Founded by former eBay president Jeff Skoll, Participant Media is a production house that uses powerful stories to inspire and energize people to take social action. The company has produced documentaries and films including An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc., A Place at the Table and Waiting for Superman which tackle meaningful causes including global warming, quality of food and state of education in the U.S. After attracting viewers, Participant Media mobilizes them to act through social action campaigns, which live on the studio’s digital platform TakePart.
Good.is blogger Bekah Wright noted:
“A film can have the power to spur conversation and spark an audience’s empathy, passion, and curiosity. For Los Angeles-based Participant Media, the visual storytelling power of movies is an invaluable tool to create meaningful impact…
“Continuously gaining momentum, Participant focuses on three elements for each of its film projects: quality, well-told stories, commercial potential, and social relevance.”
Film critic Joseph Jon Lanthier pointed out:
“Unique to Participant’s model is its devotion to content that entertains first and compels social change second, a prioritization that speaks less to the commercial nature of the company than to the order in which audiences are inspired to get involved.”
Michael Reynolds, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Storytelling in Canada, explains why storytelling is an effective tool in inspiring action:
“When you hear a story, or when you connect with something, you’re perspective can really change. You’re allowed to see the world through their eyes, and that really builds empathy and understanding which is critical in confronting a lot of the issues we see in the world today.”
Participant Media typically partners with non-profit organizations that share the same passion for each film’s cause. These organizations support the promotion efforts of the film, and Participant Media encourages viewers to support the organizations’ initiatives.
Huffington Post blogger Dr. Lloyd Sederer noted:
“Each Participant film is accompanied by a social action campaign to propagate the film’s message by enabling viewers to become involved. Each film has a small group of selected social sector organizations whose values and activities resonate with the film and who themselves are making change happen. Courage needs fellow travelers, and Participant Media picks theirs carefully.”
Fast Co.CREATE’s Ari Karpel noted:
“Participant’s social action campaigns begin months in advance of a movie’s release, with screenings for people who are the experts. That helps to build word-of-mouth within the industries affected; often those groups will bring their stakeholders to theaters on opening night and Participant will sponsor conversations and invite the media.”
TakePart makes it easy for viewers and first time activists to get involved, by offering a ladder of actions – from simple online pledges to offline actions such as volunteering or contacting local authorities. These social advocacy actions are curated and promoted on TakePart.
As is mentioned on the Race2BHuman blog:
“TakePart not only moves these discussions forward through the social activism propagated by the films they promote, but also provides direction on what you can do for almost any aspect of your life to live healthier, more aware, and more a part of positive change in our country.”
TakePart provides a stream of original content – blog posts and videos – on issues around environment and wildlife, health and food, culture and social justice. The platform also curates content around the same topics.
Most blog posts are accompanied with a “Take Action” button:
“Just think: Every day, millions of people read stories around the web that make them wish they could do something about the issue they just learned about. That’s where the TakePart Take Action button comes in. It matches inspiring content to relevant and credible actions you can take to make a difference. We’ve partnered with the leading organizations across dozens of fields to deliver trustworthy actions intended for real good.”
As an example, here are the actions linked to a blog post on captivity and mistreatment of marine wildlife – also the subject of the Participant Media production The Cove:
TakePart pledges are structurally similar to crowdfunding campaigns, displaying amount of time left to raise support and progress made towards the goal. The “Take Action” section of the website provides an overview of all ongoing pledges and petition.
Another interesting aspect of the TakePart platform is the Impact Dashboard, which lets people keep track of their actions:
“The Impact Dashboard is where you can track the progress of all the actions you take, discover new actions, and find recent news and information related to important causes.”
TakePart also creates a microsite or “action center” for each film it promotes. For instance, the Action Center for The Cove provides background around the issue and lists the steps people can take to contribute to a solution.
The Action Center for A Place at the Table shows the faces and stories of people who have benefited from food assistance, mobilizes people to sign a petition, call their local congressman and offers resources for people in need of help. People can also stay up to date via email newsletter and SMS.
“If you visit Take Part’s website, you can find a wealth of information about pandemics. You will see interactive maps about where disease outbreaks are occurring in the world. You can take a quiz to discover how much you know about pandemic diseases. You can learn about “Virus Hunters” – the people who track the viruses that have the potential to develop into pandemics and work tirelessly to prevent that from happening. You can even track Patient X through Facebook and discover a whole new meaning to the term “going viral.”
In October 2012, Participant Media launched YouTube channel TakePartTV to expand its social reach. The channel features original video content and shows such as daily news show Brain Food Daily, and American Savage featuring Dan Savage (founder of It Gets Better).
Participant Media also recently announced the upcoming launch of Pivot – a TV channel aimed at millennials – in August 2013.
AdAge’s Maureen Maurrison noted:
“Media companies, too, are catering to millennials. Participant Media, the company behind films like “Lincoln” and “The Help,” is launching a cable network targeting the demographic this summer positioned as a vehicle for content that inspires social change. Participant believes the generation has the strong desire and capacity to help change the world.”
While some thinkers are skeptical about Participant Media’s foray into entertainment platforms, others believe that disruptive video will be a game-changer for brands in 2013.
Deadline.com’s David Lieberman wrote:
“The mission is admirable. But after seeing Current TV’s struggles, I wonder whether the socially conscious film and TV production company can attract many young YouTube viewers to a channel that focuses on weighty subjects including the elections, the environment, sexism and homelessness.”
Forbes contributor Kare Anderson speculated on opportunities for brands to partner with TakePart TV:
“Your organization might co-sponsor a crowdsourcing campaign to spur action related to the movie’s message, or crowdfunding of related project. Alternatively it could be co-hosting premieres, or your products as prizes for those with proof of advance ticket purchase to bring a group of their friends to the movie, the first week it is out. Or co-host a part of the TakePart TV YouTube channel for people to post their short videos of what they most liked about the movie and the action they will take as a consequence of seeing it.”
Participant Media’s EVP of social action and advocacy Chad Boettcher commented:
“We’re moving more towards measuring outcomes. Did the film actually move towards impact? One of the keywords we’re looking at now is ‘shift.’ What shifted from before the film to after? And can we maintain that shift? It’s great if we can make change in the short term, but how do we sustain it?”
Not only does the company need to prove its impact on driving real change, it also needs to prove its model is financially sustainable.
As Forbes’ Kerry Dolan noted:
“The financial success of the Participant Network is far from guaranteed, particularly given the difficulties that Oprah Winfrey has had with OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. Skoll has deep pockets, though, and is passionate about using media to influence change.”
After a conversation with Participant Media CEO Jim Berk, NY Times journalist Michael Cieply noted:
“In measuring its success, Participant sometimes resorts to an unusual standard: On losers, the company assesses whether Mr. Skoll could have exerted more impact simply by spending his money philanthropically.”
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