Since 2012, ShowEast has given the Bingham Ray Spirit Award, named after the late independent film icon, to an individual who has “shown exemplary foresight and creativity in the world of independent film.” This year’s honoree—David Linde, CEO of Participant—is especially apropos, since Linde worked closely with Ray when Linde was president of Good Machine International, which represented the overseas markets for all productions from Ray’s company, October Films.
Participant is dedicated to entertainment that inspires audiences to engage in positive social change, through both the content it produces and accompanying social impact campaigns. Its distinguished track record includes two Best Picture Oscar winners (Spotlight and Green Book), two foreign-language Oscar winners (A Fantastic Woman and Roma), and the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. In mid-September, the company extended Linde’s contract with a multiyear deal and announced a rebrand focused on building collaborative, longer-term campaigns that incorporate the artist along with the company’s distributors and impact partners.
“David has done an exceptional job taking Participant to new heights the last four years,” founder Jeff Skoll said. “He possesses a rare combination of entertainment industry acumen, keen artistic sensibility, and a true passion to make a difference in the world through storytelling.”
Prior to joining Participant, Linde was CEO of Lava Bear Films, which produced the Oscar-nominated sci-fi film Arrival. Earlier in his career, he was chairman of Universal Pictures and co-founder of leading specialty distributor Focus Features, formed when Universal acquired production company Good Machine, where Linde was a partner.
In this exclusive Q&A, Linde looks back at his four years at Participant and ahead to the future.
What are some of your proudest achievements at Participant?
I am proud to lead a company comprised of creative individuals producing content and developing impact campaigns that, in collaboration with our distributors and impact partners, greatly expand the reach of the film. We’ve been blessed to work with filmmakers whose films have received 73 Oscar nominations and 18 wins since Participant’s inception, including two Best Picture Oscars, not to mention well over $2 billion in global box office. But that’s only the beginning. It’s the contribution that these films and campaigns provide in accelerating positive social change that so uniquely defines the company.
Can you talk about any significant changes that came out of Participant movies and impact campaigns?
Participant celebrated a banner year with its social impact campaigns, including for Roma, which we launched in partnership with the National Domestic Workers Alliance and CACEH in Mexico to increase visibility and value for domestic workers. In collaboration with those amazing partners, the Roma campaign recently helped accelerate the passing of legislation in Mexico’s Congress, giving 2.4 million domestic workers labor protections, including minimum wage, paid time off, and health care. In the U.S., Senator Kamala Harris and Rep. Pramila Jayapal introduced on July 15 the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in Washington, D.C., that would give greater rights for domestic workers.
Moreover, in the past year, Participant also executed a multiphase, nationwide impact campaign around Steve James’s acclaimed docuseries “America to Me,” which helped seed a national conversation on issues of race and equity and inspired more than 1,800 confirmed watch groups with more than 17,000 participants across 44 states. This past month, Participant also launched a new national campaign tied to the release of our new documentary American Factory that aims to seed a conversation around the dignity of work, bring visibility to the fractured compact between workers and employers, and build support for a future of work that benefits everyone.
At what point in the development/production process does Participant usually get involved with a project?
Preferably, we are hands-on from the start. Participant produces and invests in a significant amount of content, probably more than people realize. Annually, that includes up to six narrative features, five to six documentary films, up to three episodic television series, and another 30 hours of short-form video content for our YouTube channel, SoulPancake. We have an amazing team of executives developing ideas with filmmakers on a constant basis. While we will, on occasion, acquire a film for distribution (as we did with RBG), our preference is to integrate ourselves with the filmmakers as early as possible.
Here in 2019, what is the public appetite for the kinds of films Participant supports?
Participant was founded by Jeff Skoll in 2014 based on his core belief that storytelling can be an immense source for social change. Since then, we’ve seen that, in some ways, the world has really caught up with this philosophy. Storytelling is more important than ever, and the rapid growth of the “conscious consumer” has completely changed how consumers engage around any transaction, including what content they prefer to consume. Nowhere is this more evident than among millennials, and we have worked hard to provide them with the forms of engagement they seek through our content. That’s a core example of why we succeed.
Tell me about some of your upcoming releases.
We have two releases coming up, Dark Waters and Just Mercy, the latter of which just premiered to incredible response at the Toronto International Film Festival. With Dark Waters, we’re honored to partner with visionary director Todd Haynes and producer/star Mark Ruffalo on this inspiring story, which is based on the New York Times magazine article “The Lawyer who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” The film tells the story of the one-man crusade that sought justice for a community exposed to pollution for decades by the unregulated dumping of industrial waste. It is literally David vs. Goliath and incredibly inspirational. Just Mercy, on the other hand, is the powerful story based on the life of Bryan Stevenson, the acclaimed public interest lawyer and founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. The film, which features tour de force performances from Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson, follows a young Stevenson (played by Jordan) as he takes the case of Walter McMillian who, in 1987, was sentenced to die for the murder of a white woman despite an abundance of evidence proving his innocence. These films are beautifully inspiring stories of the human condition and the power of compassion.
During your four years at Participant, what have you learned about making your action campaigns more effective?
In its heart, Participant is a partnership company, and the past four years has really solidified that for me. We partner with great artists, who foresee the most pressing issues of our time; with distributors, who provide the creativity to engage audiences; and with impact organizations, who are working day in and day out toward lasting change. The reality is that none of them are used to working together, yet when connected they create immense power. In effect, we are the “trust accelerator” that provides the glue that enables us all to succeed.
Please share some memories of Bingham Ray and what made him a force in the independent film world.
The simple truth is that Bingham was not only a mentor for me, but also someone who impacted my and many other careers in a way that would never have developed as they did without him. When we started Good Machine International, my partners and I knew that if it did not succeed, then Good Machine itself would struggle. And Bingham was the first person to say, “I believe in what you are building,” and hired us to handle the overseas distribution of the October Films slate. The growth of the company was directly connected to his support. Just being around him was such a joy—he elevated everyone around him with his imagination, skill, and commitment to doing what was best and what was right. And I’ll never forget the sound of his yelling out “Linde!!!” wherever we were and whenever he wanted something!
How important is it that your films be seen in theaters?
Our goal is to inspire audiences to create change, and what better way to do that than in a setting that unites people. The collective experience of watching a film in a theater is undeniably powerful, and when it comes to the films Participant produces, we take great pride in the fact that strangers gathering to watch them can leave with a new common understanding and connection. And while we recognize that technology has brought a distinct change in how audiences view films, we remain committed to the theatrical experience and working with the distribution and the exhibition community to promote the beauty of the medium.