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Exclusive Q&A with Michael Sonnenschein AB '94 (writer, producer)


Michael Sonnenschein AB '94 is currently writing and Executive Producing KIBERA POWER, an independently-financed crime/coming-of-age feature adapted from an upcoming New Yorker article, slated to shoot on location in Nairobi later this year. He began his writing career via the highly selective Walt Disney Writing Fellowship program, has staffed on one-hour dramas 90210 (CW), GRANITE FLATS (Netflix), and CRISIS (NBC), and developed and pitched pilots in partnership with several production companies and studios. Sonnenschein also works in international development. He launched and currently runs an anti-poverty research and seed financing project in Haiti supported by funding from philanthropic institutions and a fellowship from Emergent Ventures, a think tank designed for “entrepreneurs and brilliant minds with highly scalable ‘zero to one’ ideas for meaningfully improving society.”


Q: Can you share more about your journey into the entertainment industry?

 

After graduating, I spent a few years shuffling around NYC working the kinds of jobs you could get at the time with a prestigious liberal arts degree and decent writing skills but nothing else to monetize— copyediting and fact-checking at magazines, reading scripts and writing coverage for MGM, etc. Eventually, I moved to Los Angeles when I was offered a place in the ABC/Disney Writing Fellowship program.


Q: As someone with experience wearing both writing and producing hats, how do you approach the creative aspects of storytelling versus the logistical and business considerations of film production?


Honestly, to me they feel like the same hat, but maybe my head is shaped weirdly. Because my first few jobs were on writing staffs of (relatively) low-budget television series, I learned to be constantly aware of how I was ‘spending money on the page’ when writing. I’m always thinking about the economy of locations and set builds and casting and shooting days so that money, even if it’s just hypothetical money, is spent wisely in service of the audience experience.


Q: Can you discuss the process of pitching and developing pilots with different production companies and studios, and what major lessons you've learned from those experiences?


Pitching and developing in TV has changed a great deal since I started doing it a dozen or so years ago, in large part due to the structural changes in the industry which anyone reading this probably knows about already. And as I’m learning right now as I take out my first post-strike pitch, it’s changing again. So it’s hard to generalize about what lessons are continuously relevant in a constantly shifting market.


But here are a few re: selling: 1) It might sound trite, but being passionate about the material, and conveying that passion, is crucial. And ‘conveying passion’ in a compelling way is a skill you need to learn if you don’t have it already. 2) Know what comparative advantage(s) your project has over the other projects in the same genre or other conceptual terms in which your prospective buyer is thinking about it. 3) When the assistant offers you a bottle of water before the meeting, hold it in your left hand, not your right, so that you don’t end up with moisture on your right hand that executives will think is nervous sweat when you shake hands.


As for the development process: I don’t know who came up with the edict to “always look for the note behind the note” when you’re working with executives and producers, but they should win a lifetime WGA award. It’s important to remember that your partners are, well, partners rather than adversaries. So when they make a suggestion that you don’t like, or seem to misunderstand your intention behind some kind of writing choice, figure out why your creative journey in the development process has parted ways with theirs, and what you can do to reunite them. Too often (and I’ve been guilty of this), when writers get a note they don’t agree with and seems founded in a misconstrual of their intentions with the project, they assume that the note-giver is dumb or careless. But it can also mean that you, the writer, haven’t done as good a job as you should have of articulating your thinking within the process.


Q: In a nutshell, what qualities or elements make a story particularly well-suited for adaptation into film or television? Without spoiling your upcoming Harvardwood event too much, of course!


I’ll be talking about this in depth, but the short answer is that there are several different answers! And that multiplicity of answers often gets unproductively lost within the (accurate) generalization that it’s easier to set up projects with IP attached, which is one of the reasons I launched this class. 


Sometimes, IP is valuable because of the presumption of audience interest. (This doesn’t just apply to big proven properties like ‘Marvel’ or 'Harry Potter’. It can also apply to, for lack of a better term, psychological or cultural real estate, like the Roman Empire or the mafia.) Other times IP is a valuable sales tool because a book or magazine article attached to your pitch makes it just that much easier for the executive you’re pitching to to explain/sell it to their boss. Other times it’s valuable because of how it contributes to your overall ‘brand’ as a writer. There are other situations as well. So I think it’s useful for writers (and producers) trying to sell IP-driven projects to figure out how specifically they’re maximizing the value of that IP within the pitching process.


