Documentary Market Shudders as Participant Media Shuts: ‘Docs Are So Dead’

At a time when mature films are hard to find outside of arthouse theaters, the news Tuesday that Participant Media has shut down after 20 years in Hollywood was a crushing blow for many movie lovers. But for the documentary market, it may be even worse.

“There are other places to go to get a social impact doc funded…but Participant was so good at bringing a doc into the world in a big high impact way,” award-winning director Julie Cohen told TheWrap.

Cohen should know. Participant was a co-producer on two documentaries she co-directed with Betsy West: “RBG,” the 2018 Oscar-nominated doc on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the 2021 doc “My Name is Pauli Murray,” about the lawyer and activist who served as one of Ginsburg’s greatest influences.

Participant also brought forth Oscar winners “The Cove,” an expose on the dolphin hunting industry in Japan; “Citizenfour,” which tells NSA whistelblower Edward Snowden’s story; and Al Gore’s historic climate change doc “An Inconvenient Truth.” That’s just a fraction of the dozens of titles that received acclaim and awards recognition during the company’s two-decade run.

Across Hollywood and the media landscape on Tuesday, documentarians, producers and their colleagues called one another in a panic after the company’s demise was announced, as documentaries have already been facing rough times.

“Participant closing — docs are so dead,” wrote one despondent producer who confessed to being “totally rocked” by the news of the closure. “They’re dropping like flies.”

Another documentary producer told TheWrap that he saw a significant decline in buyer interest in docs at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, describing it as a “death knell” for such films. In their place, celebrity-driven fare like “The Greatest Night in Pop,” about the making of “We Are the World” or “Harry and Meghan” on Netflix have become hot items.

That trend makes the loss of Participant a blow to filmmakers. The studio was such a significant player in the documentary space not only because of its commitment to financing and producing projects that explored important issues, Cohen explained. Equally important was Participant’s ability to sell those docs as films that needed to be seen in a theater by mass audiences — and to channel interest in them into social movements to create change.

“They have people there that just really know what they’re doing. It’s not just all peace and love,” she said. “It’s people that really understand the film industry… (with) big, serious business and marketing experience and PR people that are incredible and people that have connections to all of the non-theatrical stuff that you can do to promote a film before it comes out.”

She added: “There’s just a lot of complicated moving parts to what we do, and Participant knew how to do all.”

Jeff Skoll and Al Gore in 2017
Jeff Skoll and Al Gore in 2017 – Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The company, founded by Canadian billionaire and original eBay president Jeff Skoll in 2004, accumulated $3.3 billion in lifetime grosses for its films, distributed by partners. But Participant based its success on a “double bottom line,” measuring films not only by the money they made but also on the social change they triggered. The studio’s 2019 true-story scripted drama “Dark Waters” raised awareness in Washington and in the European Union about the presence of dangerous “forever chemicals” in drinking water. And in 2020 Participant supported efforts to increase voter registration in Georgia as part of the release of “John Lewis: Good Trouble.”

Skoll made reference to that legacy when he announced the company’s shutdown on Tuesday.

“I founded Participant with the mission of creating world-class content that inspires positive social change, prioritizing impact alongside commercial sustainability,” Skoll wrote in a memo to employees. “Since then, the entertainment industry has seen revolutionary changes in how content is created, distributed and consumed.”

For some time, those changes that Skoll mentioned worked to the benefit of documentarians. In the late 2010s, the massive boom in demand for film and TV projects on streaming led Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and Apple TV+ to turn the doc space into a sellers’ market. The Sundance Film Festival became a hot spot for bidding wars, and during Donald Trump’s presidency, hunger rose for socially conscious projects among the left-leaning audiences that show up for the fare Participant supports.

But as production and acquisition spending significantly declined as studios moved to make their streaming services profitable, that boom came to an abrupt end. In 2018, a peak year for docs, four films made more than $10 million each at the domestic box office: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” “RBG,” “Three Identical Strangers” and “Free Solo.”

Since movie theaters reopened in 2021 following a year of pandemic closures, only one documentary has passed that $10 million mark: “After Death,” an Angel Studios doc about near-death experiences. The next highest-grossing doc: the Anthony Bourdain profile “Roadrunner” with $5.3 million. Meanwhile, Participant was co-producer on just four films spanning 2022 and 2023.

Still, while the outlook is bleak for producers and documentarians who want to make movies with a message, some of those who spoke with TheWrap held out hope that there is still demand among the general public for such movies, even if the demand from buyers has subsided.

“Vérité filmmaking never changed, right? One person out with a camera in the field shooting with a subject. The only thing that’s different now is it’s digital. And you can afford to do it more cheaply and have better cameras,” Steven Leckart, director of the Netflix docuseries “Challenger: The Final Flight” said. “We will still see those films get made. It’s just that there may be less of them, or they may take longer to get done, or they may just have shorter gestation periods or longer gestation periods.”

Cohen is also trying to stay optimistic, and pointed to a future that may be dependent on other billionaires.

“I’m not despondent, I am hopeful that entities that exist already…will jump in to to take Participant’s place,” she said. “I know how enthusiastic people are when they see a doc that tells them something they didn’t know in a way that really moves them. So I hope that some of the doc lovers of the world — I guess I should say some of the wealthy doc lovers — will figure out a way to step up and help us fill the gap that that is left by Participant.”

Adam Chitwood, Sharon Waxman and Umberto Gonzalez contributed to this report.

The post Documentary Market Shudders as Participant Media Shuts: ‘Docs Are So Dead’ appeared first on TheWrap.