first 10 minutes I thought, ‘This guy’s real.’ In the second 20 minutes I thought, ‘I love this guy.’ He’s a very unassuming guy and I realised he really wanted to do this, to create something.”

Participant Productions, as it was called (the change to Participant Media would come in January 2008) had been going for 18 months and burst out of the gates with Good Night, And Good Luck; Syriana; North Country and An Inconvenient Truth.

“It started in the back of [now Focus Features CEO] Peter Schlessel’s office and when I came on I was the 17th employee. Jeff had this mission and said he was an entrepreneur who starts things and brings in professional management to grow them and he focuses on the big picture.

“He wanted it to be the most successful media company in the world, focused on entertainment that inspires and compels social change.”

The company’s first iteration was as a financier. With Berk on board, the remit grew. “Over the years we kept expanding the film piece of it,” he says. “We started our own productions, we launched our digital portal, we formed a social impact and marketing group and we started investing in businesses that could drive our strategy.”

One such move came in April 2007 when Participant Media became the largest individual equity investor in Summit Entertainment. The vampires of Twilight served them well and it was only the very favourable terms of the Lionsgate takeover in 2012 that convinced Skoll, Berk and co to relinquish their stake.

Participant moved into television last year with the Pivot network and has been an active media investor, acquiring positions in Canada’s Cineflix Media and tech mogul Oliver Luckett’s social media start-up theAudience.

At the start of the summer, Participant joined a $350m fund backed by TPG Growth and Evolution Media Capital to make strategic investments in global entities.

Global reach

International expansion is a priority. “One thing we always do in international markets is look for partners because we have no expectation that we have the expertise, sensitivity from a cultural standpoint or business and operations standpoint to be able to understand what a market’s like.

“We expect that Pan America is also going to be Pan Europe and Pan Arabia and Pan Asia and again the idea that these are films from and for those areas.” When pressed on timelines, Berk says he hopes to be in a new territory “in the next two years”.

He declines to go into detail but offers tantalising commentary along the way. “Could I envision we have offices in Mexico City and China?

Absolutely?” Later he adds: “I could easily see us doing eight, 10 films a year across all of Europe. I could easily see us doing two or three Indian films a year, I could see us doing the same in the Middle East, Asia.”

Will there be an imminent announcement? For the first time, Berk is tongue-tied, his silence as eloquent as anything he has said all day.

Upcoming slate

Jessica Yu’s population-growth documentary

A Most Violent Year
JC Chandor’s crime drama (US release November 12 by A24)

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
John Madden’s sequel will be released by Fox Searchlight on March 6, 2015

El Ardor
Pablo Fendrik’s Argentinian dramatic thriller premiered in Cannes; Gael Garcia Bernal stars

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet
Producer Salma Hayek presented the animated omnibus film as a work in progress at Cannes; it plays as a Special Presentation in Toronto

Beasts Of No Nation
Cary Fukunaga’s child-soldier drama stars Idris Elba; Focus Features will release in 2015

Davis Guggenheim documentary about Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai

A Monster Calls
JA Bayona’s fantasy film starring Liam Neeson; Focus Features will release in 2016

Deepwater Horizon
JC Chandor is to direct the oil-rig explosion story; Summit/ Lionsgate to release