Q: Speaking of adaptation, what drew you to the project KIBERA POWER, and what challenges have you encountered in adapting into a feature film? What do you hope to convey through this project?


KIBERA POWER is about the ‘electricity cartels’— essentially gangs of teenagers and young men— that distribute electricity in the largest slum in Nairobi, where hundreds of thousands of inhabitants aren’t given access to public utilities like the rest of the city. When I read the first draft of the magazine article, I was intrigued because it was a way in to a crime/coming of age film, with the genre elements everyone loves about those kinds of movies, but instead of centering on traditional illicit markets like drugs, weapons, or commercial sex, it’s about electricity. That was exciting to me, and it’s a good equation for an independent film project— a familiar genre with a new, novel element.


So, mostly we’re trying to make a great, emotionally forceful crime movie. But KIBERA POWER is also about the political economy and social structures that create and sustain slums— not just in Nairobi, but elsewhere— and exclude their residents from sharing in the economic growth of the cities they’re found in. Maybe the movie will make people more aware of this issue in some small way.


Q: What excites you most about shooting on location in Nairobi for KIBERA POWER, and what unique opportunities does it present for storytelling?


With the current boom in the African streaming content market, there’s a big opportunity for Nairobi to compete with Lagos as a center of African filmmaking. So it’s exciting to be making a project that will, we hope, help to catalyze the Kenyan film industry— in which, as I’m learning, there’s a ton of untapped talent. It’s also exciting (and very challenging) to figure out how to make a movie in a country where there isn’t much industry infrastructure in terms of casting, etc.


Q: How has your past experience working on one-hour dramas like 90210, GRANITE FLATS, and CRISIS influenced your approach to writing and producing KIBERA POWER, which will be a feature project?


Per the above, I’m drawing a great deal on my TV experience to ‘spend money on the page’ as judiciously and effectively as possible. And while KIBERA POWER is a feature project, the same discipline applies. (Also, we’re already thinking about a potential KIBERA POWER series adaptation, so while it will be a standalone feature, I’m also making a lot of creative choices about characters and story structure to facilitate this.)


Q: Can you elaborate on your anti-poverty research and seed financing project in Haiti, and how it intersects with your work in film and television?


10000-foot view answer: The mandate for the project I launched in Haiti is to research and develop approaches to poverty amelioration that have been overlooked by the sea of NGOs operating in the country (often ineffectively) because they don’t fit neatly into the incentive structure or conventional business practices of the NGO sector. In that broad sense, my work there isn’t dissimilar from how I approach my writing career: I try to generate projects that could/should work in the marketplace but which people or entities with more resources than me are overlooking for one reason or another. That’s the best way to compete, especially when you’re starting out.


Another (somewhat dispiriting) parallel between international development and Hollywood is that most projects fail to launch — because in both spheres, only a small sliver of ideas out of the infinite range of possibilities are actually worth investing time and money in, and also because getting anything done generally requires a level of coordination between disparate stakeholders and participants with their own interests and priorities that, in retrospect, almost seems miraculous when it actually works out.


Also, there’s more conceptual common ground between writing TV/movies and ‘doing’ economics than people think. In one way or another, stories are always asking: what do people want? What actions will they take, and what obstacles will they face, in pursuit of those aims? And economics asks similar/overlapping questions: what do people want (or need)? What trade-offs will they make to get those things?


So, great economists and great writers— and I’m not claiming that I’m either— share an intense and probing curiosity about why people do the things they do.


Q: Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring creatives who are interested in pursuing careers in both writing and producing, based on your own journey in the entertainment industry?


Anyone will tell you that there’s a general sense of uncertainty and contraction right now in Hollywood. Those sentiments aren’t unwarranted, though I do think the situation isn’t quite as dire as you might think from reading the current media coverage (not to mention Twitter). So my general advice is to find ways of taking advantage of the uncertainty. As to what that means specifically, I’m trying to figure that out myself!


In addition to speaking at this event, Michael teaches an online class designed to help

journalists, academics, and other researchers develop their ideas and interest areas into

write-able (and pitchable) film and television projects. The classes, which culminate in mock

studio pitches for each student project, run for eight weekly sessions and also include one-on-

one consultation meetings; enrollment is capped at nine to ensure individual attention. The

next cycle is slated to begin in early June. For more information, please email Michael at

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