As audiences embrace documentaries for their gripping and bingeable truths, another trend has developed in parallel: Oscar-winning documentary directors who launch studios devoted to producing multiple high-quality nonfiction works. There’s Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Prods., Morgan Neville’s Tremolo Prods., and now there’s Concordia Studio, launched by Davis Guggenheim (“Waiting For ‘Superman'”) with Jonathan King (and backing from Laurene Powell Jobs’ social impact-focused Emerson Collective).
However, filmmakers who have worked with Concordia say the company is unique: Its principals have such faith in directors’ vision, skill, and instincts that they will back riskier documentaries that can’t promise what the movie will be when they’re done.
“We said, ‘Look, we’ve got these great kids but we don’t know what’s going to happen in this one-week experience,’” said Jesse Moss (“The Overnighters”) who co-directed “Boys State” with Amanda McBaine. Their documentary focused on three high school students as they navigated the politics and personal struggles that surface during a mock government program. “But they took a chance and they saw that opportunity. I’ve never in 25 years of documentary experience had somebody upfront be willing to take the risk and finance a verite film like this — that’s extraordinary to me.”
Concordia funded development of “Boys State” based on a two-page pitch, just months before the annual Texas program was set to begin. The risk paid off: It premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews, and left with a reported $12 million sale to Apple and A24 — a new record for a Sundance documentary.
Although Concordia announced its launch right before the festival (complete with an animated logo designed by Language Media, the same group that created the A24), its team has been in place for two years and already has a 2020 Oscar nomination for producing Laura Nix’s short “Walk Run Cha-Cha,” one of five it produced last year. (Concordia’s first credited title was “The Price of Free,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2018.)
Nicole Stott, executive VP nonfiction, came to Concordia from Passion Pictures, producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Searching for Sugarman;” Shannon Dill, executive VP nonfiction physical production, had just produced the Oscar-winning “Free Solo;” and Rahdi Taylor, executive VP of Concordia’s nonfiction artists in residence program, spent a decade as head of the Sundance Documentary Fund, where she supported five Academy Award-nominated films, including “Hale County This Morning This Evening.”
“People talk about brand, but we’re focused on films,” said president of nonfiction Jonathan Silberberg, who produced the 2011 Oscar-nominated documentary “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.” “That’s the only way we know how to think.”
All told, Concordia had four films in Sundance’s US Documentary Competition: “Boys State,” “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” “Time,” and “A Thousand Cuts.”
While the company financed and produced “Time,” director Garrett Bradley said some of the company’s most valuable support came on an emotional, creative, and professional level. Like how they connected her with editor Gabriel Rhodes (“Matangi/Maya/M.I.A”); previously, Bradley edited her own work.
“It wasn’t so much a company coming into finance, as it was really being able to identify areas of development that could help elevate my work. I think that was a crucial part of the process,” said Bradley, who was also Concordia’s first artist in residence. “It’s been incredible to be able to work with them in that capacity. I think they’re coming from a perspective that’s really creatively oriented and filmmaker oriented and tailored to each filmmaker.”
That ethos extends to the film’s subjects — or as Stott calls them, “collaborators.” “Time” subject Fox Rich and her family were on hand at Sundance for the film’s premiere, dressed to the nines, as Rich passionately explained how Bradley was the person she had been waiting for to help tell her story.
Bradley initially envisioned the film as a companion short to the New York Times Op-Docs Oscar-shortlisted “Alone,” which focused on Aloné Watts, whose boyfriend proposed to her when he was incarcerated. Rich is briefly featured in the short. But as shooting wrapped on “Time,” Rich provided Bradley with a trove of diary-style home movies that led Bradley to reconceptualize the film as a feature — Concordia was on board with the money and support needed to pull it off.
“When I laid eyes on Garrett, she was just such an amazing spirit,” Rich said. “It was kind of like love at first sight with her. She was just one of the hardest-working filmmakers I had seen. As we were telling Aloné’s story, I had been recording our story for 20 years, knowing that I wanted to be able to share with the world what my family had gone through because after we entered the system, I had clearly understood that I was not alone, that I was one of millions of families that were going through this experience. I think I just latched on to Garrett and was like ‘Please, please, pick up this story.'”
Concordia often gets involved in films early on, but Bill and Turner Ross’ “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” was an exception as Concordia provided a small investment near the film’s end stages. Executives say they couldn’t resist supporting the form-bending project and hoped the show of faith would encourage the brothers to work with Concordia again in a full-fledged collaboration.
Moss and McBaine said Concordia struck the perfect balance of “fast and slow” — an immediate greenlight, followed by rare patience during post production. When the filmmakers said they were done with the film, Concordia execs encouraged them to keep working on it.
Even now that the film is in the hands of Apple and A24, Stott said the collaboration will continue as Concordia works with the distributors to plan event screenings and help introduce the boys — now young men — to the world.
“It’s incredibly important to us, and to Jesse and Amanda, that those young men from the film are true collaborators in the next year of bringing this film to audiences,” Stott said. “These boys, a year-and-a-half later, they’ve changed, they have different perspectives. We want that to be part of the process. We want them to be talking about what that week meant for them … This is the most resonant year for the film to come out in terms of engaging younger voters and young people in the political debate.”
Currently in production is Questlove’s directorial debut, “Black Woodstock;” soon, more films and TV shows will move into production. (Concordia’s first series was Netflix’s three-part “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates,” which Guggenheim also directed.) Meanwhile, King is working on Concordia’s scripted slate.
“The reason why Jonathan joined with us and is a cofounder with me, is that we share the same idea, which is you can’t start with a business deal, you start with a great filmmaker and a great story that has to be told,” Guggenheim said. “Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, that’s the principle we share.”