The crusading films leading the Oscar race

It's all about the message in Hollywood right now, judging by a clutch of films financed by eBay's philanthropic founder
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The Independent Culture

In normal circumstances, Hollywood wouldn't pay much attention to a self-righteous indie outfit using cinema as a soapbox. The corporations that own the major studios are far more interested in profit than in social change. However, in its short existence, Participant (founded in 2004) has shown an uncanny knack for supporting movies that combine tub-thumping polemic with mass audience appeal. At the same time, the company has attracted some illustrious collaborators - George Clooney, Charlize Theron, Steven Soderbergh and even Al Gore among them. It helps, too, that politically engaged movies are back in vogue. From Steven Spielberg's Munich to Fernando Meirelles' The Constant Gardener and Sam Mendes' Jarhead, big budget studio films suddenly seem prepared to tackle provocative, socially relevant themes.

Come Oscar night on 5 March, and several Participant-backed films will be slugging it out with the likes of Brokeback Mountain and Munich for the major awards. Good Night, and Good Luck, North Country and Syriana, all co-financed by Skoll, have picked up 10 Oscar nominations between them. Another Participant film, Murderball, is also in the running, for best documentary.

Ricky Strauss, Participant's head of production, acknowledges that Hollywood's initial reaction to Participant was sceptical. "In the beginning, people were suspicious, but what we offer with our mandate is the opportunity to facilitate good-quality entertainment that is compelling and commercial and happens to have social relevance at its core."

Unpick the jargon and what Strauss is saying is clear enough: even if the studios don't buy into the message, there is still the chance for them to make money. The marketing guru behind the release of such mainstream studio fare as Sleepless In Seattle and My Best Friend's Wedding, Strauss knows all about reaching audiences.

Participant is bound to antagonise some powerful special interest groups along the way. One doubts that the US meat industry will warm to its forthcoming adaptation of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, starring Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, which director Richard Linklater is midway through editing. Nor will the oil companies enjoy their activities being attacked in Stephen Gaghan's political thriller Syriana and Al Gore's new documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth (which premiered at Sundance last month).

Not that Skoll needs to worry about the bottom line. Thanks to eBay, which he co-founded, the 40-year-old Canadian-born entrepreneur has a personal fortune estimated at more than $5bn. He appears determined to give much of it away. Alongside Participant, he also runs his own philanthropic organisation, the Skoll Foundation. Neither organisation frets too much about profits. As Strauss explains: "If the movies are financially successful but haven't made an impact, that's really not a success to us. The ultimate success is through our social action campaigns - to have people go out there and make a difference."

Skoll and co are trying to turn viewers into political activists. Once cinemagoers have seen Syriana, they are invited to join various campaigns on Participant's website. They can lobby to "end human rights abuses in Nigeria's oil region", or "join a virtual march on Washington", or learn how to reduce their car's oil impact. After they've watched Clooney's Good Night, And Good Luck, about the legendary CBS anchorman Ed Murrow, they're invited to make donations to non-profit organisations working to preserve free speech. Younger viewers of North Country, in which Theron plays a woman working in the northern Minnesota mines, are asked to "implement a sexual harassment policy at your school".

There is nothing new in Hollywood making crusading, socially committed dramas. John Ford's The Grapes Of Wrath (1940) unashamedly attacked capitalist values and highlighted the plight of the dispossessed during the Depression era. King Vidor's Our Daily Bread (1934) showed a group of unemployed city dwellers setting up their own collective farm.

Warner Bros was famous in the 1930s for its socially committed ethos; from I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) to The Wrong Man (1956), there have been many movies about miscarriages of justice; from Silkwood (1983) to The Insider (1999) and Erin Brockovich (2000), Hollywood has also often celebrated whistleblowers; Michael Moore has broken box-office records with his polemical documentaries. It's a moot point, though, whether any of these films have successfully provoked social change. The debate generated in the UK by Ken Loach's TV film Cathy Come Home (1966), about a homeless young mother, led to the creation of the housing charity Shelter, but, as Loach himself has often pointed out, this was only a partial victory. Homelessness has increased rather than decreased.

So what chance does Participant have of changing the world? It's easy to scoff at the conceit of a billionaire philanthropist promoting social change through George Clooney movies. Nonetheless, Skoll has certainly been bold in the projects he has backed. Alongside Syriana, he has financed documentaries about children's education (The World According To Sesame Street) and the Chicago Seven (the radical students accused of trying to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.) Meanwhile, in the works, there are such features as American Gun, starring Donald Sutherland as a gunshop owner, and Electric Dreams, about a competition to create an electric car.

