top of page

Harvardwood HIGHLIGHTS - May 2024


In this issue:MESSAGE FROM HARVARDWOOD 

NEWS

  • Winners of the 2024 Harvardwood Writers Competition & Most Staffable TV Writers

  • Seeking Homestay Hosts for HSIP

  • Virtual Harvardwood 101 Applications - Apply before May 6!

  • Harvardwood Summer Internship Program (HSIP)

  • Featured Job: Script Coordinator at NBC Universal

FEATURES

  • Alumni Profiles: Alan Horn MBA '71 (executive)

  • Retirement Announcement for Jack Megan, Director of the Harvard OFA

  • Industry News

  • Welcome New Members

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

CALENDAR & NOTES

  • GALILEE, 34 Performance and Private Meet and Greet with Amy Brenneman and Jeremy Rabb (LA)

  • Writing Adaptable IP (Virtual)

  • AAPI Voices in the Publishing World (Virtual)

  • A Fireside Chat with Nell Scovell (Cambridge)

  • Harvardwood Reunion Weekend Meetup (Cambridge)

  • Queer Voices in Literature (Virtual)

  • Last Month at Harvardwood

Want to submit your success(es) to Harvardwood HIGHLIGHTS? Do so by posting here! 



May the force be with you in your Kentucky Derby pool this month! I personally am rooting for our Harvardwood Writers Competition Winners & Most Staffable TV Writers--congratulations to Anthony Zonfrelli (FISHER OF MEN) and David and Jamie Holt Aguilar-Rodríguez (KING OF THE B’S)!


It is the time of year again where we humbly beseech our high-falutin' home-having members to be HSIP Home Stay Hosts. There is no joy as great as hearing the lilting, hopeful voice of a rising young professional livening up your home. Also, another call for those last minute HSIP  and Virtual Harvardwood 101 applications--this is for all of you procrastinators out there, the time is now!


Events, events, events. Come learn about Writing Adaptable IP and hear from AAPI Voices in the Publishing World and Queer Voices in Literature as we at Harvardwood finally, finally learn how to read this month. Theatre fans in LA, come with us to see GALILEE, 34, and hang with cast afterwards! For those in Cambridge, there's a Harvardwood Reunion and A Fireside Chat with Nell Scovell, literacy optional.


If you have not yet signed up for the new membership with expanded perks, what are your priorities? Join us lest we leave you behind in the dark age of old membership. We're very excited to be in this new phase of Harvardwood with everyone, so please come and enjoy the Harvardwood renaissance. As always, we want to hear from you, our members — if you have an idea for an event or programming, please tell us about it here. If you have an announcement about your work or someone else's, please share it here (members) and it will appear in our Weekly and/or next HIGHLIGHTS issue.



Winners of the 2024 Harvardwood Writers Competition & Most Staffable TV Writers


Harvardwood has announced its latest set of Writers Competition winners, also naming its Most Staffable TV Writer for 2024. Check out the Deadline announcement.


Notably, last year’s feature winner has returned to claim victory once again with a new project. The TV category is headlined by writers from the Harvardwood Writers Program, which has nearly doubled in size since the beginning of the pandemic and has expanded its global participation.


These talented writers were selected by a panel of industry professionals in a blind judging process. Each writer will receive one-on-one mentorship as well as a cash prize.


This year’s mentors include Naomi Funabashi (President of Film & Television at Hillman Grad—Beauty & the Beast, The Chi) and Chris Salvaterra (Senior Vice President of Original Programming at HBO—American Pie, Gone).


Harvardwood looks to spotlight talented up-and-coming writers from diverse backgrounds and connect them with mentors as well as producers, agencies, and management companies.


FEATURE WINNER:


FISHER OF MEN by Anthony Zonfrelli (drama)

Logline: A self-sabotaging addict navigates an internal transformation, confronting religion, love, sex, and past trauma while settling her drug debt with a merciless loan shark.


