When the documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) sold for a record $12 million+ out of Sundance, it was just the latest piece of good news in a breakthrough year for production house Concordia Studio.
The company, founded in 2017 by Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim and Laurene Powell Jobs of Emerson Collective, launched two other docs at Sundance 2021: Peter Nicks’ Homeroom and At the Ready, directed by Maisie Crow. But it’s Concordia Studio films that premiered at last year’s Sundance that have lifted the firm to greater prominence. Time, directed by Garrett Bradley, and Boys State, from directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, are in the thick of contention as Oscar nomination voting proceeds.
“We couldn’t be prouder of Time and Boys State,” Nicole Stott, Concordia’s EVP Nonfiction, tells Deadline. “I mean, we couldn’t be more thrilled by the response.”
Both films are connected with pressing social issues: mass incarceration, in the case of Time, and the collapse of political discourse with Boys State. But at heart they are character-driven films. In that respect they’re right in the Concordia wheelhouse.
“I’d say we’re a mission-based company, but not the mission you think we are,” Guggenheim explains. “The mission is to tell stories that really move people…And if the issues can come along with that, fantastic…We all care very deeply about freedom of the press, about the American prison-industrial complex, about the state of democracy, but what always comes first is a great story. And told by a great filmmaker.”
Guggenheim admits it was initially difficult getting the doc community to understand what Concordia Studio was about—that it wasn’t a single-minded, “change society or bust” kind of enterprise.
“When we started we really, really struggled to get people to take our ambition seriously,” he notes. “We basically just got submitted, I think the first year was 300 plus issue-oriented films. And that doesn’t mean we rejected all of them, it means that we were just seen as a one-dimensional company.”
He adds, “The excitement about last year’s Sundance…was that people could finally see what we really intended. So when you look at Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets and Time and Boys State, and A Thousand Cuts, and now Summer of Soul and At the Ready and Homeroom, you see a breadth of ambition there.”
Concordia has struck distribution deals for its projects with a variety of entities. Time, produced in conjunction with the New York Times, sold to Amazon Studios. Boys State went to Apple TV+ in a deal that broke a Sundance record later exceeded by Summer of Soul. Fox Searchlight and Hulu loosened their purse strings to acquire Summer of Soul, directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.
Jonathan Silberberg, who holds the same EVP Nonfiction title as Stott, says Concordia evaluates potential distribution partners based on certain criteria.
“It starts with a conversation with them about whether they see the same thing in the film that the directors do and that we do, and they believe in giving it the life that is commensurate with what that film is. And then, of course, there are ways you can show that enthusiasm,” Silberberg says, in a veiled reference to acquisition prices. “And we care about that. We care about that for the filmmakers, because we believe deeply that…producers and directors getting compensated for making great work is an important part of making more great work…and for us to help others to do that.”
Concordia’s execs tell Deadline they prefer to board a documentary project “as early as possible,” as Stott puts it. “We are this kind of unique hub in that we can finance, but we also are a production entity, and a production studio…We consider ourselves partners and we want to be the best partners from the get-go.”
That proved true for Bradley, who describes her collaboration with Concordia as “amazing.” She notes, “Time is the first film that I’ve actually had the privilege of being able to work with an editor on. And that very much came out of fruition with Concordia, even though it’s a new studio…They asked the most amazing question which is, ‘What do you need?’”
Recognizing its influence as a documentary gatekeeper, Concordia established a fellowship program, which the company website heralds as “a bold experiment to reshape the future of storytelling.” Bradley, Nadia Hallgren, Bing Liu and Smriti Mundhra are among the documentary makers to earn fellowships.
“By elevating filmmakers from diverse racial, regional, or religious backgrounds,” the website says, “the Concordia Fellowship creates opportunities not only for the work we want to see on screen, but the inclusive film landscape we want to live and work within.”
Who gets to make films and who has access to distribution are critical issues for documentary, just as they are in fiction filmmaking.
“It’s so important and it’s a seismic shift that has to happen because a network of white males helped me get me where I am. It’s just a simple truth,” Guggenheim acknowledges. “I think too many of the nonfiction filmmakers look like me. It was a real problem when we started four years ago, it continues to be a real problem…And we want to be on the positive side of that, hiring diverse producers and directors and storytellers.”
There’s another reason to promote inclusivity, Silberberg asserts.
“I feel like it’s a bit of a cliche, but it’s something we really believe that empowered diverse voices across all levels of nonfiction is good business. Because that’s what we’re all hungry to see,” he affirms. “We think we’d be dumb not to be making great work with diverse voices.”
The company’s approach to documentary has paid off with two films in Oscar contention this year, and an Oscar nomination last year for the New York Times Op-Doc Walk Run Cha-Cha, directed by Laura Nix. Stott doesn’t pretend awards attention is unimportant.
“From winning awards at Sundance to this kind of acknowledgement [the Oscar shortlists], it’s absolutely huge in terms of brand awareness, obviously for our studio, but also for the individual filmmakers,” Stott tells Deadline. “You can’t underestimate it. It’s a big deal.”
Scanning the Oscar documentary feature shortlist, Stott adds, “It’s exciting to see the other films on the list. We love that it’s very competitive this year.”
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