At just 21, a kid from the San Fernando Valley named Jim Berk began work as a music teacher at Carson High School. Within a couple of years, the teacher, not much older than some of his students, had turned a woebegone marching band into one of the best in Southern California. Then Berk moved to struggling Hamilton High School to launch a music magnet program. It gained national acclaim and so many new students that officials reversed their threat to close the Westside campus.
"The Wunderkind of education" the Times dubbed him in 1992. But after a little more than a decade in education, Berk craved new challenges. The man who once dreamed of being superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District moved to a string of jobs in business, including as chief of the Hard Rock Cafe chain.
But education, at least after a fashion, was not entirely in the rear-view mirror. As chief executive of Beverly Hills-based Participant Media for the past seven years, Berk has built a company known for message movies like "Food Inc.," "The Kite Runner" and "The Help" and for attendant education campaigns that seek to turn audiences into social activists. Acolytes don't just watch a movie, they follow up by signing on to Participant's TakePart.com website, where they might pledge to limit food waste, support literacy in Afghanistan or petition to protect farmworkers from pesticides.
In 2014, as Participant marks its 10-year anniversary, the company and its leaders have laid out big plans for more growth with a new television network, Pivot, and several international divisions. A company that now employs 250, mostly at its headquarters near Beverly Hills City Hall, projects a worldwide workforce of thousands in another 10 years.
Former eBay Chief Executive Jeff Skoll is the financial force driving Participant; Berk wields day-to-day authority. While Skoll talks of building "the most important media company in the world," it's up to Berk and his employees to work toward profitability and to try to project authenticity in an environment where social action campaigns can feel like just so many more dressed-up marketing blitzes.
If that's a lot of pressure, the 54-year-old Berk does not betray it. He describes his Hollywood job as something like a return to his education roots. "Entertainment is the most effective medium to educate and ignite large-scale change, so in a way my career has come full circle," he said. While an individual classroom or campus were once the focus, now "the entire world is a potential audience."
Participant has gained respect for helping finance critically acclaimed films like "Lincoln" and "Charlie Wilson's War," along with a few flops, like the Mel Gibson vehicle "The Beaver." But the jury is out on how much real change a media company can provoke via petitions, home-study kits and postcard salvos.
Michael J. Wolf, former president of MTV and now with entertainment industry consultant Activate, said Participant's social-action campaigns have inspired many people because they are "heart felt" and gimmick-free. But Siva Vaidhyanathan, chairman of the Media Studies Department at the University of Virginia, questioned the value of activism that lives mainly online. He said real political change requires deeper sacrifice — from individuals giving their money, time or long-term commitments.
Billionaire Skoll, 49, has become accustomed to skepticism. When he began talking 10 years ago about making movies that focused on issues like peace and sustainability, a lot of experienced Hollywood hands hit him with the adage "If you want to send a message, try Western Union."
But Skoll has shown no sign of being dissuaded. Besides Participant, his foundation supports and funds nearly 100 other social entrepreneurs. And his Skoll Global Threats Fund seeks solutions to monumental challenges — climate change, water scarcity, pandemics, nuclear proliferation and conflict in the Middle East.
Berk and his boss believe entertainment can help power solutions in almost all these crises. In November, Berk said, the company's TakePart.com website drew 4.5 million visitors, who took more than 200,000 "actions" — many of them signing petitions or donating to a cause. (Internet tracking service comScore Media Metrix put TakePart's unique visitors for that month at 3.4 million.)
The chief executive gets animated talking about real change he says has already been delivered by movies like "Middle of Nowhere." The film dramatized the plight of families separated from loved ones in prison. Members of the Federal Communications Commission held a special screening of the film, and activists said that helped prod the agency to rein in exorbitant telephone rates paid by inmates and their families. Berk counts an estimated $1.5 billion to $4 billion in annual savings as being "in place," adding, "That's an absolute win."
Participant's "The Kite Runner" explored the ignorance and degradation confronting children in Afghanistan. The company's social action campaign for the 2007 film urged fans to support the building of 1,000 libraries in the country. According to the company's partner, Relief International, 650 have been built.
The bio-pic "Cesar Chavez" will debut this month. The company's robust run of documentaries continued recently with the Academy Award-nominated "The Square," about the revolution in Egypt, followed recently by "The Great Invisible," on the Deepwater Horizon disaster and aftermath along the Gulf Coast.