Anthony “Z” Zonfrelli is a neurodivergent, Harvard-educated comedy writer from Somerville, MA. He peaked as a toddler, winning the Massachusetts Baby America Pageant, and has been getting older and uglier ever since. Refusing to let his neurodivergence get the best of him, Z turned to comedy writing as a way of connecting with others, writing scripts rich in heart and exemplifying his charismatic, smart, and darkly weird sense of humor. A self-ordained “partially-lapsed Catholic,” Z also loves to use comedy to explore the dark, morbid areas of his psyche with a unique optimism that keeps it fresh and light. Halfway through his college career, Z used that optimism to walk on to Harvard’s competitive Division 1 wrestling team, proving to himself that he can do anything. Z’s scripts have been finalists and semi-finalists in Roadmap Writers JumpStart, Final Draft Big Break, PAGE, ScreenCraft, and Launch Pad, and he is a two-time Grand Prize Winner in Harvard University’s Harvardwood Writers Competition, for which he was awarded a mentorship with Jeff Schaffer [Seinfeld/Curb Your Enthusiasm/DAVE]. Z is both a Harvard alum and, to his parents' chagrin, a comedian, having performed in hundreds of improv and stand-up shows across the world, constantly improving his comedy writing chops in front of live audiences. He grew up on a cranberry bog in the middle of nowhere, leaving him only with his family and his imagination…and cranberries.


TV WINNERS & MOST STAFFABLE WRITERS:


KING OF THE B’S by David and Jamie Holt Aguilar-Rodríguez (one-hour drama)

Logline: In the 1950s Golden Age of Hollywood, ROGER CORMAN––a genius Stanford-educated engineer––is hell-bent on making a name for himself in showbiz. But when the mainstream studios reject him, Roger decides if he can’t make it IN Hollywood, he’ll have to make it AROUND Hollywood… by getting down and dirty in the world of B-movies.

David and Jamie Holt Aguilar-Rodríguez are a married filmmaking team shaped by their unique backgrounds: David’s, a totally outrageous Mexican-American bunch from Chicago, and Jamie’s, a multigenerational family of Southern storytellers from Charlotte, North Carolina. The duo writes comedic dramas about colorful, deeply flawed, unconventional protagonists who are determined to carve out their own identity and success against a system where money and power reward conformity––whether that be today or a distant time and place. David studied Psychology at Harvard and, after a brush with death made him realize he only had one chance to pursue his lifelong dream of filmmaking, he ditched cubicle life and broke into Hollywood working for B-movie legend Roger Corman before working for Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek). Growing up as an artsy, outspoken brainiac in a fat body surrounded by Southern debutantes, Jamie was never able to express herself. But after adventuring in the Outback studying indigenous storytelling, she fell in love with the power of story and went on to earn a degree in screenwriting from UNC-Greensboro before cutting her teeth working for Catherine Hardwicke and Justin Simien and producing music videos for artists including Lady Gaga. David and Jamie both hold MFAs in Film & TV Production from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.


David and Jamie were awarded the additional honor of "Most Staffable Writers" because their outstanding TV pilot was incubated in the Harvardwood Writers Program.


For more information or to read the winners' scripts, please contact admin@harvardwood.org

Visit our Harvardwood Writers Competition page to learn more.

 

Seeking Homestay Hosts for Harvardwood Summer Internship Program (HSIP) Students


Every year, our Harvardwood Summer Internship Program (HSIP) offers a few dozen Harvard College students the opportunity to pursue summer internships in the arts, media, and entertainment sectors. HSIP facilitates career-related activities throughout the summer for participating students and companies both virtually and in-person in Los Angeles and other cities with multiple students. 


We are currently looking for homestay hosts for part or all of Summer 2024 in LA, NYC, and other large cities to help defray the cost of living for students, many of whom could otherwise not afford to participate in low-paying arts/entertainment internships. If you’re able to provide a spare room/couch/air mattress to host a college student (or three!), we’d be eternally grateful.


Please contact Programs Director Laura Yumi Snell at lsnell@harvardwood.org with your nameaddress/neighborhood, and the number of students and dates you’re able to host. Thank you!

 

Virtual Harvardwood 101 applications will close May 6!


This program is for any current Harvard undergrads and graduate students! Virtual Harvardwood 101 is an intensive, informational three days featuring a dozen events via Zoom, including industry speakers, panels with interactive sessions, student Q&As, workshops, and more! Participants in past years include Amazon Studios, BMG Music Group, CAA, Max, Netflix, Spotify, United Masters, Upland Workshop, UTA, and more.