The danger now is that Participant may become a victim of its own success. As its films prosper at the box office and win awards, the public may lose sight of the messages they are ostensibly peddling. "It's important that our movies are perceived as entertaining," Strauss argues. "The more that audiences see the movies, the more they can respond to the issues that the films raise."

Strauss insists that the company is in the movie business for the long haul. "The idea is that, over time, the Participant brand will become synonymous with socially relevant entertainment," he says. "Our biggest focus is movies that affect the greatest amount of people - movies that make a difference in the lives of many."

There are clear hints that Participant's message is already getting through. When President Bush stood up to give his State Of The Union Address earlier this week and warned that the US must end its "addiction" to oil, you couldn't help but wonder if he had just come out of a screening of Syriana. Gaghan's multi-layered political thriller made exactly the same point, albeit in dramatic fashion.

Gaghan first began thinking about Syriana when he was researching his screenplay for Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, which explored the drugs trade and how its malign influence reaches into every corner of US society.

"At that time," Gaghan states, in language uncannily reminiscent of that used by Bush this week, "the Pentagon's anti-terrorism and anti-narcotics branches were the same branch. And I started thinking that maybe the biggest addiction in our country is how we're hooked on cheap foreign oil."

It would be pushing it to suggest that a Hollywood movie has had any influence on Bush's belated conversion to the idea that oil-dependence is bad politics, bad business and bad for the environment. The President is more likely to spend his weekends at Camp David watching Meet The Parents than in sitting down to an embroiled eco-conspiracy thriller. Nonetheless, Gaghan's film - like many of the other projects Participant has backed in its short life - is successfully keeping abreast of the news. (Often, when Hollywood tackles what it perceives to be a burning social issue, a film takes so long to make that the debate has already long since moved on by the time it is released.)

Syriana isn't just a thriller about the oil industry. It is also a savage satire about Washington cronyism and the consequences of deregulation. The film's most celebrated monologue sounds as if it could have come straight out of the mouth of the disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. "Corruption charges... corruption? Corruption is government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation. That's Milton Friedman. He got a goddam Nobel Prize. We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the street. Corruption... is why we win."

It is precisely to fight against such attitudes that Skoll set up Participant. As if to respond to Bush's call for an increase in "clean energy", Skoll announced last month that Syriana was to become "the first major motion picture to be 'climate neutral' by offsetting 100 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions generated by the production during filming - an estimated 2,040 tons - with investments in renewable energy."

With its dramatic movies performing so robustly, the company is now ramping up its documentary arm. Last year, Participant appointed the highly respected Diane Weyermann from Robert Redford's Sundance Institute as its new head of documentary production.

There are obvious overlaps between the dramatic and documentary work. Weyermann cites the "dovetailing" between Syriana and the Al Gore global warming film, which received a standing ovation when it was screened at Sundance. In the long run, it is envisaged that Participant's dramatic features will "bring in support and money that would be able to finance the documentary work". Nor has Weyermann discounted the possibility that Participant may look further afield and begin to support work from, say, Britain.

The media is already beginning to see this week's Oscar nominations as evidence of a sea-change in Hollywood. Among Academy members and critics there has been a backlash against bloated, tentpole movies like King Kong. Subjects that would recently have been the preserve of well-meaning TV movies or low-budget investigative documentaries are now seemingly acceptable in studio pictures. As Variety put it the day after the nominations were announced: "Racism, homophobia, terrorism, government prying and media glory-hogs -- what's not to like?"

Not since the days of Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when directors like Dennis Hopper, Bob Rafelson and Hal Ashby were briefly given licence to make challenging movies with at least a hint of a social conscience, have the liberals held such sway. Two years ago, stars like Tim Robbins and Sean Penn were pilloried in the US media for protesting against the war in Iraq. Now, partly thanks to Participant, they belong to what increasingly seems like a new mainstream.

Skoll was quoted this week as saying that celebrities made him "cringe". Whether Participant's 11 nominations will persuade him to turn up in person at the Oscars remains to be seen. Nor is it clear that the public is catching on to Participant's message as quickly as the Oscar voters. Despite all the ballyhoo surrounding their awards nominations, Participant movies have performed relatively modestly at the US box-office. (Thus far, Syriana has grossed less than $50m, Good Night, And Good Luck only $25m and North Country less than $20m - small change by Peter Jackson's standards.)

Then again, such figures will probably appear perfectly creditable to Skoll. He has always insisted that it's the message that matters - and he has the resources to keep his pledge whether or not the box-office tills ring.

'North Country' opens today; 'Good Night, and Good Luck' opens on 17 February; 'Syriana' opens on 3 March