The very first project under Netflix’s partnership with Barack and Michelle Obama won an Oscar.
American Factory, a documentary about the culture clash between American and Chinese workers at a glass-manufacturing plant in Ohio, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature on Feb. 9. The film was released on Netflix and backed by the Obamas nascent production company, Higher Ground Productions.
In 2018, the Obamas signed an exclusive deal with Netflix, through which Higher Ground would release its various film and TV projects. American Factory was filmed without the Obamas’ involvement, but was then purchased by Netflix after its premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, as part of the streaming service’s pact with the former US president and first lady. Higher Ground and the Obamas helped promote the film after it was acquired by Netflix.
The Obama name alone was enough to immediately elevate the documentary into the Oscar discussion. After winning several awards in the run-up to the Oscars, American Factory became the favorite to take home the industry’s top documentary prize. It delivered, giving Netflix its second award for Best Documentary Feature (after 2018’s Icarus) and a taste of Hollywood gold for the Obamas. (Barack and Michelle did not technically get credit for the Oscar, since they weren’t involved in the production of the film.)
By all accounts, American Factory is a great film on its own merits. But the Obama factor is immeasurable.
Now more than three years out of office, Barack is still, according to a Gallup survey of Americans, the most admired man in the world—a title he’s enjoyed 12 years in a row. Michelle has been ranked the most admired woman for the last two years, per that same survey. With 113 million followers, Barack’s Twitter account is the most-followed in the world. (Musician Justin Bieber is second with 109 million. Current US president Donald Trump has 72 million.)
In his post-presidency years, Obama has become something of a curator and cultural tastemaker, using his influence to draw attention to thing he is passionate about. The internet is obsessed with the former president’s book, film, and TV recommendations. Attaching his own name to a project like American Factory is a powerful endorsement.
Netflix, of course, knows all this, which is why the company essentially gave the Obamas carte blanche to champion films. Julia Reichert, co-director of American Factory, noted during the film’s awards campaign the Obamas’ unique ability to “elevate artists.”
And for the Obamas, the Oscar win validates the decision to form a pact with Netflix over a traditional Hollywood distributor (or with none at all). The service has 167 million subscribers and is quickly growing around the world. It’s an easy way for the couple to reach a diverse global audience and continue to wield political influence from the sidelines.
The Oscar was an important victory in an otherwise underwhelming Oscars for Netflix. The streaming service won just two awards, despite earning more nominations (24) than any other studio. Already a strength for the company, Netflix’s slate of documentaries is only going to get stronger with the help of the Obamas.
The next film in the partnership is Crip Camp, a documentary about the rise of the disability-rights movement in the 1970s. It earned rave reviews out of its Sundance premiere last month. Future projects under the Higher Grounds banner include a drama series set in the fashion world of New York City, a documentary series based on the book The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, and a film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2018 biography of African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. All will be released on Netflix.