I’m excited! On September 20 the Globe and Mail ran Liam Lacey’s excellent article about a young man named Jeffrey Skoll who has picked — I think — the single most promising way of contributing to humankind.
Go ahead and guess: What do you think is the best way of serving humanity? To me, it’s getting other people engaged in the work of saving humankind. And the best way to do that is through storytelling. That’s the whole point of my forthcoming book, Two Aspirins and a Comedy. Not many people recognize the power of stories, but Skoll figured it out and is acting on it in extraordinary ways.
He’s a zillionaire, for starters. With the five billion dollars he earned as president of eBay, he’s the 94th richest man on earth. And he’s giving it away in the most wonderful, imaginative ways — especially what he calls “filmanthropy.”
Lacey informs us that Skoll had gone around Hollywood asking why movie-makers didn’t use their talent more constructively, by telling stories with intelligent messages about social issues. Answer: they can’t afford the risk; pictures may flop unless they stick to making the sort that everyone is used to. So Skoll asked them whether they would be interested if he’d partner with them and make sure they didn’t lose money when addressing humankind’s urgent problems. Sure! They were instantly enthusiastic! So that’s what he’s been doing for over a year — lessening the risk involved in making stories that motivate people to become activists. His company is called Participant Productions and it’s bringing back into movie theaters people who rarely used to go. So far they have produced such films as Fast Food Nation and Murderball. They released the first Arab-dubbed version of Gandhi. (Fabulous! That’s just what Islam needs most right now!) Teamed with Warner Brothers, they produced a flick called Syriana, which is based on an exposé book about the CIA's ground war — See No Evil). They produced Class Action; Good Night and Good Luck (a show directed by George Clooney about Edward R. Murrow’s battle against Senator Joe McCarthy). Other films coming out soon are American Gun and North Country.
Skoll does not deal with partisan politics in his pictures, but instead focuses on six topics: the environment, human rights, institutional responsibility, health, peace and tolerance, and social and economic equity. And his brilliant idea is to grab the audience and connect them with programs of action. Every one of his movies has an Internet group that people can join. Some of the stories made for young people have special teaching kits for use in classrooms. For example, Participant Productions has teamed up with PBS and Salon.com, developing a campaign about journalistic responsibility for teachers to use. He intends to go into television production too, making shows that are available on the Internet. (Episodic TV is even more powerful than movies, and I think he will discover that himself.) Al Gore is a fervent supporter — which stands to reason: Gore himself has started a liberal radio network to counter the omnipresent right wing talk shows.
Brilliant, thoughtful, emotionally rich stories are exactly the best way to motivate people to act — and God knows, we certainly need to get people engaged in solving our global problems. Hooray for Mr. Skoll! I've got a thousand ideas for him. And thanks to Liam Lacey for a fine article about exactly what I needed to hear — good news about smart social action.