Students who have completed the virtual or in-person Harvardwood 101 in the past are eligible to participate again.


More info and application HERE

 

Harvardwood Summer Internship Program (HSIP) 2024


Now in its 21st year, the  Harvardwood Summer Internship Program (HSIP) provides a list of summer internship opportunities in the arts, media, and entertainment to interested Harvard students. In addition, HSIP facilitates career-related activities throughout the summer for participating students and companies virtually and/or in-person in LA, NY, and other cities with multiple students. Past program events have included film screenings, industry panels, and networking pool parties.


Internship opportunities are released and applications are accepted on a rolling basis. Positions may be filled on a first-come, first-served basis, so we encourage students and companies to submit their materials as early as possible.


Though the priority submission date has passed, there are still plenty of opportunities. 


Over 100 companies have participated in HSIP since its inception, including ABC, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, CAA, Digital Domain, Disney, Dreamworks, HBO Films, Lionsgate, Mirabai Films, Miramax, National Geographic Films, Red Wagon Productions, Skybound Entertainment, Untitled Entertainment, Valhalla Motion Pictures and many others!


Click here if you have a company offering summer internships. 

Click here if you are a student seeking summer internships.

 

Featured Job: Script Coordinator at NBC Universal


Job Description:

We create world-class content, which we distribute across our portfolio of film, television, and streaming, and bring to life through our theme parks and consumer experiences.



Alumni Profile: Alan Horn MBA '71 (executive)

by Laura Frustaci '21

Alan Horn MBA '71 retired from leading studios in 2021, but he recently agreed to consult part-time for David Zaslav and Warner Bros. Discovery. 


Horn was named Chairman of The Walt Disney Studios in 2012 before shifting to Chief Creative Officer in 2021. In these roles, he presided over seven movie studios as well the Studios’ expansion into streaming for Disney+.  Under Horn’s leadership, The Walt Disney Studios set numerous records at the box office, culminating in $11 billion in 2019, the only studio ever to have reached these thresholds. 


Prior to joining Disney, Horn served as President and COO of Warner Bros., leading the studio’s theatrical and home entertainment operations. During Horn’s tenure from 1999 to 2011, Warner Bros. was the top-performing studio at the global BO seven times and released numerous critically acclaimed films.


In 1987, Horn co-founded Castle Rock Entertainment, where as Chairman he oversaw a diverse collection of film and TV properties including “A Few Good Men,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” “In the Line of Fire,” and “Seinfeld,” the most successful show in television history. Horn previously served as President and COO of Twentieth Century Fox Films and as CEO of Embassy Communications. 


A passionate environmentalist, Horn served for thirty years on the board of NRDC and chair for the last three. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and serves on the AFI Board of Directors. He also served on the Harvard Business School Board of Dean’s Advisors. He earned his MBA from HBS and served as a captain in the U.S. Air Force.  


He is married to his wife Cindy and has two grown daughters.


Alan Horn MBA '71 is one of the most seasoned executives in Hollywood at this stage in his career. Having served as co-founder and CEO of Castle Rock Entertainment, president and COO of Warner Bros and chairman of Walt Disney Studios, he’s done and seen a lot throughout his tenure in the entertainment industry. We sat down to talk with him about his journey.


After graduating from Harvard Business School in 1971, Alan was working on the Ivory soap account at Proctor and Gamble when a friend asked him to have a meeting with someone they knew from Los Angeles. Alan said he didn’t want to have the meeting. But his friend wouldn’t be deterred so easily, and a few days later Alan found himself sitting opposite Jerry Perenchio, who was partners with Norman Lear in their production company, which would later become known as “Embassy Communications”. 


After a two-hour long conversation, the world of entertainment had piqued Alan’s interest, and to Jerry, Alan was exactly the “blank slate” he had been searching for. He hired Alan on the spot, convincing him to move cross country to LA by offering him about a 150% pay increase from his current role as an associate at P&G. It was an offer that Alan simply couldn’t turn down.


