While Grieving the Loss of Participant, We Should Celebrate the World It Made Possible (Opinion)

With a mission wholly unique at the time, make money while inspiring social change through entertainment, Participant Media managed to rewrite the rules of Hollywood during its all too short 20-year run. The studio singlehandedly proved to the world that you can produce unbelievably great films that have an impact, and audiences will go see them. Most studios and filmmakers working today owe a debt of gratitude to Jeff Skoll and his team of visionaries. That’s why the announcement that the studio will be shutting its doors felt like a gut punch, especially at a time when Hollywood is feeling a bit limp and lifeless.

Amidst the backdrop of faltering democracies, news and information channels that appear polarized, a marathon pandemic, and the proliferation of streaming, entertainment media still stands king as a unifier, capable of bringing together broad swathes of audiences. So, while Participant’s award-winning documentary “He Named Me Malala” should be required viewing for all young kids, the truth is the most far-reaching film touting female empowerment and gender equality may have come from last year’s “Barbie.” Masquerading as a horror film, Jordon Peele’s blockbuster “Get Out” turned out to be a compelling thought starter about generational trauma around slavery in a “post-racial” America. And while a prestige film like “Milk” may have changed some opinions around gay rights, it was the increased visibility of a defiant LGBTQ+ community and decades of popular, mainstream television like “Will and Grace,” “Glee,” “Modern Family,” and “Noah’s Arc” that helped push the issue forward. Audiences have shown us that they want entertainment with broader appeal and perhaps it’s time we meet them where they are. 

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Instead of seeing a world without Participant, I choose to see the world that Participant has made possible. And that’s a world where creators are needed more than ever. 

It is our duty to encourage fellow storytellers, film financiers, and artists to infuse their wildly entertaining films and shows with important and timely messages. And companies like MACRO, Madison Wells, and Picture Motion are already leading the charge. At 1Community, the co-finance and production company I founded 6-years ago, we believe entertainment should be both profitable and profound. Our mission is to fuse entertainment, and real-world impact to create a platform for dialogue and understanding. We set out to make popular films that are part of the zeitgeist, films that belong to the bigger conversation without dominating it. Films that can bring our now divided communities together once again.

Our upcoming feature “Nonnas,” is a comedic love letter to Italian-American matriarchs that tackles aging, and grief in an approachable way. “Firebreak” is a documentary series about the power of second chances featuring California inmates fighting the region’s devastating wildfires, the perfect mix of real-life action with a message of redemption and transformation.

These are the kinds of compelling stories we are dedicated to telling, stories that light up screens and inspire social change. Stories with the power to unify our fractured world. It’s time that we work together to evolve entertainment and help restore the industry we all love – and that’s work where “participants” are very much needed.

About the Author

Scott Budnick is a film producer, Founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) and CEO of 1Community, an entertainment production and co-finance company using the power of storytelling to drive real-world impact.

As the Executive Vice President of Todd Phillips’ Green Hat Films, Budnick produced “Old School,” “Due Date,” and the highest-grossing R-rated comedy trilogy in film history, “The Hangover,” which grossed over $1.4 billion.

Since 2004, Scott has been a fierce advocate for social justice and a fairer judicial system. In 2003, he began volunteering with InsideOUT Writers (IOW), which brings creative writing into juvenile halls. In 2014, he founded ARC, whose mission is to reduce incarceration, improve the outcomes of formerly incarcerated individuals, and build healthier communities. ARC provides formerly incarcerated men and women with direct services such as housing, counseling, job training and opportunities, mentoring, and education. The organization also empowers and mobilizes its members to play a role in justice reform efforts through policy advocacy.

For his work with youth in the criminal justice system, Gov. Jerry Brown named Scott the 2012 California Governor’s Volunteer of the Year. He sits on the Board of State and Community Corrections and serves as a Board Member for President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.

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