Coming soon to a theater near you: Jeffrey Skoll. Or, more accurately, a star-studded film with backing from the billionaire who developed eBay Inc.'s (EBAY ) business plan and was its first full-time employee. Skoll's company, Participant Productions, is off to a rousing start in its quest to promote social awareness on the big screen. Three of the highest-profile movies this fall have funding from the former eBay president: Good Night, and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow's battle with Senator Joseph McCarthy; North Country, starring Charlize Theron as a miner confronting sexual harassment (both films in theaters now); and Syriana, an oil espionage thriller starring George Clooney and Matt Damon due out Nov. 23.
Hollywood has a history of drawing in newly made millionaires anxious to buy access to the right parties with vanity projects. Some in the industry question if Skoll, worth some $3.5 billion, is any different. "I see guys come here and lose their fortunes all the time," says Brian Robinson, senior vice-president of worldwide marketing for Morgan Creek Productions.
But Skoll, who launched his firm with $100 million in early 2004, is not your usual rich dilettante (though the Financial Times did name him one of eight most eligible billionaire bachelors). The Montreal native moved from Silicon Valley to Beverly Hills last year to spend time questioning Hollywood players about why they don't make more movies with political messages. "The system's set up for safe bets: sequels, superheros, romantic comedies," he says. "All the people I met had a particular interest in doing something more meaningful. I thought if I could start a company that takes the risk out of doing these films, they'll get done."
One thing that sets Skoll's efforts apart is that each film has a social issues campaign. Just as he built an online community for eBay, he's trying to build one around his movies. The firm partners with nonprofits to launch Web awareness campaigns that it hopes will nurture a network on its Web site, participate.net. Users can start blogs -- even submit audio and video reports that may be picked up by "partners" such as PBS and XM Satellite Radio. Bloggers include people who inspired films, such as journalist Shirley Wershba, who was played by Patricia Clarkson in Good Night, and Good Luck.
That's a smart way to build networks, and it's smart business. The National Organization for Women and the Family Violence Prevention Fund plug North Country front and center on their Web sites, urging members to support the film and promoting sneak previews at 20 college campuses across the country.
Skoll wants his venture to make money, but says that's so he can plow it into more films: "For me, it's philanthropy. I don't expect to see any money come back to me personally." He measures social returns as well, so in theory, money-losing films can be successful. Skoll plans to look at things such as how much a film raises for nonprofit partners and how active social networks on the Web sites become.
This is not Skoll's first foray into "strategic philanthropy." He has given $567 million to support social entrepreneurs. He started a program at Oxford's Saïd Business School to train nonprofit leaders and funded a PBS miniseries about people making a difference in their communities. Next up on the big screen: director Richard Linklater's film of the book Fast Food Nation, a critical take on the fast-food industry. Skoll hopes it will beat out, say, Superman Returns.
By Jessi Hempel in New York