Obamas Formalize Executive Leadership Team for Netflix-Based Production Company

Former Chernin film exec Tonia Davis will lead Higher Ground Productions alongside the previously announced Priya Swaminathan, while Qadriyyah "Q" Shamsid-Deen has also joined the company as a creative executive.
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Tonia Davis (left) with Priya Swaminathan; Qadriyyah "Q" Shamsid-Deen

The Obamas have finalized the executive leadership team for their Netflix-based Higher Ground Productions.

Former Chernin film exec Tonia Davis will join the previously announced Priya Swaminathan and serve as co-heads of former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama's company. They will be joined by Qadriyyah "Q" Shamsid-Deen — former program director of Ryan Murphy's Half Initiative — who will serve as a creative executive at the company. Additional details about Higher Ground's Netflix offerings will be announced soon as the executive team — which comes with a wealth of film and TV experience — is already working on the initial slate.

"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 Tuesday in a statement. “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."

Tuesday's announcement marked the first official confirmation of Swaminathan's position with Higher Ground. The Hollywood Reporter exclusively reported her hiring back in August. Since then, multiple names of varying backgrounds have been floated around town as being in contention for some of the most coveted jobs in the industry.

Swaminathan most recently oversaw Annapurna's film development slate, while also working with TV, gaming and interactive departments on potential crossover collaborations. She has developed and produced fiction and documentary projects and comes with a deep contact list that includes Spike Jonze, Bennett Miller and George Clooney.

Davis, meanwhile, most recently oversaw development and production for Chernin's film and TV projects. Her credits include Amy Schumer's Snatched, The Greatest Showman and Underwater. Before that, she spent time with Disney's motion picture unit, where she played a key role in producing the studio's live-action features, including The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast.

Shamsid-Deen joins Higher Ground after working with prolific showrunner Murphy's Half Initiative, the foundation within his production company that strives to have 50 percent of all director slots on his programs filled by women, people of color and members of the LGBT community. Before that, she worked on multiple film and TV projects, including Carissa, The Mick, Murder in the First, Constantine, Table 19, Criminal Minds and Murphy's American Horror Story, American Crime Story, Pose and 911. Shamsid-Deen is a graduate of Howard University's directing program and California Institute of the Arts' producing and film/video programs and a former Fulbright Scholar.

"Our goal isn't just to make people think — we want to make people feel and reach outside of their comfort zone," Michelle Obama said. "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."

The Obamas officially signed a multiyear producing deal with Netflix last May. Under the pact, the duo's Higher Ground will produce scripted, unscripted and documentary TV series and movies exclusively for the streamer. The Obamas have already optioned Michael Lewis' book The Fifth Risk to develop as a potential series.