First Look’s Michael Bloom and Topic’s Maria Zuckerman Talk ‘Homegrown Success’ of 10 Films at Sundance

Sundance 2020: The media company has already made deals for documentaries “Mucho Mucho Amor” and “The Fight” out of the festival

The 10 features and shorts that First Look Media has playing at this year’s Sundance must be up there in terms of a record for a single studio, though festival officials won’t say for sure.

First Look didn’t intend to make a statement at Sundance, but the 10 titles the media organization and its labels Topic Studios and Field of Vision are touting are a big part of the second phase of growth for the company founded by Pierre Omidyar.

TheWrap sat down with First Look CEO Michael Bloom and EVP of Topic Studios Maria Zuckerman, who joined the company this past May, to discuss the good fortune that led to their banner year at the festival.

“It’s a crop cycle. You plant seeds, you develop them and see where the harvest ends up,” Bloom told TheWrap. “The timing just worked out so that we had a plethora of projects.”

“It’s what you dream of,” Zuckerman said of the studio’s “homegrown success” at the festival.

First Look’s 10 projects included seven from the Zuckerman-led Topic Studios and three more from Laura Poitras and Charlotte Cook’s label Field of Vision (“The Fight” is a partnership between both divisions). Those include:

  • “The Climb,” which premiered at Cannes last year and is being released by Sony Pictures Classics this spring
  • “The Nowhere Inn,” from writers Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and Carrie Brownstein
  • “Dream Horse,” starring Toni Collette and which Topic is co-distributing with Bleecker Street
  • “Love Fraud,” a Showtime docu-series
  • “Mucho Mucho Amor,” a doc picked up by Netflix ahead of the festival
  • “The Fight” about the ACLU, just acquired for low seven-figures in a co-distribution deal between Topic Studios and Magnolia
  • “A Thousand Cuts,” a documentary from Ramona S. Diaz
  • Short films “Do No Split” and “Church and the Fourth State”
  • “Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen” from director Sam Feder

The diversity of the slate, which includes in-competition documentaries, shorts, premieres and a midnight movie, should hopefully curb one misconception Bloom and Zuckerman say many have about the First Look Media and Topic brand. After the studio won the Best Picture prize for The Boston Globe movie “Spotlight,” they’ve had to work to dispel the notion that they’re only interested in journalistic, message movies.

“There’s no filter for Topic,” Bloom said of going beyond the narrow focus of mission-driven stories alone. “We want to have a real point of view with filmmaker driven content, and smart, provocative stories that have something to say about the world.”

“We want things that are urgent in the cultural conversation, vital, which is not to say only ‘mission-driven,'” Zuckerman added. “If that’s all you want to do, it’s limiting.”

First Look’s mission has always been to do journalism that holds people accountable while also creating a commercial enterprise that can support the non-profit portion of the business. The investigative news site The Intercept is currently covering its costs through membership, and the non-profit Press Freedom Defense Fund is working to increasingly cover more of its costs each year. That leaves Topic and Field of Vision, which together are still striving to make the whole enterprise sustainable long-term.

In fact, 2019 was a busy year for the media company. Zuckerman was brought on to lead Topic Studios last May after coming from HBO. Then a month later, First Look shuttered the Topic magazine in a cost-cutting measure after two years and 24 issues. Shortly after that, however, they launched the Topic branded niche streaming service, a subscription-based platform that’s meant to be curated with “just the good stuff,” Bloom says, and address the discovery problem of the broad-based streamers. Bloom says a consumer paid offering was always in the cards once Topic had established a brand, which the magazine helped to accomplish.

Though not all the Topic films at Sundance come from Zuckerman’s slate, her mantra has been the same as the one that governed all the films playing the festival, which is to let the idea drive the format.

One of the best examples is “The Nowhere Inn,” from writers Carrie Brownstein and Annie Clark, a.k.a. the indie rocker St. Vincent.  Clark and Brownstein initially wanted to produce a more traditional concert film, but in discussing with Bloom and the Topic team, the film from director Bill Benz evolved into a hybrid narrative-feature and mockumentary that draws inspiration from Nicolas Roeg’s ’70s art-house film “Performance.”

“Whatever it is, we want to make a bet on Annie and Carrie,” Bloom said of the film, comparing St. Vincent to “this generation’s David Bowie.” “It’s a real gem of a film that is going to stand the test of time, and fans are going to love it.”

The same is true of Michael Angelo Covino’s “The Climb.” That film originated as a short at Sundance and in the course of just a year became a feature that premiered at Cannes last year. There’s also the podcast “Missing Richard Simmons,” which was originally presented to the team as a traditional documentary, only to become a podcast. Zuckerman also oversees Topic’s podcast slate and hopes to invest more heavily in them in the future so they can stand on their own and not just be an “incubator for IP.”

And even with all their movies in play, several of which were looking for distribution upon submission, it isn’t out of the question that First Look would be in the market to buy. “Dream Horse” is a partner release with Bleecker Street, and they’re further partnering with Magnolia to distribute “The Fight.” What’s more, they’d ideally like to leave the door open for anything that’s acquired to eventually have a home on the Topic streaming service.

Bloom joked that now that the bar has been set, he’s going to expect his team to have this many films at every Sundance from here on out.

“It’s a high bar,” Zuckerman said. “We should be so lucky, but we’ll have to see where the cookie crumbles.”

Brian Welk

Brian Welk

Film Reporter • • Twitter: @brianwelk


The news
you need now,
more than ever.

See Subscription Options
Try PRO today