Participant’s Box Office Past Shows Why Its Closure Is Such a Loss: ‘It Didn’t Fail, It Just Ran Its Course’

The shocking news that Participant, a leading producer of specialized/independent features with a socially relevant interest as well many top documentaries, is shutting down immediately hit the industry hard Tuesday. With a profile of co-produced films over the last 20 years that rivals any other company’s slate, this was devastating news.

Founder and owner Jeff Skoll’s decision to shut down his company will impact the production of a certain kind of specialized film, particularly in the documentary field. Never a distributor, and most often collaborating with other production companies, Participant was still a significant force for most of its two decades.

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But what’s the real impact of this move? Jonathan Dana, a veteran distribution executive and producer, commented, “It didn’t fail. It just ran its course.” That typifies much of the insider reaction, which relates to the specific purpose and goals of the company.

SPOTLIGHT, from left: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, 2015. © Open Road Films /courtesy Everett Collection
‘Spotlight’ © Open Road Films /courtesy Everett CollectionEverett Collection / Everett Collection

Canadian billionaire Skoll’s goals for his company, referred to in the media and by industry observers as “the double bottom line” (calculating both financially but also by social impact), have been tougher to achieve in recent years. Though Participant films had won 21 Academy Awards (including Best Picture winners “Spotlight” and “Green Book”) and grossed over $3.3 billion worldwide, very little of that had come in the last three years.

Documentaries were central to their mission. Participant managed to not only make a big impact from its start (global warming doc “An Inconvenient Truth,” written by Al Gore, $50 million worldwide gross) but long into its existence (“RBG” on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, an impressive $14 million domestic gross in 2018).

But it was also a rare production company to balance narrative feature films with nonfiction, with an impressive array of features from George Clooney’s directorial debut “Good Night, and Good Luck” in 2005 and, more recently, “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.”

Participant’s success in both areas greatly diminished in recent years. A diverse slate — to name just a handful that included “The Cove,” “The Help,” “The Best Marigold Exotic Hotel,” “Lincoln,” “Beasts of No Nation,” “The Post,” “American Factory,” and “Roma” — saw fewer achievements at this level since Covid hit.

Also contributing is the general slump in specialized — even while it’s now rebounding somewhat, through documentaries other than those concert-related struggle. But the last year saw a rebound in films not dissimilar to Participant’s elevation of social themes (elements included in films like “Oppenheimer,” “Rustin,” “American Fiction,” “The Zone of Interest” among others) with significant success in several.

MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, Emayatzy E. Corinealdi, 2012. ©AFFRM/Courtesy Everett Collection
‘Middle of Nowhere’AFFRM/Courtesy Everett Collection

But recent times also saw the near-total disinterest in Ava Duverney’s “Origin,” a film that in past times would have seemed right up Participant’s alley. Participant co-produced Duvernay’s earlier “Middle of Nowhere,” and her company Array parallels many of Participant’s goals. Despite strong festival launches and some strong reviews, the film failed to find an audience despite the efforts of the capable people at Neon.

Specialized distributors these days are diversifying their lineups to include broader genres and approaches. A24 had led the way, particularly in appealing to younger viewers, but Neon (“Immaculate”), IFC (“Late Night with the Devil”), and others recently have scored with wide releases of horror and similar films. Diversification like that is increasingly important for production companies as well. (Curiously, A24 distributed only one Participant title, “A Most Violent Man,” and in 2014 just after they opened).

Apart from the positive imprimatur Participant added to projects it proposed, another asset they maintained was in marketing, particularly to activist groups who might be interested in their films.
Abramorama founder Richard Abramowitz, whose company has been a leader in elevating niche documentaries paralleling Participant’s years, contrasted them to some other production companies he worked with. “They were real contributors to the process, always collaborative, always smart.” He, like others, noted their particular set of skills in reaching targeted audiences.

Other current distributors, though regretting Participant’s demise, suggested the company’s absence will have less immediate impact than feared, citing their decreasing relevance in recent years. The closing was still unexpected, with the impression conveyed that it was a surprise, including within the company.

Whatever the circumstances or its declining success in its final years, Participant leaves not just a legacy but a model to be followed. And it has a staff full of some of the most innovative and experienced creators in specialized and independent production, who hopefully will resurrect much of what they did elsewhere.

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