On television, the Pivot channel launched in August, attempting to extend the social-action model to television, though past failures, like Al Gore's Current TV, suggest that luring viewers to such fare is not easy. Pivot will take a slightly different tack, targeting a millennial audience with youth-themed reruns like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Veronica Mars," along with Participant films such as "Good Night, and Good Luck" and original programs.
The channel produces its news magazine, "Take Part Live," out of an Atwater Village studio, trying for a lively, hip look at current events. Recent stories: "Is Porn Screwing With My Body Image?" and "Paranoia of the Deep" — the latter analyzing the radiation threat level from the Japanese nuclear disaster. The programs push viewers to delve deeper and take action via the TakePart.com website.
The company has announced it plans to make Meghan McCain, daughter of the U.S. senator, a co-host of "Take Part Live," along with Jacob Soboroff, who has been with the show since it began.
Nielsen does not yet measure the size of the audience for Pivot. The company says it can reach 40 million homes, though some major carriers, like Time Warner Cable, offer it only in some locations.
With ambitions to reach 10 world markets, beginning in Latin America, and to build momentum on issues like clean drinking water, Berk has little time for pause. Hyperkinetic, just like students remember from his school days, he flits about his airy office. He's reaching for a "Lincoln" study guide. He's perusing petition campaigns on TakePart.com. He's surfing for video online of his band instructor days.
The married father of two grown daughters eschews wheat, dairy and glutens. Away from the office, he pounds out miles on a stationary bike and works out kinks in hot yoga sessions.
Skoll maintains the final green light over new Participant ventures. Others oversee the film, online and the new TV operations. The role for Berk is to assure that they all work together. He said he often turns to lessons learned during his time in the public schools. "You have to get people to emotionally connect and be involved," he said. "Once you have created that space, you try to get out of the way and let them do their best work."
Where the actual balance sheet stands for privately held Participant remains a mystery. Skoll described the feature film and documentary divisions as "on solid footing" financially. But he plans to "continue to invest for growth in the long run" in the website and television units, which face less immediate prospects of turning a profit.
It's a long way from Beverly Hills to Carson High, where Berk entered the working world in the early 1980s. A self-described "middle-class, Jewish kid from the Valley," he got extra pay for venturing to a working-class, ethnically mixed campus where many teachers declined to work.
He may have looked different, but Berk's former Carson students said they were drawn to him because he seemed "real." Douglas Oglesby recalled that he was a carousing trumpet player who once got in trouble for drinking before a band event. He could have gotten mad when Berk told his parents. Instead, Oglesby felt he had found an ally, someone who had higher expectations. The "Marching Blue Thunder" band went from also-ran to champion of the Los Angeles school district. Said Oglesby, now 45: "He made us all better than what we were."
Berk arrived at Hamilton in the mid-1980s with an even more daunting task — starting a music academy from scratch. He struck some as a prima donna when he plucked top teachers and students from other Los Angeles schools. But the music program began to generate buzz that allowed Berk to attract donors. He raised $2.5 million over four years to refurbish the school auditorium, open a computer lab and make other improvements.
At 29, the LAUSD made him the youngest principal in the district's history. Berk continued to shake things up. One co-worker at the time recalled Berk cracking down on some Hamilton counselors who closed their office doors during lunch to take a smoking break.
"Jim put a stop to that. He insisted the counselors be there to counsel the students," said David R. Sears, one of the original music teachers Berk recruited to launch the magnet. "He made life uncomfortable for those who weren't doing their jobs. They eventually moved on."
In 1992, Berk jumped from education to the foundation attached to the music trade group that produces the Grammys. Then it was on to the private sector, running several companies, including Fairfield Communities Inc., which sold vacation time-shares and Gryphon Colleges Corp., a for-profit school operator. Skoll said he hired Berk to run Participant because he understood the "second bottom line" of audience engagement and political change.
There are still late nights, working at home, when he responds to emails from his old Hamilton and Carson students. Some ask advice. Most just want him to know they made it in the world. He tries to respond to every one.
But would he ever return to education? Could he succeed as superintendent of the challenging Los Angeles school district? Berk did not hesitate. "Oh, I would be a great superintendent. I would be a great superintendent. I'm realistic about how extraordinarily impossible that job is. Which makes it really kind of interesting."
Asked how his work in his long-ago school days prepared him for the media world, Berk delivered another breathless response: "I start to see these common threads of optimism and organization and leadership and empowerment and surrounding yourself with people who are smarter and good at their functional areas. You realize your job is to empower them. That creates those opportunities to win. People want to be around that and people want to succeed."
Finally pausing, he deadpanned: "I sound like Tony Robbins. I apologize."