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Activist Studio Hires New CEO

James Berk succeeds Jeff Skoll, who retains the chairman's post at Participant Productions.

September 08, 2006|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

The independent film company behind such movies as "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "An Inconvenient Truth" has hired a new chief executive to expand into other forms of media.

James Berk, former CEO of Hard Rock Cafe International and founding executive director of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, will head up the Beverly Hills office of Participant Productions.

Berk succeeds Jeff Skoll, the EBay billionaire who founded Participant in 2004 and retains the title of chairman. Participant's mandate is to produce films and documentaries with social messages.

For instance, last year's Academy Award nominee "Good Night, and Good Luck" was about the value of a free press. "An Inconvenient Truth" warns about the threats of global warming.

"Our intent is to continue to be a financially viable business, but we want to enlighten and empower people in becoming part of the change process," Berk said.

Berk expects to broaden the production company beyond feature films and documentaries to television and digital media by the end of the year.

Skoll said Berk, 46, was a natural fit to help expand the company. "Participant has the opportunity to use media to help influence people to get them excited and active," Skoll said. "Jim has had such a broad range of experiences. Part of the reason he has had such success is he brings intellectual curiosity and good values to his work."

Berk began his career as a music teacher and eventually founded the Academy of Music magnet program at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles. In 1990 he was named principal of Hamilton, becoming the youngest person ever to head a school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

A longtime resident of Los Angeles, Berk came to Participant from his post as CEO of Gryphon Colleges Corp., a private equity company operating for-profit schools.

Participant has racked up 11 Academy Award nominations since its founding. More important in Hollywood, the company has been profitable on all but one of its five movies. All the films were personally financed by Skoll, EBay Inc.'s first president, who left the online auction giant in 2000.

Since its release this summer, "An Inconvenient Truth" has taken in $23 million in domestic box-office sales.

The only Participant film that has been a box-office dud is the Charlize Theron drama "North Country." But Skoll said the film had the desired effect: It helped ensure renewal of the 2005 Violence Against Women Act, he said.

Some members of Congress who had seen the film at a screening told Skoll that it influenced their vote. The production company's upcoming release is "Fast Food Nation," a fictionalized film version of the bestselling book about the fast-food industry. The film will be released Nov. 17 by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.'s specialty division Fox Searchlight.

"My vision is to do as much good as I can and help the world be a sustainable place in the future," Skoll said.

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