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How Participant Media Gets You To Care About Making The World A Better Place

By using entertainment to compel social change, the company proves that doing good can also be good for business.

How Participant Media Gets You To Care About Making The World A Better Place
[Image: Flickr user Eduard V. Kurganov]

What do the films An Inconvenient Truth, Food, Inc., The Help, and Lincoln all have in common?

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They were produced by Participant Media, and launched countless conversations across the globe. That’s the intent of the company, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, with the release of twelve new films in 2014.

We named Participant Media a Most Innovative Company in Film for its ability to shine light on issues that need attention – from mass dolphin killings in “The Cove,” to labor reform in last month’s “Cesar Chavez.” We recently spoke with CEO Jim Berk to find out how the company manages to keep investors happy while making the world a better place.

“The whole concept for the company is to focus on the double bottom line–commercial success and social impact,” Berk says. By telling a good story well, Participant Media has been able to extend conversations outside theaters and into communities.

“It’s not about point-of-view, we’re not partisan, we’re progressive,” Berk explains. “We don’t tell people what to think, we want to inspire people to think.” Participant Media started as a film company and expanded into digital four years ago with Takepart.com, a site that transforms the conversation from the screen to taking action, including signing a petition, making a donation, or taking a pledge. According to Berk, more than 3.5 million people have joined Participant’s communities, and its website had 7.5 million users in February 2014.

“Every film has a campaign,” Berk explains. For example, 2012’s Middle of Nowhere, a film about the struggle to maintain strong connections between inmates and their families, brought to light predatory calling rates (up to $10 per minute) charged to families. The film highlighted the link between recidivism and an inmate’s connection with family and loved ones back home, and was instrumental in the FCC’s 2013 decision to cap prison phone rates, reducing costs by nearly 80 percent and resulting in $1 billion savings per year.

The company (and its employees) is serious about improving the world. “[Participant Media] aspires to be the most prominent media company for social impact,” Berk says. “[We] need people who truly believe they can do that. If not… they look at it as just a job,” he says.

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“In the early days, [the company] would look at senior executives, they’d be intellectually extraordinary with spot-on experience, but didn’t possess a passion for the vision of the company and what we’re trying to achieve –without that, you lose the spark of innovation,” Berk says. He recalls a candidate who had excellent credentials, but didn’t care about the company’s mission. Needless to say, the candidate did not receive an offer.

What started as a production company aiming to prove the maxim “doing good is good business,” Participant Media has evolved, over the last decade, into a multi-platform force to be reckoned with. In addition to its digital presence, the company launched Pivot, a millennial-focused television station, in 2013. The expansion was necessary, Berk says, due to the changing ways people view content. “You can no longer operate in a silo of one media platform,” he says.

The company has plans to expand internationally, telling compelling stories in all major languages, Berk says. One thing is certain to remain the same: “In the end, it comes down to storytelling – stories well told.”

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About the author

Lindsay LaVine is a Chicago-based business and lifestyle freelance writer who's worked for NBC and CNN. Her work has appeared online in Entrepreneur.com, Reuters.com, Today.com, NBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo, Business Insider, BlogHer.com and Fox Business.

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