The Obamas’ Hollywood Education

Former President Obama And First Lady Michelle
Former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
December 8, 2022

A few months ago, Netflix quietly re-upped Higher Ground Productions, one of its most high-profile yet controversial talent deals. Surprised? I’m betting a bunch of people in Hollywood are, at least a little. 

After all, the four year-old shingle of Barack and Michelle Obama hasn’t exactly lived up to the hope and promise associated with the 44th U.S. President. In fact, when you talk to producers and agents, they often cite Higher Ground as a cautionary tale of the streaming spending spree of the late 2010s—an expensive and vanity-driven bet on celebrity producers with zero experience that did more to make Netflix co-C.E.O.s Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos feel good about themselves than to deliver content that Netflix members might actually watch. Same with the Obamas’ splashy-yet-ultimately-disappointing Spotify deal, which was not renewed.

The Netflix extension wasn’t a full endorsement: Higher Ground signed an exclusive four-year overall deal back in 2018 for a reported high-eight figures, and the renewal is for just two years with unknown financials. (A Netflix rep confirmed the extension but declined to comment on the terms.) Importantly, the deal was set to expire this past summer, and I’m told Netflix informed Higher Ground of the intent to extend it a few months in advance, right before that disastrous earnings call in April that revealed subscriber losses and led to a single-day drop of about $60 billion in market cap. The entire worldview of Netflix—and Hollywood as a whole—changed that day, leading to layoffs, fat-trimming, and the emergency oh-shit pulling of growth levers like the password crackdown and an advertising tier. Would the new Sarandos, the one focused more on profitability than branding and industry optics, have renewed Higher Ground after the Great Netflix Correction? I guess we’ll find out in less than two years.        

The point here isn’t to crap on Higher Ground or the Obamas—though there’s certainly a lot of that around town, as happens when inexperienced outsiders come to Hollywood and get paid a ton, with questionable results. (See also: Sussex, Duke and Duchess of.) It’s just that the Obamas seemed to approach entertainment initially as more of a hobby. They selected as the leader of Higher Ground Joe Paulsen, the president’s former deputy chief of staff, a D.C. guy who’s been with the Obamas since 2007 and was also learning on the fly. They have since brought in more entertainment people, like Tonia Davis, formerly of Disney and Peter Chernin’s company, who now runs film and TV for Higher Ground. But early hire Priya Swaminathan, considered a “get” from Megan Ellison’s Annapurna, left in 2021, and there’s been other turnover.

It all raises the question of what the Obamas are actually doing in Hollywood, and how much they care about the long-term business, rather than just the messaging of Higher Ground, and what they need to do to make it an asset that is desirable for more than just its pedigree. Because it’s not like the company has done nothing. There were the early wins slapping the Obama name on quality non-fiction movies that shared the First Couple’s worldview: American Factory, the chronicle of a working-class community’s experience with a Chinese takeover, rode the presidential endorsement to the 2020 feature documentary Oscar for Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who sadly just passed away; Crip Camp, about a summer camp for disabled kids, became a Higher Ground project before it was finished, and it scored a nomination a year later; and they’ve got another doc, the slave ship chronicle Descendant, in the race this year. Higher Ground boarded Worth, a Michael Keaton scripted feature about the impact of 9/11. There’s educational kids shows like Waffles + Mochi and Ada Twist, Scientist. And a national parks documentary narrated by President Obama.  

Those are all respectable projects and fine as image-burnishing vehicles, and they comport with Higher Ground’s mission to use media (and Netflix’s 223 million subscribers) to influence hearts and minds worldwide. “We all have a sacred story in us, right?” Obama said in 2019 of his goal with Higher Ground. “A story that gives us meaning and purpose and how we organize our lives. A good story is a good story. If it’s a documentary like yours, or if it’s a scripted story that helps people understand something they didn’t understand before, we want to see if we can give voice to it.”

But at least on the Netflix side, that’s not really a great business. Netflix is past the point of establishing itself as the home of Important People like the Obamas. It needs hits—original, minute-burning, conversation-dominating hits, not to mention “cluster” plays off of those hits—and so many of its decisions are now made through that lens. It’s unfair to compare Higher Ground to experienced producers like Ryan Murphy (Dahmer) or Shonda Rhimes (Bridgerton)—the Obamas were brought on for different reasons—but the company is being paid like a hitmaker yet doesn’t operate anywhere near that level. At least not yet.

That’s mostly because it isn’t originating the vast majority of its projects—a fact that often makes Higher Ground feel less like a production hub and more like a Netflix-funded branding agency. Got a movie about a marginalized group? We’ll help you sell it. That works fine in the attention-starved doc space, but the value is less clear in the scripted world, where most viewers are looking for entertainment rather than “importance.” I guess it didn’t hurt that Higher Ground attached itself to the Kevin Hart vehicle Fatherhood when Sony sold the finished film to Netflix during the pandemic. But was that movie popular on the service because it was “presented by” Higher Ground or because it was a well-done Sony movie with Kevin Hart in it?  

