Priya Swaminathan and Tonia Davis, co-heads of Higher Ground Productions, President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s production company in partnership with Netflix, have set the company’s initial slate of upcoming projects. The content encompasses a wide range of fiction and nonfiction signature productions for all audiences including scripted, unscripted and documentary series, as well as full-length features and documentaries.
The Obamas launched Higher Ground last spring to create content that embodies the core values of celebrating the human spirit through struggles and triumph; facing adversity through resilience, determination, and hope; lifting up new voices and stories to bring about change; and transcending divides to bring us together. The projects selected are a reflection of these values and a commitment to quality storytelling. Higher Ground expects to make additional project announcements in the coming months.
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They’ve been active in courting projects. That includes King Richard, the Will Smith-attached film about Richard Williams and his efforts to teach his young daughters Serena and Venus Williams on the tennis courts of Compton. That project ended up at Warner Bros, but it underscored the kind of family values and uplifting sandbox they want to play in.
“We created Higher Ground to harness the power of storytelling,” former President Obama said. “That’s why we couldn’t be more excited about these projects. Touching on issues of race and class, democracy and civil rights, and much more, we believe each of these productions won’t just entertain, but will educate, connect, and inspire us all.”
Said Michelle Obama: “We love this slate because it spans so many different interests and experiences, yet it’s all woven together with stories that are relevant to our daily lives. We think there’s something here for everyone — moms and dads, curious kids, and anyone simply looking for an engaging, uplifting watch at the end of a busy day. We can’t wait to see these projects come to life and the conversations they’ll generate.”
Added Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos: “President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and the Higher Ground team are building a company focused on storytelling that exemplifies their core values. The breadth of their initial slate across series, film, documentary and family programming shows their commitment to diverse creators and unique voices that will resonate with our members around the world.”
Here are the projects, which are in different stages of development and set to be released over the next several years:
American Factory was acquired by Netflix in association with Higher Ground Productions out of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Directing Award: U.S. Documentary. From Participant Media, the film is directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert. The film takes a deep dive into a post-industrial Ohio, where a Chinese billionaire opens a new factory in the husk of an abandoned General Motors plant and hires two thousand blue-collar Americans. Early days of hope and optimism give way to setbacks as high-tech China clashes with working-class America. The producers are Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert, Jeff Reichert, and Julie Parker Benello.
Bloom is an upstairs/downstairs drama series set in the world of fashion in post-WWII New York City that depicts barriers faced by women and by people of color in an era marked by hurdles but also tremendous progress. Series is written and executive produced by Oscar winner Callie Khouri from an idea developed by Khouri, writer-director Clement Virgo (The Book of Negroes, The Wire, Empire) and novelist and producer Juliana Maio (City of the Sun). Higher Ground Productions, Khouri, Virgo and Maio will executive produce the series.
Higher Ground is producing a feature film adaptation of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, for which author David W. Blight won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in History.
Overlooked is a scripted anthology series adapted from The New York Times’ ongoing obituary column. The purpose is to tell stories of remarkable people whose deaths were not reported by the newspaper. Higher Ground is developing it with producers Liza Chasin of 3dot Productions and Joy Gorman Wettels of Anonymous Content.
For family programming, Listen to Your Vegetables & Eat Your Parents will be a half-hour preschool series from creators Jeremy Konner (Drunk History) and Erika Thormahlen. The show will take young children and their families around the globe on an adventure that tells us the story of our food.
Higher Ground will develop a nonfiction series from The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy, the book by Michael Lewis, author of The Big Short and Moneyball. The aim is to portray the importance of unheralded work done by everyday heroes guiding our government and safeguarding our nation.
Finally, there is Crip Camp, a feature documentary film in production that is supported by the Sundance Institute and acquired this year by Higher Ground and Netflix. Just down the road from Woodstock, in the early 1970s, a parallel revolution blossomed in a ramshackle summer camp for disabled teenagers that would transform young lives, and America, forever by helping to set in motion the disability rights movement. The film is directed by former camper Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham. Producers include Newnham, LeBrecht and Sara Bolder, with executive producer Howard Gertler.
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