“I was working on the business side, and I got to know Norman, and we became very close,” Alan recalls of his time at Embassy. “When you’re in a small company, you don’t get pigeonholed so much. There’s a lot of interaction. You get to do a lot more.” About six years into Alan’s tenure, Norman Lear decided to step down, and he wanted Alan to fill his role as the creative head of the company. At the time, they had seven network comedies running, including ALL IN THE FAMILY, SANFORD AND SON, and MAUDE. “Jerry didn’t like the idea, but Norman had already pitched it to me, so Jerry said to go ahead.” Alan smiles. “But I was too young, with no experience, and a business school guy (their worst nightmare), so I wasn't welcomed and it was very difficult.” Alan explains. “I even tried to unwind it, because it was so uncomfortable.” But Norman persisted, and after six months of tension, Alan finally won the writers over. Embassy was a harmonious workspace for everyone for the next seven years.


Following his time at Embassy, after a brief unhappy stint at Twentieth Century Fox, Alan went on to co-found Castle Rock Entertainment in 1987, overseeing hits including SEINFELD and WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. Castle Rock was later acquired by Warner Brothers, so he moved there next, and after twelve years at Warners he landed at Disney for the following ten. He’s currently back at Warner Bros Discovery working halftime as a consultant for the company. 


So, after all that, what skills does Alan believe helped to make him such a successful executive? “A high EQ,” he says immediately. “Every problem I've ever encountered usually translates to a people problem.” And to be an effective executive, you have to be ready to jump in and mediate anything interpersonal. Alan also says that with regard to creativity, it’s incredibly important to be able to recognize when a story has a solid beginning, middle, and ending that delivers. “You want to walk out of that theater and have closure,” Alan nods. “Therefore, you need characters that you root for, heart (a tear-shedding moment), and humor. There’s never anything that doesn’t benefit from humor.” 


Being able to identify those types of stories has led Alan to be involved with countless incredibly successful projects, from HARRY POTTER to AVENGERS to INSIDE OUT to SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. “All [of them] have special meaning because they took place at a certain point in my life,” Alan recalls fondly. “And I learned a lot from them.”


We asked Alan to distill what he’s learned from each and every project into a list of lessons. “Never lie to anyone about anything,” he starts. “As a leader, you need people to follow you, and they won’t follow you if they won’t trust you, and they won’t trust you if you lie to them.” 


“Own your mistakes. Crow doesn’t taste very good, but it is nutritious,” Alan smiles. “Experience helps. You know more if you do it longer, and I’m still learning. Another one, in the management of creativity, one learns there isn’t always a clear answer. It’s all debatable. Also, don’t get too high on success or too low on failure, because nothing’s easy and success varies widely in the movie and TV business. Above all, ‘Quality is the best business plan.’” Alan mentions that he believes that this quote came from Steve Jobs, which was confirmed by Pixar’s John Lasseter in this Forbes article.


However, a quality screenplay doesn’t always guarantee a quality product which will enjoy financial success. “Although it’s essential, it’s not enough to walk in with a great screenplay,” Alan explains. “There has to be that conversation about commerciality. There’s an old saying, ‘The picture you don’t make, you break even on.’ So, before you say yes, it better satisfy the two criteria: creative resonance and a budget that makes sense.” 


One other point Alan makes is that the medium in which a script is presented is not the same that the audience will experience on screen. “You can think you have one thing and be completely surprised by the execution with all the variables involved in making a film. For example, with the film 300, the script was fine,” he recalls, “but I was blown away by the visual impact. So you greenlight a movie based on the screenplay, director, cast, but you’re not seeing what the audience will actually experience when they see the film.” That translation from page to screen is what can make the difference between a box office hit or a flop. 


Part of what informs Alan’s perspective is the sheer amount of content with which consumers can become inundated and overwhelmed. “There’s a proliferation of product, with theatrical and streaming, that makes it hard to break through the clutter,” Alan notes. “So a film needs something else, like a compelling marketing campaign. A great marketing effort can certainly help give people a reason to leave home and go to a theater.” 


With all that in mind, we have to wonder where the industry is headed, and Alan offers his thoughts. “The challenge is to find that elusive balance between traditional moviegoing and streaming,” he muses. “The business is changing so much that we are in uncharted waters, headed for a new normal, still undefined. Streaming is not going away. Motion picture viewership is coming back up again. It’s crowded out there,” Alan reiterates. “But, there will always be a demand for creativity, and (again) quality is everything.”