On the acquisitions side, it certainly helps with talent to have a former president participate in a pitch, either implied or explicit. But I’m guessing Netflix’s checkbook and global reach are more effective lures than a Higher Ground E.P. credit. And did Netflix need to be in business with the Obamas to score the Michelle book-promo doc Becoming? Seems like that could have been an open-market pick-up. With exceptions, I’m told the viewership of the Higher Ground original projects is relatively low, and there have been zero mainstream scripted TV successes, which are the foundation of most streaming overall deals. At that level, features and kids stuff won’t cut it.

The Obamas obviously have an advantage in that nearly everyone in Hollywood loves them; at Sundance in January, a Higher Ground pickup will still be the goal of nearly every documentary for sale, and their daughter Malia is now a working TV writer (she was spotted last weekend at the Young Black Hollywood party organized by CAA’s Rukayat Giwa). But agents and producers who deal with Higher Ground say it’s sometimes a tough company to work with, given that everything must ultimately be run through the filter of the Obamas’ taste and politics. (Barack and Michelle are said to be more involved personally than some might think, looking at nearly everything before there’s a “yes.”) This is especially true since Netflix has tightened its purse strings this year. Higher Ground projects used to be justified internally as an awards play or as a “Ted Tax” (Sarandos pet projects), but executives increasingly won’t just rubber stamp projects, especially the niche doc stuff, just because Team Obama wants them. Higher Ground has to justify each project.

That’s led to a little tension, I’ve heard, though a Netflix rep denies this. (Higher Ground declined to comment.) Some of that may just be the inexperience of Netflix itself, which is still figuring out how to manage its big overall deals. Remember, the Obamas are exclusive to the platform, so if Netflix doesn’t want something, Higher Ground can’t shop it elsewhere. In that environment, it can be especially frustrating when there’s a lot of no’s. 

That was apparently part of the problem at Spotify, which in 2019 signed Higher Ground to a much-heralded deal that was supposedly worth $100 million (that’s laughable; it was way less than that) and produced… not much. The Michelle Obama Podcast and a season of The Big Hit Show focused on Kendrick Lamar were hits, but Renegades: Born in the U.S.A., an 8-episode conversation between Barack and Bruce Springsteen, is said to have started strong and petered out by the end. 

There were some other audio shows, and a few still to be released, but often what the Obamas wanted to make wasn’t what the Spotify people thought would resonate with audiences, and Higher Ground’s audio team wasn’t actually that experienced in audio. (Disclosure: I host a podcast for The Ringer, which is owned by Spotify.) Plus, the image-conscious Obamas soon found themselves as label-mates with Joe Rogan, Kim Kardashian and Call Her Daddy. Spotify declined to renew the deal and the Obamas bolted for a big check from Amazon’s Audible platform this summer. No love lost on either side. (Spotify declined to comment.)

Part of the problem is that Higher Ground, despite its inexperience, decided at the outset that it didn’t need a talent agency to grease the wheels in Hollywood. But that changed in September, when Paulsen and Davis took a series of agency meetings and ultimately signed with Maha Dakhil and Joe Cohen at CAA to work alongside lawyers Matt Johnson and Sam Fischer. The expressed mandate is to build the Higher Ground TV business, which that CAA team is very good at doing. There are also a few film projects in the pipeline, like Leave the World Behind, Sam Esmail’s adaptation of the Rumaan Alam novel with Julia Roberts and Mahershala Ali, and Rustin, about the gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. They’ve also got Bodkin, a darkly comedic thriller series starring Will Forte. So who knows, this time next year, we could be talking about the resurgence of the Obamas in Hollywood, just like everyone wrote off Ryan Murphy at Netflix until Dahmer and The Watcher

Look, nobody’s blaming the Obamas for taking Hollywood money and trying to make stuff that could help change the world. All ex-presidents get rich when they leave office, and they had to know the L.A. people—and especially Sarandos, whose wife Nicole Avant was an early Obama supporter and served as an ambassador to the Bahamas—would go nuts for them. At that rarefied level, someone will always write a check. And like I said, the content hasn’t been bad.

But to be truly impactful as a producer, you’ve got to be willing to take big creative risks. Just ask Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media, which has a similar social-action mandate as Higher Ground and has backed tons of impactful, entertaining and profitable projects from top creators, like best picture winner Spotlight and Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. Early on, the Higher Ground people are said to have often cited Jordan Peele’s Get Out as their ideal project: hugely entertaining, high social impact. But Get Out was also hugely risky, a dark and gory social satire from a first-time filmmaker. Would the Obamas have developed or even endorsed Get Out before it was Get Out? Almost certainly not. If it doesn’t work, that’s a schlocky horror movie about white people murdering Black people. Not exactly presidential. But it worked and it was a $255 million-grossing best picture nominee that spawned a new genre. 

Now, I’m told, Higher Ground is working on another project with Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions. That seems smart. They need to find the right balance of projects that they can feel good about but don’t go down like medicine—and that Netflix will actually make. That means being willing to perhaps cheapen their personal brands in the name of entertainment, and in the name of generating a meaningful hit on their own. At least after four years of Higher Ground, it doesn’t seem like they’re willing to take that risk. The Obamas may not ultimately care about making this deal worthwhile for Netflix—their legacy is pretty secure, of course—but if they don’t, one of the great American presidents may soon be forced to pay for his own Hollywood hobby.