Person of the Week: Jeff Skoll

ByABC News
December 2, 2005, 5:47 PM

Dec. 2, 2005 — -- "It's not easy to do movies that are about something," said Hollywood producer Jeff Skoll. "There's an old phrase in Hollywood, 'If you want to send a message, call Western Union.'"

But that old Hollywood adage does not apply to Skoll.

"I started the company called Participant Productions, which is focused on movies that are important, that are socially relevant -- entertaining for sure," he said. "They have to be great stories that people want to see. But they're about something."

This week "Syriana," the latest film from Skoll's production company, opens across the country, suggesting that the global oil industry is infested with crime and corruption.

This fall, he released "Good Night, and Good Luck" -- about CBS News legend Edward R. Murrow and his battle with Sen. Joe McCarthy -- and the film "North Country," about one woman's fight against sexual harassment.

Skoll has broken so quickly into Hollywood because he's a billionaire. He grew up modestly in Toronto and later failed at a computer business. But after getting an MBA at Stanford University, he co-founded eBay and is now worth $3.5 billion.

"I feel very fortunate to have had the financial wherewithal that came from eBay," he said. "In fact, I see myself as a steward for that money to do good things in the world. The bulk of it, the vast majority of it, I believe, should be put into good causes in the world."

His films are not art films. They have big budgets and big-time stars that are now generating Oscar buzz. Because of all that, millions of people watch them and hear his message.

"After the movie, we don't want them to say, 'Oh, we want to go off and have a beer.' We want people to say, 'Wow! That was powerful. How can I get involved?' So we put together a campaign on our Web site, which is called, where people can do anything, from donate money or join an organization, or actually get involved themselves," Skoll said.

And he means it. BusinessWeek magazine recently chose Skoll as one of the top entrepreneurs in the country, just ahead of Ted Turner. Besides the movie company, Skoll has started a foundation, which gives $25 million in grants every year, funding projects from an arts and technology center for inner city kids to manual water pumps for Kenyan farmers.

Because he is so wealthy, Skoll does not need to make a profit on his films. It has made him a Hollywood idealist.

"The power of a vision is, a vision has to be ideal," he said. "For folks that I've met that said, 'Well, what's the point of even trying?' I think the answer is pretty clear. If you don't try, you're not going to see a better world. You're not going to see a better world for your kids. And I think we have a responsibility to do what's best not only for ourselves but for the people around us."

ABC News' Bob Woodruff filed this report for "World News Tonight."