“I’m thrilled to recognize Maria’s role in growing Topic Studios with her promotion to president,” said Michael Bloom, First Look Media’s CEO. ”Maria and her team have built the studio into a major creative force, giving new and established voices the opportunity to collaborate and produce truly extraordinary work. I know the studio will continue to thrive under her leadership, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.”
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Over the last two years as executive vice president and head of Topic Studios, Zuckerman has worked to raise the company’s profile with movies like “The Mauritanian” (for which Jodie Foster won a Golden Globe, produced alongside 30 West); Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin’s “The Climb” (distributed by Sony Pictures Classics); and seven projects at the Sundance Film Festival, including award-nominated “The Fight” and “A Thousand Cuts.”
Most recently, Topic Studios was honored as a Pulitzer Prize finalist for the acclaimed podcast “Somebody” (produced with partners The Intercept and the Invisible Institute) and launched the big-wave surfing docuseries “100 Foot Wave” on HBO and HBO Max. In addition, the studio has brought in top creators including Pablo Larraín, Destin Daniel Cretton, Awkwafina, Kevin Macdonald, Chris Smith, Nikyatu Jusu, Adam Leon and Toni Collette.
And, of course, all this happened amid a pandemic.
After debuting a trio of films (“Bernstein’s Wall,” “Italian Studies” and “Dear Mr. Brody”) with outdoor screenings at Tribeca, Zuckerman tells Variety that relished the opportunity to launch “100 Foot Wave” with a premiere party in Santa Monica in mid July, coming in just before L.A. ramped up COVID-restrictions.
The highlight of the experience “seeing it in front of an audience, and hearing those laughs,” she says. “I hadn’t had the privilege of doing that because of the pandemic and [was instead] watching all the cuts on the iPad home alone, so hearing the laughs was so gratifying.”
Getting that instant feed back is part of the job she’s missed, but Zuckerman is increasingly proud of her team for their ability to grab success when and where they could.
“In every vertical, we’ve had multiple wins that we’re all so proud of,” she says. “I feel so fortunate that every vertical has figured out how to have a step up when they were able to.”
For example, while Topic Studios waded slowly back into the waters of production with movies like Daniel Antebi’s “God’s Time,” the studio also launched podcasts “American Isis” on Audible and “Imposters: The Spy” on Spotify.
“When we have this diversified portfolio, it also means that, when [one vertical] has to step back, another vertical who’s able to be in production at that moment, is able to pick up the mantle and run with it,” Zuckerman explains. “It’s been incredible to see the dynamics between all these businesses that work in concert together.”
Even more important, though, is the way the team has come together virtually to support their filmmakers in an unpredictable marketplace, joining them on the emotional roller coaster that comes with movies being pushed and theaters being closed.
“We’re there at every step to hold their hand and advocate for them with the distributor or with the buyer, and to [make sure] that they know that we’re in it with them,” Zuckerman explains. “It’s comforting to be able to do something like that because it makes me feel there’s a contribution that I can make; it’s calming amidst the chaos to have a purpose.”
The executive describes Topic Studios’ 2021 class of movies as “responses to what’s going on in the world,” with topical themes from the phenomenon of wildfires (“Bring Your Own Brigade”) or a personal perspective on immigration (“Nanny”). The upcoming slate is highlighted by Larrain’s “Spencer,” starring Kristen Stewart, which will debut at the Venice Film Festival.
Topic Studios also made headlines with the upcoming sci-fi thriller “Infinity Pool” (co-produced with Neon), starring Alexander Skarsgard and directed by Brandon Cronenberg. The studio is also readying the upcoming feature directorial debuts of Collette (“Writers and Lovers,” adapted from Lily King’s bestselling novel) and Jusu, whose psychological thriller “Nanny,” starring Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Spector and Sinqua Walls, is currently in production in New York.
“It’s really a privilege because we believe in their talent and we want other people to discover their talent too,” Zuckerman says of working with the duo. “We’re here of course, to support them, but also to collaborate with them and figure out what are the best ways to get things done that really allows for the best expression of their vision.”
On the television side, Zuckerman has worked to establish the studio with projects including “the “Untitled Vincent Chin Project,” the story of a tragedy that set off the largest-ever pan-Asian-American protest movement, with Cretton attached to direct, for Amazon Studios; the adult thriller “Savannah” from Tracy Oliver, also for Amazon, and with whom Topic Studios has a first-look deal; and the English-language adaptation of the Israeli comedy “Nehama”. Zuckerman also brokered new first-look deals with independent production companies Watch This Ready, The Population and Loveless Media.
Something that stands out about Topic Studios’ slate is the diversity of creators the studio has attracted, which has been a major priority for Zuckerman during her two-decades in the business and an important value for the studio she now represents.
“[Diversity] is important because it’s the world that we live in,” she explains. “I’m very fortunate that I spent my formative early years at HBO, at a time when that value was so central to HBO films under Colin Callendar and Keri Putnam, who I feel so lucky to have as mentors. It was part of the DNA of HBO writ large, to find the comedy, to find the common humanity, to find the drama in things that we all go through, and to really honor everyone’s experience. That’s how I want to live in the world as a human being and as an executive.”
Topic Studios makes the right home for this diverse lineup of creators not only because of its good intentions, but because of the company’s unique position in the media marketplace. “We love to support filmmakers taking risks,” Zuckerman says.
“We’re positioned in a way where we’re both independent, but also premium,” she adds. “We have people here who understand how things get made independently production-wise, but then also what will appeal to the buyers. It’s really marrying those things and seeing how can we keep our independent spirit and our vision, and bring it to these major players who are going to see that there’s something there for a broad audience.”
As such, Zuckerman notes how Topic Studios’ identity has contributed to its growth and the executive is hopeful the trend will continue in years to come.
“We are still very much in a building phase, but I’m so proud of everything that we’ve done over the past couple of years,” she says. “At this moment [the goal] is to really strengthen our investment in content and creators, and to fire on all cylinders throughout all these verticals to make sure that we continue to elevate and evolve our brand presence in the marketplace.”
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