 

Harvard OFA Director Jack Megan's Retirement Announcement


It is with mixed emotions that we share the news of Jack Megan’s retirement from his position as Director of the Office for the Arts at Harvard. During his 23-year tenure, Jack has been an incredible ally and supporter of Harvard artists and Harvardwood, overseeing programs in many artistic disciplines including music, dance, theater and visual arts, the operation and expansion of art-making spaces, and the annual, campus-wide Arts First festival. He has been deeply involved in creating and/or expanding arts-related concentrations at Harvard including Theater, Dance and Media, and he recently drafted a strategic plan for the OFA that will guide its path forward and enhance its mission to integrate creative thinking and expression into undergraduate learning.


While we’re sad to see Jack move on, we share immense gratitude for his efforts to elevate the arts at Harvard in both curricular and extracurricular spheres, and we know his incredible legacy will live on for decades to come. An accomplished jazz pianist, composer and playwright, Jack has many more creative endeavors ahead of him, and we look forward to seeing what his next chapter will bring!

 

Industry News


South Coast Repertory just opened its world premiere of GALILEE, 34 by Eleanor Burgess, which the Orange County Register calls "intellectual catnip" and "a helluva two hours of engrossing theater". Known for her role in “Judging Amy,” “The Old Man,” and other film credits, Amy Brenneman AB ’87 makes her SCR debut as Miriam of Nazareth, and Jeremy Rabb ART '98 makes his SCR debut as Mattityahu/Ezra. (Orange County Register) 


Penn Javdan GSA 11 interviews co-showrunner Don McKellar about HBO/A24 series THE SYMPATHIZER, his adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Hoa Xuande. (Toronto Life)


WE WERE THE LUCKY ONES creator Erica Lipez AB ’05 and director Tommy Kail chat about adapting the book for Hulu and its period setting vs. modern aesthetics in this interview. (ScreenRant)

 

Mark Tillman, Hoon Lee AB ’94, and Lena Hall are set as series regulars opposite Jon Hamm in YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS, Apple TV+’s upcoming drama series from Jonathan Tropper. (Deadline) 

 

Charlie Grandy AB ’97, Mindy Kaling, and Warner Bros. Animation's VELMA will be returning to Max for a second season on Thursday, April 25th. (Bleeding Cool) 

 

Listen to Talkhouse’s podcast THE SCREEN WRITING LIFE episode 186, where we focus on Jeff Melvoin AB ’75's book, RUNNING THE SHOW, and he gives us a ‘crash course for showrunners.’ (Talkhouse) 

 

Hulu premieres Dan Abrams’ AB ’90 investigative series ‘Cult Justice,’ about the efforts of survivors and prosecutors to bring cult leaders to justice, on March 28th. (Yahoo) 

 

Read this review of the first of four sold-out engagements in Chicago as the writer, actor, comedian, and former Senator launches his aptly titled U.S. tour of “AN EVENING OF NEW STAND-UP WITH AL FRANKEN” AB 73. (Forbes) 

 

ART HAPPENS HERE with John Lithgow AB ’67 premieres Friday, April 26, 2024 on PBS. Join the Emmy and Tony Award-Winning actor as he goes back to school to celebrate the transformative power of arts education. (Good Men Project) 

 

Former 'TONIGHT SHOW' host Conan O'Brien AB ’85, who had a brief stint from June 2009 to January 2010, is set to return as a guest on the 'TONIGHT SHOW.' (Rolling Stone) 

 

HOTEL COCAINE, executive produced by Alfredo Barrios Jr. AB ’91 JD ’94, drops first teaser trailer and rounds out cast. (Deadline) 

 

KUNG FU PANDA 4, co-written by Jonathan Aibel AB ’91, surpasses its predecessor at the domestic box office—it will now be released digitally. (Movie Web) 

 

LEGALLY BLONDE spinoff series in the works at Amazon from Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine, Josh Schwartz & Stephanie Savage, cowritten by Mindy Kaling and Dan Goor AB ’97. (Deadline) 


Ben Sherwood AB ’86, former president of Disney ABC Television Group, has been named CEO and publisher at The Daily Beast. (Next TV) 

 

LaKeith Stanfield is teaming up with veteran producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura AB ’80 for EL PASO, ELSEWHERE, an adaptation of the neo-noir vampire video game from publisher Strange Scaffold. (The Hollywood Reporter) 

