Hollywood's conscientious new producer -- Former eBay honcho Jeff Skoll puts his money behind socially minded films like ''North Country'' and ''Syriana''

When Jeff Skoll announced plans to start an entertainment company, he kept hearing the same cautionary joke: ”The surest way to become a millionaire is to be a billionaire and go into the movie business.” But Skoll, the former president of eBay, who is worth an estimated $3.5 billion, wasn’t daunted. In 2004, $100 million of his eBay fortune in hand, he founded Participant Productions. His mission? To make social- minded films that were also commercial, movies that would go down like candy, not broccoli.

Twenty-one months later, he’s starting to look like Willy Wonka. After wetting its feet with two critically embraced documentaries (2004’s Arna’s Children and this past summer’s Murderball), Participant is now tackling issues of journalistic freedom, gender discrimination, and U.S. oil dependence — all in glossy, mainstream ways. His three new films are packed with stars and have even generated some early Oscar buzz: the George Clooney-directed Good Night, and Good Luck, about CBS anchor Edward R. Murrow’s televised stand against Sen. Joseph McCarthy (it nabbed five prizes at September’s Venice Film Festival); North Country, starring Charlize Theron as the lead plaintiff in the first class-action sexual harassment case; and November’s Syriana, a political thriller about the CIA and the Persian Gulf, with Clooney and Matt Damon. (Due 2006: Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the best-selling exposé Fast Food Nation.)

”For us, a project that is commercially successful but doesn’t [have a social impact] is a failure,” explains Skoll, who shies away from defining his company politically, describing it simply as ”pro-social.” To encourage activism, Skoll and his team have created ”awareness campaigns” for each fall film that, partnered with such organizations as the ACLU and NOW, serve as both grassroots marketing tools and, they hope, vehicles for social change. The first? Good Night‘s website, report-it-now.com, where amateur Murrows can, according to Participant president Ricky Strauss, ”take the media in their own hands” via blogging and podcasts. ”If Murrow were alive today, he’d be blogging,” says Strauss. ”We [want] to empower audiences.” (Visit participate.net for links to other campaigns.)

As for how eager today’s public is to get involved, the company is encouraged by the recent support of hurricane victims. ”People are basically good,” says Skoll, citing the philosophy he lives by, ”and if you give them the opportunity to make a difference, they will.”