A New Player at Sundance, Backed by Laurene Powell Jobs

A New Player at Sundance, Backed by Laurene Powell Jobs

The coming out party will feature teenagers from Texas, journalists from Manila and a woman in Louisiana who spent 21 years fighting to free her husband from prison.

Concordia Studio, a production company backed by the multibillionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, will make its debut this week at the Sundance Film Festival, two years after Ms. Powell Jobs founded it with the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim.

Four of Concordia’s nonfiction films will be among the 16 shown as part of Sundance’s U.S. Documentary Competition, an auspicious start for a newcomer to the country’s pre-eminent festival for independent cinema.

Documentaries have always been an emphasis at Sundance, which starts on Thursday in Park City, Utah. But they have become hot properties in the age of streaming, with YouTube shelling out $20 million for a 10-part Justin Bieber documentary series and Apple spending $25 million for a film about the pop star Billie Eilish.

Nonfiction films that have nothing to do with celebrities can also score big, but with unpredictable story lines known to wreak havoc on production schedules, they can be tough to finance. Concordia is here to help, offering money, production services and expert advice to serious documentary filmmakers.

“If there is a nonfiction story that is purely cotton candy, we wouldn’t do it,” Mr. Guggenheim said at the Concordia office, which has been carved out of a former Volkswagen repair shop in Venice, Calif. At the same time, he added, the studio is looking for films “that will reach a broader audience.”

Mr. Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for the 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” met Ms. Powell Jobs, the widow of the Apple co-founder Steven P. Jobs, a decade ago and worked with her on the 2013 film “The Dream Is Now,” a short-form documentary on immigration reform. Ms. Powell Jobs suggested that they continue working together under the auspices of her firm, Emerson Collective, which owns a majority stake in The Atlantic magazine and a significant minority share in Anonymous Content, a television, film and talent-management company.

While thinking about what a new studio might look like, Mr. Guggenheim sought inspiration in a book that has become a bible of sorts in Hollywood, “Creativity, Inc.,” by Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar Animation Studios, and Amy Wallace, a journalist.

Mr. Guggenheim decided to hire executives from the trenches of nonfiction film to help producers and directors navigate the often chaotic process from hatching an idea to finding a distributor. The name Concordia, meaning harmony in Latin, is also a nod to Concord, Mass., the hometown of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who inspired the Emerson Collective name.

Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, the husband-and-wife duo behind “The Overnighters,” a documentary that won the Sundance Special Jury Prize for Intuitive Filmmaking in 2014, were at the top of the list of filmmakers Concordia wanted to work with. Their new film, “Boys State,” will have its premiere at Sundance Jan. 24.

The project began in early 2018, when Mr. Moss and Ms. McBaine sent a two-page treatment on their interest in chronicling the Texas branch of a nationwide summer program run by the American Legion in which roughly a thousand 17-year-olds gather to form a representative government.

The company provided the filmmakers with an initial investment and committed to the project after seeing early footage. Mr. Moss said the experience of working with Concordia was “radically different in every way” from what he was used to.

“Time,” another Concordia film that made Sundance’s documentary competition, focuses on an African-American woman who has spent 21 years trying to get her husband released from Angola prison in Louisiana. It was made by Garrett Bradley, a New York filmmaker who worked as a second unit director on Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series, “When They See Us.”

The other films in Concordia’s Sundance slate are “A Thousand Cuts,” which documents the attacks on the news media by President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” about the last days of a beloved Las Vegas dive bar.

“We are at a moment when cynicism and division are abundant, but we have seen that stories can bring people together,” Ms. Powell Jobs said by email. “Concordia is a belief that film has the power to shine a spotlight on the important narratives of life that too often are overlooked.”

The studio also has three documentary series in the works at Netflix. And Concordia can already call itself an Oscar nominee, after its short film, “Walk, Run, Cha Cha,” produced for The New York Times’s Op-Docs series, landed a spot in the short subject documentary category.

Concordia won’t limit itself to documentaries. This month, it started a division for scripted feature films led by Jonathan King, who spent 12 years at Participant Media creating popular movies that touched on social concerns. He said Concordia’s scripted movies are likely to address education, immigration, the environment and civil rights.

“Those are all things we care about and want to tell stories about,” Mr. King said. “But it’s never going to be an issue-driven slate. It will be filmmaker- and story-driven.”

Joe Berlinger, a veteran documentary filmmaker, said it was wise for any studio with “good storytelling chops” to expand into multiple genres because of the seemingly bottomless appetite for material at Netflix, Disney Plus and other streaming services.

“When I started in this business with 1992’s ‘Brother’s Keeper,’ if you didn’t sell your documentary to HBO or PBS, you weren’t selling your documentary,” Mr. Berlinger said by email.

Now, thanks in part to the demand brought on by the rise of streaming, he noted, A-list directors like Ron Howard and Martin Scorsese are making documentaries, and independent documentary filmmakers like himself have signed on to direct fictional feature films.

“Because of these blurred lines,” Mr. Berlinger said, “it makes total sense for a company like Concordia that is grounded in nonfiction to branch out into scripted content.”

While Concordia is not interested in fluff, it still hopes to make itself felt in the marketplace.

“We don’t think there is a limit,” Jonathan Silberberg, the president of the studio, said. “We would love to see a huge budgeted documentary get made and then destroy the box office worldwide.”

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