 

Mike Schur AB ’97 will be mentoring the recipients of the 2024 NRDC Climate Storytelling Fellowship, alongside Brit Marling and Daniel Scheinert. (NRDC) 

 

UNDER THE DOME showrunner Neal Baer MD 96 has teamed with the series’ supervising producer Alexandra McNally for a medical drama that has been bought by CBS. (Yahoo)  


Marvel is reportedly considering writers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein JD 95, the writing duo behind the hit comedy Horrible Bosses and Dungeons & Dragons, to head MCU’s SPIDER-MAN 4.  (FandomWire) 

 

Welcome New Members

Harvardwood warmly welcomes all members who joined the organization last month (or those who migrated their membership over):

  • Alex Lee

  • Crystal Manyloun

  • Izzy Wilson

  • Mara Sims

  • Roseanne Strategos

  • Bradley Wolf

  • Brian Goffman

  • Isabel Wagner

  • Devi Vallabhaneni

  • Chet Ellis

  • Josh Brener

  • Jack Griffin

  • Nureldin Mohamed

  • Eliza Zangerl

  • Linda Cohen

  • Cheng Zhu

  • Jacob DeLaRosa

  • Ben Milliken

 

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



GALILEE, 34 Performance and Private Meet and Greet with Amy Brenneman and Jeremy Rabb (LA)

Friday, 5/10   Free for all members *PLAY ADMISSION NOT INCLUDED


Join us for a Harvardwood Exclusive post-show chat with cast members Amy Brenneman AB '86 and Jeremy Rabb ART '98 after GALILEE, 34, a play by Eleanor Burgess and directed by Davis McCallum as part of the Pacific Playwrights Festival! There will be an official talkback with the entire cast immediately following the show, after which we will have a private Harvardwood meet and greet with Amy and Jeremy.


 

Writing Adaptable IP (Virtual)

Tuesday, 5/14   Free for all members


Join us for a conversation with writer and producer Michael Sonnenschein AB '94 about writing adaptable IP – the brave new frontier of film and television.


 

AAPI Voices in the Publishing World (Virtual)

Monday, 5/20   Free for all members


Join us for a Harvardwood Author Series conversation for AAPI Heritage Month featuring authors A.H. Kim AB '87, Yangsze Choo AB '95, and Angie Kim EDM '06 GSE '13, and publisher Stephanie Lim AB '03!


 

A Fireside Chat with Nell Scovell (Cambridge)

Friday, 5/24  Free for all members


Join us for A Fireside Chat with Nell Scovell - Writer, Producer, Director - moderated by Ashley Borders Zigman, Masters Candidate, Harvard '25.


 

Harvardwood Reunion Weekend Meetup (Cambridge)

Saturday, 6/01   Free


It's Harvard reunion weekend! Stop by our alumni meet-up at Charlie's Kitchen on Saturday, June 1st and catch up with your old Harvardwood friends (and make some new ones)!


 

Queer Voices in Literature (Virtual)

Wednesday, 6/05   Free for all members


Join us for a conversation with queer authors Jas Hammonds, Sami Ellis, Jen St. Jude ALM '18, and Aislinn Brophy AB '17!


 

Last Month at Harvardwood

Last month at Harvardwood, we celebrated THE MANICURIST'S DAUGHTER book launch, learned about An Actor's Life, chatted about CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM with Jeff Schaffer AB '91, discussed Writing Mystery and Intrigue, and more!

 

List of All Upcoming Harvardwood Events HereWant to submit your success(es) to Harvardwood HIGHLIGHTS? Do so by posting here!

Become a Harvardwood member!We work hard to create programming that you, the membership, would like to be engaged with. Please consider joining Harvardwood and becoming an active member of our arts, media, and entertainment community!

 

DISCLAIMER

Harvardwood does not represent or endorse the accuracy or reliability of any of the information, content or advertisements (collectively "Materials") contained on, distributed through, or linked, downloaded or accessed from any of the services contained in this e-mail. You hereby acknowledge that any reliance upon any Materials shall be at your sole risk. The materials are provided by Harvardwood on an "AS IS" basis, and Harvardwood expressly disclaims any and all warranties, express or implied.





12 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page