Film company with a conscience makes money with message

( dpa )- The movie Standard Operating Procedure, which gets its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, gives a chilling look into the notorious US prison at Abu Ghraib that hit world headlines at the height of the Iraq war with pictures of inmates being sexually humiliated by a female guard.

That might not sound like a suitable subject for one of the most successful independent film production companies in Hollywood, but then Participant Productions doesn't play by the same rules that govern the rest of Tinseltown .

Formed in 2005 by Jeff Skoll , who became a billionaire by helping found the online auction site eBay the company is devoted to the seemingly contradictory goal of making "socially relevant, commercially viable" feature films.

It took as its model such movies as Gandhi, the biopic of the legendary Indian leader or Erin Brockovich , based on the true story of the ground-breaking social campaigner. And so far it seems that it might even be surpassing their success.

Among the movies that the company has had a hand in are An Inconvenient Truth, the unlikely documentary on global warming that was a decisive factor in changing attitudes in the US about the threat to the planet and which helped Al Gore win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Then there was Good Night, and Good Luck, the Oscar-nominated movie directed by George Clooney, which highlighted the right-wing demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Also on Participant's slate is The Kite Runner, based on the best- selling novel about life in Afghanistan. Others are North Country, starring Charlize Theron as a Minnesota miner confronting sexual harassment in the workplace and Syriana , in which George Clooney and Matt Damon play operatives in the global oil trade.

More recently it had a hit with Charlie Wilson's War starring Tom Hanks as the good ole' boy senator who kick-started US funding for Islamic militants fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

What each of those films has in common is an underlying assumption that they can ''educate and inspire'' people to ''actually get involved in the issues,'' Skoll says.

Few who see the company's latest offering, Standard Operating Procedure, will be capable of remaining indifferent.

Directed by Errol Morris, who won a best documentary Oscar in 2004 for The Fog of War, the film's basic theme is whether the known mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib constitutes evidence of systematic torture and abuse by the American military, or whether the pictures document the aberrant behaviour of a few "bad apples."

In the film Morris examines the context of these photographs. Why were they taken? What was happening outside the frame? Morris talks directly to the soldiers who took the photographs and who were in the photographs. Who are these people? What were they thinking?

Those kind of questions seem sensible ones for a documentarian to ask. But for a movie mogul ensconced in Beverley Hills it's more of a stretch. Skoll explains that he doesn't evaluate film projects the way others do.

"One metric of success that we use is whether more good comes from the film than just putting the money directly to work in a non-profit organization involved in the same issue," Skoll says.

"We've actually had cases where we looked at the risk profile of a film and said, 'The way this looks, chances are we're going to lose a million, 2 million, even 5 million dollars. But maybe we'll get 10 million dollars or 20 million dollars worth of social value from it.' We will take risks on projects where we think we might lose money, because we hope that the good that comes from that outweighs the risk. It's a different kind of philanthropy."

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