How Davis Guggenheim Turned Concordia Studio Into a Doc Powerhouse

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” released nationwide in theaters July 2 and simultaneously on Hulu’s streaming service, is the latest in a series of high-profile documentaries from L.A.-based Concordia Studio since it formally launched early last year.

Concordia snagged a quarter of the 16 slots in the 2020 U.S. documentary competition at Sundance and landed a then record-breaking deal for Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s “Boys State” with A24 and Apple TV. Garrett Bradley’s “Time,” which like “Boys State” won an award at Sundance, was picked up by Amazon Studios and went on to become nominated for an Oscar. Ramona S. Diaz’s “A Thousand Cuts,” meanwhile, won a Gotham Award.

Not to be outdone, “Summer of Soul” scored two awards at Sundance this year, and broke “Boys State’s” record distribution deal, nabbing more than $12 million from Disney-owned Searchlight and Hulu, the most ever for a documentary bowing at the fest. The documentary, about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, marks the feature directing of Questlove, as the drummer for the Roots is commonly known.

It’s a heady start for any production company and reflects Concordia’s deep commitment to nonfiction storytelling. Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim founded the company three years ago with the backing of billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs — the widow of the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs — and serves as chief creative officer nonfiction, while Participant Media vet Jonathan King, who joined ahead of Concordia’s formal launch in early 2020, serves as chief creative officer narrative.

“For us it’s always about a meaningful story that can create cultural conversation,” explains Nicole Stott, Concordia executive VP nonfiction, a producer on the Oscar-winning documentary “Searching for Sugarman” who came to Concordia from Passion Pictures. “But we also really want to reach audiences. We don’t think commercial is a bad word, but it’s about finding the right balance.”

In other words, as the old saying goes, “If you’ve got a message, call Western Union” — not Concordia. According to the production company’s president of nonfiction Jonathan Silberberg, while the production house backs projects with a social bend, they are most interested in good stories that can entertain audiences.

“We think that the best stories generally have meaning,” explains Silberberg, who produced the 2011 Oscar-nominated documentary “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.” “And so in that sense, (our films are) social issue (related) but we think that that nonfiction too often has to bear the burden of fix the world. So, when we say we are about storytelling we mean that we insist on starting with the storytelling and then the rest will follow if it’s done well.”

The streamers are certainly noticing. And the releases keep coming.

Massie Crow’s “At the Ready,” about teens who contemplate careers in border patrol, and Peter Nicks’ docu about Oakland High School’s class of 2020 titled “Homeroom” also debuted at Sundance this year, the latter selling to Hulu. Concordia also debuted two docs at Tribeca Film Festival: Dan Chen’s “Accepted,” about the high-stakes quest for college admissions, as well as Bing Liu and Joshua Altma’s “All These Sons,” about a Chicago’s community response to gun violence.

Stott and Silberberg have made some risky choices alongside Guggenheim. One was giving development funds to a two-page pitch about high-school boys competing in a mock election. That pitch would turn into “Boys State.” Seeing the value in a project that, on paper, doesn’t seem sexy or the stuff of a future Sundance bidding war is what makes Concordia unique.

“The secret sauce is that Jonathan made and produced his own movies and Nicole’s made movies for years and I’m a director,” explains Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for “An Inconvenient Truth.” “So, when a project comes in, we don’t think of it as a business decision. I mean we think about it and say, ‘Is this a good investment?’ But what we really start with is, ‘Could this be great?’ And we go from there.”

Currently, Concordia is developing three docuseries: “Phantastica” about psychedelics; “The Happenings” about The Enfield Poltergeist of 1977 that inspired popular horror movies; and an untitled project about the Navajo Nation Police Department.

In addition to funding and producing nonfiction content, Concordia is dedicated to diversifying the documentary landscape through the company’s fellowship program. Its artist-in-residency program was created to support up-and-coming, diverse filmmakers; “Time” director Bradley was among the first group of fellows.

“The nonfiction world has been dominated by white men for too long, and there’s a reckoning that’s happening that everyone is aware of,” says Guggenheim. “The question is how do you respond? And our feeling is we want to build the next generation of diverse filmmakers. So, the fellowship program it’s just starting to do that. It’s just one little piece of it.”

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