Former ESPN content chief Connor Schell has brought in former colleague Libby Geist to help run his new nonfiction banner Words & Pictures as it ramps up productions of documentary fare.
Libby Geist will serve as the production company’s executive VP and head of documentaries, overseeing the development of one-off docus and docuseries for the New York-based company founded in February 2021 with Chernin Entertainment as its sole investor. Geist worked alongside Schell for more than a decade at ESPN, where she served as VP and executive producer of ESPN Films and Original Content until 2020. During her tenure at ESPN Films, Geist executive produced several seminal nonfiction projects including “The Last Dance,” the “30 for 30” series, and “O.J.: Made in America,” which won an Academy Award in 2017.
As an executive producer on the “30 for 30” series, which Schell co-founded with Bill Simmons in 2007, Geist has worked alongside some of the industry’s most renowned docu filmmakers including Alex Gibney, Barbara Kopple and the late Albert Maysles.
At Words & Pictures, Schell and Geist will develop and produce nonfiction content focused on various topics. Most recently the banner partnered with Time Studios on Jason Hehir’s “Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space,” which Netflix released in September. (Hehir directed all 10 episodes of “The Last Dance.”)
“Starting a production company was something that I had thought about and wanted to do for a long time,” says Schell. “One of the reasons was to get back to and closer to the process of developing, producing, and creating non-fiction content.
“It’s also a really unique time in the market,” he observes. “The proliferation of platforms and buyers happened alongside this rise of unscripted content that plays like scripted but is not reality television or format based. At ESPN, we saw that and understood how audiences first reacted to ‘30 for 30,’ and then were open to ‘O.J.: Made in America.’ Then there was ‘The Last Dance,’ which resonated not just on ESPN but also on Netflix. There were also so many other projects, films and docuseries that we had nothing to do with that audiences were engaging with in the same ways. That stoked demand at a time when there are a lot of buyers.”
Words & Pictures has a mutual first look agreement with Chernin Entertainment as they identify scripted and unscripted projects. While Chernin Entertainment has a first look deal with Netflix, Words & Pictures will be able to sell content to any platform.
Schell and Geist will continue a relationship with ESPN and produce “30 for 30” installments. Currently the studio is at work with Hehir on a “30 for 30” about professional golfer Greg Norman titled “Shark.”
“We spent so many years tapping into up-and-coming talent and working with A-list documentarians and that has given us a bit of a leg up as we start this production company,” Geist says. “There’s a lot of advantages in continuing to work with ESPN, and one of them is to say to new and existing talent, ‘Hey. We’re still looking for ‘30 for 30s.’ Send us your ideas, but also, by the way, what else excites you right now?’ Those are exciting conversations to have.”
In addition to Geist, Schell made four additional hires: Aaron Cohen, Marie Margolius, Cora Atkinson, and Michael Newburger.
Cohen will serve as the banner’s executive VP and head of development. A veteran writer and producer in documentary and sports television, Cohen has worked on nonfiction content distributed by HBO, ESPN, Showtime and Netflix. He has also served as a senior writer and producer on NBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games and the Super Bowl, and ESPN’s ESPY Awards.
As VP and producer, Margolius will work with Geist across production, development, and business initiatives. Prior to joining the company, Margolius worked at ESPN alongside Schell in a chief of staff capacity. Atkinson will work with Geist and Margolius as a supervising producer. Most recently Atkinson co-produced Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul (… or When the Revolution Couldn’t Be Televised),” which was shortlisted for a best feature documentary Oscar in December.
Newburger will serve as senior VP, strategy, finance and operations. He came to Words & Pictures from Broadway Video, where he was CFO, responsible for the company’s finance and operations. Prior to that, Newburger worked at Time Warner in its mergers and acquisitions group, advising and executing on transactions across the company, including its spinoff of Time Inc., acquisition of iStreamPlanet, investment in Hulu, and sale to AT&T.
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