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Participant Media hopes more filmgoers will get its messages

The company that built its reputation with 'An Inconvenient Truth' and 'The Help' aims for a wider audience with action, horror and comedy flicks that make a point.

March 13, 2013|By Daniel Miller, Los Angeles Times
  • "We are widening the focus," says Participant Media CEO Jim Berk. "After nine years and 43 films, we have permission to go into these other areas."
"We are widening the focus," says Participant Media CEO Jim… (Mark Leibowitz )

In "Snitch," a thriller set in the dangerous drug world, Dwayne Johnson plays a father who goes to work as a drug informant to free his jailed son.

The PG-13 film from Participant Media features a street fight, a car chase and a gun battle — high-octane action aimed at attracting the coveted young adult male audience.

It's not the kind of movie ordinarily associated with Participant, which has built its reputation on films with social messages, including the global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" and "The Help," about racism in the 1960s South.

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But "Snitch" is already a moderate success. It's an inexpensive movie that has made more in three weeks than some of the Beverly Hills company's high-minded films have made over their entire runs. And Participant plans to produce more movies like it.

It's a bold move, away from the well-meaning adult movies that have put the 9-year-old movie company on the map. But there's also great potential reward in burying the message inside an action package.

"There is always that risk mixing gold and glory," Peter Guber, a former studio head who is now chairman of Mandalay Entertainment Group, said in an email.

Participant Chief Executive Jim Berk said "Snitch" does have a message. The film examines mandatory sentencing laws, even though that plays second fiddle to the action.

Of Participant's nine to 12 movies a year, as many as two will be so-called "genre" films with an underlying message. Underway already are a supernatural thriller and an action picture. The production company also is considering comedies and animated features.

"We are widening the focus," said Berk, a former Los Angeles Unified School District principal turned Hollywood executive. "After nine years and 43 films, we have permission to go into these other areas."

Skeptics may question whether moviegoers will take these films' social messages to heart. Others wonder whether Participant, whose movies have won seven Oscars, risks tarnishing its brand. Founded by former EBay president and billionaire philanthropist Jeff Skoll, the company's mission is to effect social change while entertaining audiences.

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Like Guber, other industry observers agree that genre movies and social messages may not go hand in hand. Wheeler Winston Dixon, a film studies professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said social action campaigns for films such as "Snitch" are essentially marketing tools used to promote movies that are ultimately "bottom-line driven."

However, Berk cited opening-weekend exit poll data on "Snitch," conducted by the film's distributor, Summit Entertainment, that supports the idea that genre films can relay messages that audiences will seriously consider. Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed said they would be "definitely interested" in learning more about mandatory minimum sentencing laws after seeing the picture. (Just 4% were "definitely not interested.")

"There is something shrewd about reaching out to a younger audience or a more male audience that may not be going to the adult-oriented films Participant has been doing," said Marty Kaplan, an entertainment and media professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. (Participant is funding an ongoing audience study conducted by Kaplan at USC).

The company first dipped its toe into these waters in 2010, when it released "The Crazies," a horror movie that delved into the issues of biochemical weapons and water safety. But Participant didn't make another genre film until now because it couldn't find the right project, Berk said.

The company's next popcorn picture with a message is "Out of the Dark," a supernatural thriller about a corporate executive who moves his family to Colombia, only to wind up living in a haunted house.

The picture, which deals with ecological issues and the exploitation of native people in Latin America, is in preproduction and will begin shooting in Bogota in April. Casting is in progress for the film, which is budgeted at less than $10 million.

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"It's a ghost story, for sure," said Jonathan King, head of feature film production for Participant.

Also on deck is "Currency," a project in development from "Snitch" co-writer and director Ric Roman Waugh. The story centers on a counterfeiting ring and two former elite U.S. soldiers who square off against each other.

The action film would tackle issues such as veterans' care and the mental health of soldiers returning home. It is expected to be budgeted at about $30 million, said Waugh, a former stuntman. He noted that the film would have more action than "Snitch," which so far has grossed $31.9 million in the U.S. "Big explosions, car crashes, chases," said Waugh, who would direct the picture and is rewriting a script by Mark DiStefano.

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