$200M Obama Inc. Cashes In: 8 Things To Know About The Emerging Obama Media Empire

Isheka N. Harrison
Written by Isheka N. Harrison
Obama media empire
Barack and Michelle Obama founded Higher Ground Productions after signing a deal with streaming giant Netflix to amplify marginalized voices. Image: The Moguldom Nation

Barack and Michelle Obama are literally America’s sweethearts. With Michelle being voted as the most admired woman in the world and Barack tying with his successor Donald Trump for most admired man of 2019, their appeal stretches across race, culture, creed and class. That’s why it’s no surprise they’ve decided to use their talents post-presidency to venture into storytelling.

The power couple and former U.S. first family founded Higher Ground Productions – a media company launched in partnership with streaming giant Netflix, with whom the Obamas have a multi-project deal.

They discussed their move into the media and entertainment business with Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who directed “American Factory,” the award-winning documentary film that is also Higher Ground’s first release, Variety reported.

Here are 10 things to know about the Obama media empire and Higher Ground Productions Company.

Multi-year deal with Netflix to produce films and series.

The Obamas created Higher Ground Productions after signing a multi-year deal with Netflix to “produce a diverse mix of content, including the potential for scripted series, unscripted series, docu-series, documentaries and features. These projects will be available to the 125 million-member Netflix households in 190 countries,” according to a press release.

Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said, “President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, and the Higher Ground team are building a company focused on storytelling that exemplifies their core values. The breadth of their initial slate across series, film, documentary and family programming shows their commitment to diverse creators and unique voices that will resonate with our members around the world.”

Harnessing the power of storytelling to amplify marginalized voices

“We all have a sacred story in us, right? A story that gives us meaning and purpose and how we organize our lives,” Barack said in the clip. “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.”

“Higher Ground is a reflection of both of us,” Michelle said in the clip shared in a Vanity Fair article. “So that means that our platform is gonna look a little bit like everything, just like the world is a little bit of everything.”

Women are in executive leadership roles at Higher Ground

The Obama media empire was cemented by placing women at the helm as executive leaders. They hired Priya Swaminathan and Tonia Davis as co-heads of their company, according to Deadline. Qadriyyah “Q” Shamsid-Deen was also appointed as a creative executive. The women have massive experience between them, and Barack and Michelle Obama sang their praises.

“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,” Barack 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.”

 “Our goal isn’t just to make people think—we want to make people feel and reach outside of their comfort zone. 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,” Michelle Obama added.

The initial slate includes a range of programming

In addition to “American Factory,” the Obama media empire will produce a variety of other projects. According to The Hollywood Reporter (THR), they range from biographies and documentaries to scripted and unscripted original programming.

THR wrote: “Initial projects include a feature adaptation of David W. Blight’s best-selling ‘Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom; ‘Bloom,’ an upstairs/downstairs post-World War II drama series written by Callie Khouri; the scripted anthology series ‘Overlooked,’ based on the New York Times’ ongoing obituary column; the kids nutrition series ‘Listen to Your Vegetables & Eat Your Parents;’ and a docuseries based on Michael Lewis’ ‘The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy,’ which takes aim at the Trump administration — perhaps the lineup’s only arguably partisan offering.”

The Obamas have a $65M book deal with Penguin Random House

The Obamas have inked one of the largest book deals in history with Penguin Random House for two standalone works, Publisher’s Weekly reported.

As a part of the deal, Penguin Random House pledged to donate 1 million books to First Book, a nonprofit that provides books to disadvantaged children, Newsweek reported.

Though initially believed to be a gamble, Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” memoir became one of the best-selling memoirs of all time.

RELATED: Michelle Obama’s Book Sold 10M Copies, Could Be Best Selling Memoir Ever

The Obamas signed a deal to produce podcasts for Spotify

Last summer, Barack and Michelle Obama signed a deal with Spotify to produce podcasts on the streaming service. Much like their Netflix slate, they said they want to use the platform to amplify marginalized voices and bring people closer together.

“We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to amplify voices that are too often ignored or silenced altogether, and through Spotify, we can share those stories with the world,” Michelle Obama said in a press release. “Our hope is that through compelling, inspirational storytelling, Higher Ground Audio will not only produce engaging podcasts, but help people connect emotionally and open up their minds—and their hearts.”

“We’ve always believed in the value of entertaining, thought-provoking conversation,” President Obama added. “It helps us build connections with each other and open ourselves up to new ideas. We’re excited about Higher Ground Audio because podcasts offer an extraordinary opportunity to foster productive dialogue, make people smile and make people think, and, hopefully, bring us all a little closer together.” 

Oprah Winfrey gave the couple suggestions on who to hire to run their company.

Media mogul Oprah Winfrey revealed that she gave the presidential couple some advice after Barack reached out asking for advice on the Obama media empire.

“When they were starting, (Barack) called me for names to run (their company), and I offered him some,” she told O Magazine. “They ultimately were not the people he chose, but that’s fine. There’s nobody like them. Nobody. Their desire to want to use this medium to tell stories, to show us our history, to bring an informational, inspirational approach to content—I’m looking forward to seeing whatever that’s going to be.”

Trademark Battle

The Obamas are in a trademark battle with a Hanisya Massey, a Black woman from California who owns Higher Ground Enterprises, reported the New York Times.

According to the report, Massey trademarked the name of her Covina, California-based computer training company in 2017. When the Obamas tried to trademark their productions company, the United States Patent and Trademark Office said it was too similar.

Initially, the Obamas offered to purchase the name from Massey, but after Massey furnished her own demands, including asking to be featured in some of the Obamas’ projects, the presidential couple filed a petition to cancel Massey’s trademark. Experts say litigation of the matter could take years.