Oscar-Winning Producer Michael Sugar on How to Elevate Storytelling During Social Change

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“Making a living is not as important as making a life… Putting people in harm’s way is not worth the money to me,” Sugar says

Oscar-winning producer and CEO of Sugar23, Michael Sugar and wife Lauren Sugar at the premiere for Apple TV+'s "Dickinson," which Sugar 23 produced
Sugar23 founder Michael Sugar and wife Lauren (photo credit: Getty Images)

Michael Sugar cares. The veteran film and TV producer and financier truly seems to give a damn — about people, content and how his production company Sugar23 approaches both. Sugar sat down to talk with TheWrap via phone a few days after June 19, colloquially known as Juneteenth or Freedom Day — the day commemorating the last of the enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learning they were free almost two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. This year, the day gained wide-spread recognition, and Sugar, like many other Hollywood bosses shut the office for the day in order to observe the day — but then went a step further. “I didn’t want to just cancel school for the day. I instead organized a conversation with the whole company led by one of our African-American employees, who really walked us through why it was important to think about this as a day off,” Sugar said. The Oscar-winning producer — Sugar’s 2015 film “Spotlight” won Best Picture — is a self-proclaimed sap and said he does his best to incorporate that care and humanity into how he runs his company and how his company approaches the work they do. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. How are you are finding this time as the industry tries to figure out how to get back to work after, virtually, a complete shutdown? Sugar: It’s been a real soul search for us as a company, and it’s been fruitful in many ways. I mean, first it was how do you get back to work? Now, it’s how do you get back to doing the kind of work that is cognizant and taking into account all of the change that’s taking place not only from the shutdown, which now seems inconsequential compared to the real pervasive issues of society right now. So it’s like, a hat on a hat on a hat. It’s not just how to get back, which was the first question for the last six months or however many months it is, but it’s now where are we getting back to? I haven’t really been faced with the question: If I was greenlit tomorrow and sent somewhere, would I go? Would I take my family? What would that look like?… I’m not sure what the answer is. It seems obvious things are going to change. Are you concerned or worried you might not be able to produce the same kind, or the same quality of content that you would have before? Of course it’s a concern. But I don’t think that people, like our partners at Netflix or Apple or wherever — we work a lot of places — they’re not putting money into things that aren’t going to produce great content, right? I mean, they’re still being efficient with what they’re going to make. So I don’t think that there’s going to be a lot of sacrifice. Where I feel that impact more is in the conversations we’re having with studios and financiers about what does a post-corona show or movie look like. It’s more about the questions like: How will audiences consume differently? And not just the disparity between Netflix and a movie theater, but the disparity between genre and what will get people to check out of life and engage with something? It’s added a layer of thinking to our curation of potential projects. And how have you all been thinking about that question? It’s impossible to analyze where the audiences are going, none of us even know where the world is going to be in six months. We live in an upside down world right now. But I do feel like the bar is higher because one consequence of corona, and there are many, is that people value their time more, even if they’ve had more free time, they value it more. There probably couldn’t be a much better time to have multi-year long deal with a streamer like Netflix. Working with Netflix, even in a time of complete normalcy is wonderful. They’re phenomenal partners to us. But in this time it’s even sweeter because their appetite to create more content couldn’t be bigger. What I love about Netflix is that when we talk to them their response always starts with how do we get to yes, rather than how can we say no. They don’t always say yes, but we always feel like they want to engage with our creativity in a way that is really embracing of us. That’s been the way from the jump, even before Corona. I think what’s changed, obviously, is that they can’t make as much right now. But they, because there’s a deficit in production now, they’re preparing for a glut of it when we can. So our job is really shifted into development, and we are selling across all genres within film and TV. And we’ve got some phenomenal development coming in. So it hasn’t been less busy for us put it that way. We have been scrambling and working really hard, working with writers and filmmakers and talent to put things together so that when we can, we’re ready. What’s the near future look like for Sugar23? Do current events change the way you all operate? I personally hope so. I don’t know how soon we’re going to get back in [to production]. I hope soon. And we’re eager to do it. But I always say, making a living is not as important as making a life. And I apply that to all aspects of our business. Putting people in harm’s way is not worth the money to me. So, it’s caused us to pivot in a myriad of ways. We’re focusing more on books, I shouldn’t say focusing more than film, but I’ve applied additional resources to our book business. We’ve applied a ton of resources to our podcast business because that can be done remotely. We’re doing venture capital and private equity. We’re investing in companies, and we’re particularly focused on the kinds of businesses that We can use our media and talent relationships to amplify. So as a business, Sugar23 is good. We have phenomenal investors that are supportive. We have a team that is pulling in the same direction. So I feel good about our company right now. We’re not from fear, we’re looking at this moment as an opportunity to grow, not to contract. It’s strange every conversation I have and interview I do now focuses on the pandemic. Is there’s ever a point in time now where the pandemic hasn’t been a central thought for you? Not every not every conversation is driven by the pandemic, but every conversation is informed by it… Obviously, what’s going on post-George Floyd has been a big distraction from the pandemic. That has certainly steered our conversations away from the pandemic. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about this, and how we can be advocates for the things that have emerged and the eyes that have been opened as a result of all this. And what does that look like? It’s evolving. I have to say, we have to do a much better job. We’ve had a number of conversations, and we’re trying to be careful and thoughtful about it because I didn’t just want to be reactive, right? So the weekend that everyone started protesting and everyone was blasting on social, I held back, not because I wasn’t connected to it, but because I really wanted to understand it better before I just jumped in on the bandwagon and put up something on social that may not have actually been our message. Because we were ill-informed. And so now we’re trying to be thoughtful rather than reactive. Does that newfound awareness inform the kinds of projects you guys are attracted to,that you end up producing, whether they be podcasts or TV, film books? The answer, of course, is yes. It informs that in myriad ways. It’s going to inform the marketplace because the buyers are thinking that way, so we need to think that way. But we already thought that way. I mean, the through line of our projects generally is that we try to disguise social impact with entertainment. I would say that 90% of our slate is about something important. Like “13 Reasons Why,” while it’s an adolescent soap opera, it’s obviously about deeper topics. “Maniac” was about mental health. And “Spotlight” was kind of on the nose but we tried to make it as a thriller — I mean on the nose in terms of its social impact. So I think social impact has always been a part of our discussion. It would be tone deaf of us not to be thinking about how to tailor our slate to the new world and the new thinking, not because it’s opportunistic, but because it would be irresponsible not to as citizens. We care about the world here. So to kind of circle back to the beginning of the conversation; how are you finding this time? That’s the thing that I think is going to be the lasting impact of the pandemic. The small talk of the average Hollywood conversation is replaced by the real talk of how we’re experiencing corona — every conversation starts with: How you guys holding up? We’ll get back to production, and people will get back to bars and life will return to normal, sort of, at some point. I think what’s different, and what I hope is different, is that everybody now knows that life can change in an instant. We hear it our whole lives, but you don’t believe it could actually happen to you and now it’s happened to us all. Life changed in an instant for everybody. My hope is that there will be a heightened sense of kindness in the world. Our business could use that too.