Oscars Provide Stage for Participant Media’s Comeback Story


Films with a message have never been easy to sell to the moviegoing masses. Matt Damon in a fracking drama (“Promised Land,” a 2012 Participant effort) has a hard time competing with “Avengers: Infinity War” in 3-D.

But Participant, founded to create positive social change, in part by rolling out specific action campaigns alongside film releases, scored a home run relatively quickly. “An Inconvenient Truth,” in which former Vice President Al Gore spoke about the dangers of climate change, took in $50 million, a huge total for a nonfiction film, and won two Oscars, including best documentary. Moreover, “An Inconvenient Truth,” directed by Davis Guggenheim, made more people pay attention to climate change.

In the coming years, Participant had other hits, including “The Help” (2011), focused on racial reconciliation and made in partnership with DreamWorks, and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011), about seniors combating loneliness. The newspaper drama “Spotlight” (2015), made with Anonymous Content and others, was named best picture at the Academy Awards.

Consistency, however, was nonexistent. For every success, Participant had several expensive misfires, including “The Beaver,” “Fair Game” and “Our Brand Is Crisis.” No studio has a perfect track record, but whipsawing results make it especially hard for independent film companies like Participant to stay afloat, even when they have billionaire benefactors.

Participant, then under the leadership of James G. Berk, who came to the company from the Hard Rock restaurant chain, was also expanding in puzzling ways. Mr. Berk started a cable channel, Pivot — just as the cable business began to falter. Other offshoot businesses included TakePart, a digital publishing effort.

And the movie business was growing only harder. Younger people, in particular, were becoming much choosier about what movies were worth seeing in a theater.

Enter Mr. Linde in late 2015.

Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Linde, 59, is a consummate Hollywood insider, cutting his teeth at Miramax with Harvey Weinstein in the 1990s before becoming co-president of Focus Features and ultimately chairman of Universal. He arrived at Participant after running his own film company, Lava Bear, best known for making the science-fiction hit “Arrival.”

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