To honored alumnus, CLU 'important building block'

Movie exec visits Conejo to get award

Participant Media Chief Executive Officer Jim Berk attends a reception in his honor at Bogart’s Bar & Grill inside the Muvico  14 in Thousand Oaks.

Photo: Chuck Kiman/ The Star

A California Lutheran University alumnus who oversees a global entertainment company was in Thousand Oaks to be honored Thursday night on the eve of his latest release, “The Fifth Estate.”

Jim Berk, chief executive officer of Participant Media, was selected to receive the university’s Outstanding Alumni Award. He visited the Muvico 14 theater at The Oaks mall to receive the honor. A screening of the movie also was planned.

In a phone interview before the event, Berk, who earned a master’s degree in education from CLU in 1985, said the award was “special and completely unexpected.”

“Looking back, that degree program was a really important foundation for my career,” he said. “This lovely recognition is suddenly awaking in me that that school was an important building block to a very rewarding career.”

Berk, who earned a bachelor’s in music at UCLA and a teaching credential from CSU Northridge, began his career teaching music at Carson High School.

He went on to found the Hamilton Academy of Music in Los Angeles before becoming, at age 29, the youngest principal in the history of the Los Angeles Unified School District, taking charge of the Alexander Hamilton High Schools Complex in 1990.

His career took a turn toward Hollywood when he was offered the opportunity to set up the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Foundation.

“I never planned any of the jobs I ever had. I just threw myself into it,” he said. “I loved teaching and never planned to leave, but then I had the opportunity to start the NARAS Foundation.”

From there, Berk went on to become chief executive officer of the Hard Rock Foundation and then president and CEO of Hard Rock Cafe International. He later was president and CEO for the Fairfield Communities vacation ownership and resort company, and then chairman and CEO of Gryphon Colleges Corp., where he was responsible for the establishment of a company operating for-profit schools.

In 2006, Berk, who lives in Beverly Hills, became CEO of Participant Media, a film- and television-production company established by eBay founder Jeff Skoll, who now serves as its chairman.

Under Berk’s leadership, Participant Media has expanded from 20 employees to 200 and now produces about 10 films a year.

Participant Media focuses on socially relevant and commercially viable feature films, documentaries, television productions, publications and digital content.

Its movie releases include “The Help,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Lincoln” and, opening today, “The Fifth Estate.” The film is based on the battle between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg after they gained access to one of the biggest troves of confidential intelligence documents in U.S. history.

“We’re focused on content that empowers people to be connected to the world around them,” Berk said.

“It’s a very compelling way to lead a life: the idea of doing work that has some positive impact, an impact beyond just the financial one, that can alter the world in a positive way.”

CLU’s Outstanding Alumni Award recognizes former students who bring honor and distinction to the private Thousand Oaks university through career and humanitarian efforts dedicated to human welfare and social reform.

“Jim Berk has had an exceptional career, and we at Cal Lutheran are very proud of him,” said a statement from Rachel Ronning Lindgren, senior director of alumni and parent relations. “In his current position, he is using film and other media to raise important questions for us to consider ... his work transforms the way we look at the world around us.”

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To view some of Participant Media’s work, visit

--- Published in the Ventura County Star on Oct. 18, 2013