The Obamas have started putting together the executive team to head their Higher Ground Productions label,Variety has learned.
Priya Swaminathan, a former director of development at Annapurna, and Tonia Davis, who previously oversaw development for TV and film productions at Chernin Entertainment, have been appointed as co-heads of the Obamas’ production venture. Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama signed a content development pact with Netflix last year.
According to a statement, the Higher Grounds team is putting together the company’s slate of projects, after signing a multi-year agreement with Netflix last year, and we can expect to hear more information soon about the initial project line-up.Swaminathan and Davis will be joined by Qadriyyah “Q” Shamsid-Deen who serves as a creative executive for the company.
“With Higher Ground Productions, we hope to bring people together around common values and uncommon stories—and Priya, Tonia and Q are precisely the people to bring that vision to life,” President Obama said. “They’re masterful storytellers. They’re veterans in the industry. And they not only bring their unique perspectives and life experiences to every project, but they’re committed to finding new voices who have their own stories to tell. Michelle and I couldn’t be more excited about the team we’re assembling.”
The appointments represent the first sign the Obamas are serious about building the company and moving forward with production. The initial statement announcing the multiyear deal between Higher Grounds and Netflix left the door open for developing almost all types of content, from scripted and unscripted series, to docu-series, documentary films, and features.
“Our goal isn’t just to make people think—we want to make people feel and reach outside of their comfort zone,” Michelle Obama said. “With their thoughtfulness, creativity and empathy, we know that Priya, Tonia and Q will find the common thread within every story to inspire us to be something more. I’m thrilled about this team as professionals—and as people. They’re wonderful.”
At Annapurna, Swaminathan oversaw the studio’s film development slate and developed and produced fiction and documentary projects for filmmakers including Spike Jonze, Bennett Miller and George Clooney. In addition to producing Showtime’s “Very Young Girls,” Swaminathan has also produced documentaries for MTV and ESPN.
At Chernin, Davis served as an exec producer on the Amy Schumer comedy “Snatched,” as well as on the original musical “The Greatest Showman” starring Hugh Jackman. Davis previously worked for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, where she played a key role in the production of their recent live action feature remakes including “The Jungle Book” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Shamsid-Deen joins Higher Ground Productions from Ryan Murphy Television’s Half Initiative, where she served as a program director for the prolific producers efforts to nurture the careers of female directors. Shamsid-Deen he has worked on multiple film and television projects including “Carissa,” “American Horror Story,” “American Crime Story,” “Pose,” “9-1-1,” “The Mick,” “Murder in the First,” “Constantine,” “Table 19,” “Criminal Minds” and “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving.”
(Pictured: Tonia Davis and Priya Swaminathan)