It’s been just over two years since documentary power couple — director Liz Garbus and producer/financier Dan Cogan — launched Story Syndicate, and already the production company has four films contending for Academy Award consideration this awards season.
In addition to producing Garbus’ National Geographic doc “Becoming Cousteau,” opening in theaters today, Story Syndicate is also behind three additional Oscar qualified documentaries: John Hoffman and Janet Tobias’ “Fauci” (National Geographic), Orlando von Einsiedel’s “Convergence: Courage in a Crisis” (Netflix) and Jesse Moss’ “Mayor Pete” (Amazon). The company also produced Ry Russo-Young’s “Nuclear Family,” an HBO three-part series about lesbian moms facing a paternity lawsuit, and Erin Lee Carr’s “Britney vs Spears,” a Netflix title investigating Britney Spears’ conservatorship.
Garbus and Cogan launched the Brooklyn-based production company in June 2019 with just three projects in the works – HBO’s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” Amazon’s “All In: The Fight for Democracy” and three episodes of Netflix’s “The Innocence Files.” (Garbus was involved directorially in each project.) While the production hub initially backed Garbus-based projects, the goal has always been to make Story Syndicate a home base for a wide array of filmmakers; Story Syndicate has 17 projects in production and six in paid development in 2021.
Both of their careers were thriving when they launched Story Syndicate: Garbus – an Emmy-winning and two-time Oscar-nominated director — had just completed a true crime docuseries for HBO titled “Who Killed Garrett Phillips” and was working on her first narrative project “Lost Girls” for Netflix. Cogan, meanwhile, was in his 13th year serving as an executive director of Impact Partners, a documentary film funding company where he continues to have an advisory role. In 2018 he garnered an Academy Award for producing Netflix’s doping docu “Icarus.”
While Cogan admits that he was looking for “a change,” Story Syndicate was primarily born out of a sea shift he saw happening in the doc market.
“I was paying attention to the fact that the streamers were buying fewer and fewer films and instead were making (their own) docs and docuseries,” explains Cogan, who serves as co-president along with his wife. “So, it seemed clear to me that the future was going to lay in actually making films and series for the streamers as opposed to making and financing them independently and selling them, which is what I was doing at Impact.”
For her part, Garbus wanted to forge a career in narrative filmmaking while also maintaining her roots in the doc space.
“When you’re making a scripted film, you’re entirely vacuumed out of the universe,” explains Garbus. “As a director, I wanted to be able to do that, but my heart and career is in documentaries. So, I was like, ‘How do you manage both?’
The answer, as it turns out, was right in front of her.
“I wanted to be able to have a partner who if I was making scripted film, was still at a high enough level that they could be talking about the other stuff that I might want to do, or if there was a project that I was producing, but not directing, they would be able to oversee that at a high level that I knew would satisfy executives,” Garbus says. “So, I was taking meetings with various producers and then, I don’t remember the exact moment, when I was like ‘Wait a second. Why don’t Dan and I just do this together?’”
National Geographic’s executive VP of global scripted content and documentary films, Carolyn Bernstein, worked with Garbus and Cogan on both “Becoming Cousteau” and “Fauci.” While “Cousteau” was commissioned by Nat Geo, Bernstein won a bidding war for “Fauci.”
Bernstein considers “Fauci,” a film about infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci, a perfect “brand fit,” but also wanted to work with the Story Syndicate again.
“On both ‘Fauci’ and ‘Becoming Cousteau,’ and really on every doc I’ve worked on so far, there’s a lot of problem solving,” Bernstein says. “There are thorny situations that arise, and Dan is really an ideal partner in those instances because he’s good at wading through the problem and figuring out a solution. He’s quite unflappable.”
The company boasts a creative infrastructure with a staff of 25, which includes three in-house producers – Kate Barry, Nell Constantinople and Jack Youngelson – and head of creative Jon Bardin. Under the same roof are post-production facilities. Seventy-five percent of Story Syndicate content is generated in house and then brought to various platforms, who then finance the production.
Russo-Young, an indie narrative director, met with three producers before teaming with Story Syndicate in the early stages of “Nuclear Family,” her first docu.
“I was scared in the beginning because I knew nothing about documentary financing and my impression was that it was going to be very difficult,” says Russo-Young. “But it ended up happening really, really quickly I think in large part because Dan knew the right people. The thing about Dan is that he’s both incredibly creative and incredibly strategic, and that is a really rare combination to find in a producer.”
Working with major streamers means working alongside corporations, which is why, in part, Cogan says we are living in the corporate age of documentary instead of a golden age of documentary.
“A lot of the films that are being financed are financed by platforms and those platforms have their own goals and their algorithms that they pay attention to,” he says. “So as a producer, what you have to do is balance the things that you believe in and that you think are really important that you want to make and the things that can be commercial in this environment.
“How do you find that spot on the Venn diagram between what’s great and innovative and powerful and important and speaks to the world in a crucial way and what can fit into the commercial landscape?”
Sometimes, he continues, “that means that you don’t make films for platforms, you make them independently.”
Projects in pipeline include: Apple TV Plus’ “Number One on the Call Sheet: Black Leading Women in Hollywood” and “Number One on the Call Sheet: Black Leading Men in Hollywood” about Black achievement in the film industry, Maxim Pozdorovkin’s antisemitism feature doc “The Conspiracy,” and a Netflix docu about the rollercoaster GameStop stock fluctuation prompted by a band of retail traders on Reddit.
Story Syndicate is developing nonfiction and fiction titles, but the couple insist that the identity of the company “will always lie in true stories.”
“We understand how to tell those stories in entertaining ways that are dramatic, that are character driven, that say something about the world that we live in, and that are meaningful,” says Cogan.
As for whether Story Syndicate will become the next production house to shop itself to a private equity company or a streamer, the answer is resounding no – for right now anyway.
“Liz and I get to be in control of what it is we make,” says Cogan. “No one can tell us to make anything, and no one can tell us not to make anything. And that’s how I like it.”