Monday, May. 08, 2006

Jeff Skoll

Two things about Jeff Skoll: he wants to make the world a better place, and he didn't found eBay. I first met Skoll, 40, at an abandoned mental hospital in the Maryland countryside. He tells me film can change the world. He tells me you can build companies based on trust. He speaks softly. His company, Participant Productions, has just relieved Warner Bros. of half the budget of my film Syriana. That seems sort of risky, and I'm very curious about Jeff. His last company was eBay — perhaps you've heard of it? He was its first employee, its first president. He tells me eBay's secret. "It's a community," he says, "and communities are built on trust." He tells me that he believes people are basically good, and if you give them the opportunity to be good, they will be. He tells me eBay's competitors believed the opposite, so they erected barriers to community, created escrow agents, credit checks, vouchsafed repositories of Social Security numbers — all predicated on the fear of being ripped off. "If you look at our track record, what we proved is that people are good," he says softly. "And that's pretty cool."

He tells me his new business is a movie company that asks of every project, How is this film going to make the world better? We're eating lunch on set, the abandoned mental hospital, which is perfect because nobody in Hollywood talks like that. It's too straightforward, too idealistic, not bottom-line oriented and certainly naive. In Hollywood people would rather be dead than naive. Skoll wants to change the world right now and believes film can help to do that. And how is he doing? Well, in less than three years he has made, among others, these films: Syriana; Good Night, and Good Luck; Murderball; North Country; and the soon to be released Fast Food Nation and An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's documentary about global warming. So far his releases have — incredibly — garnered 11 Academy Award nominations. Both Truth and Nation are being screened at Cannes, and the former looks to be a massive hit in the U.S. More important, as Jeff says, "This Al Gore film, whoa—this movie may save the planet. That's pretty cool."

Gaghan is the director and Oscar-winning screenwriter