Who said being socially responsible with your money couldn't be fun? Certainly not Jeff Skoll, the Canadian-born co-founder of eBay, who is now trying his hand at being a Hollywood movie mogul through Participant Productions, which he launched in January 2004. But while glitzy red-carpet premières with the likes of actors George Clooney and Charlize Theron certainly have their charms, what's most important to Skoll ? No. 4 on the Rich 100 with an estimated net worth of $5.07 billion ? is that he's finally getting the chance to tell stories he hopes will make the world a better place.
“Creating Participant to focus on socially relevant movies was a good way to get a project made that otherwise would not have been made,” says Skoll, 40, in a phone interview from Los Angeles. The films he has brought to the screen this fall have certainly lifted the level of political awareness coming out of Hollywood. North Country, with Oscar-winner Theron, deals with sexual harassment in the coal mines; Good Night, and Good Luck, directed by and starring Hollywood A-lister Clooney, looks at Edward R. Murrow's battle with Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s; and Syriana, also starring Clooney, is a complex political thriller that takes on Big Oil. All three films have received critical acclaim. With luck, they'll also be profitable, though Skoll acknowledges the movie business is “a very difficult business.”
From the time he was a teenager in Montreal, Skoll believed in the “power of storytelling” to do good. But he realized that to pursue his goal, he needed more money than a starving-artist lifestyle offers. “I decided to go down an entrepreneurial path so I could get independent enough to write these stories,” he says. With eBay's success, “the financial independence I got was a lot more than I ever would have dreamed of.” By then, however, Skoll's obligations were such that he couldn't pursue the writing himself. Then “a light bulb went off,” he says, and he realized he could financially back stories he wanted to see on film.
Skoll says sometimes it makes sense to pass on a worthy project and give money directly to the cause it champions. Greenlighted films are those he believes have the power to spur audiences into action. Participant-backed movies are usually linked to an organization that people can add their voice to; with Syriana, it's Oil Change, a coalition of groups that campaign to reduce our dependence on oil.
Skoll lists Gandhi, The China Syndrome and All the President's Men among his favourite films, and says these classics with a conscience prove “there is a market for this kind of film.” He has high hopes Participant's own movies “will show there is a way to create high-quality entertainment that is about something.”