The Brain Behind Spike Lee’s ‘Young Black Zuckerberg’
The world of television is undergoing a renaissance, thanks to a recent surge of original content.
Industry leaders such as Netflix, Hulu, and HBO are expected to invest up to $8 billion dollars in original series next year the New York Times reports. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and “Insecure”, Netflix’s “The Crown” and “Dear White People”, and FX’s “Atlanta” have captivated audiences of millions internationally.
The director-producer and film pioneer Spike Lee, founder of 40 Acres and A Mule Filmworks, is partnering with tech entrepreneur-turned-Hollywood filmmaker, Chad Sanders, to sell a new TV series, “Archer”.
Sanders, 29, took vivid moments of his adventurous world travel and life in New York City to develop the series protagonist, Archer, a young Brooklyn-based African-American who has developed a dating app that reads sexual chemistry. “Think of Archer like the young black Zuckerberg,”says Sanders.
When I sat down with Sanders to discuss the series, he was wearing all black but his energy was bright. He’s amicable yet edgy. He speaks clearly but jumps around quickly detailing uncommon experiences. He creatively draws comparisons and pathways between seemingly unrelated people and concepts in his stories. He is, after all, the inspiration for the main character in he and Spike’s show.
The story of Archer travels between New York City, Silicon Valley, and Berlin’s famously hedonistic party scene, places Sanders knows well from his journey as a tech entrepreneur who formerly served as a partner and head of product development at Dev Bootcamp.
Dev Bootcamp was the first intensive coding school which helped birth a $260 million industry that now includes more than 150 different coding bootcamps worldwide and will graduate around 23,000 developers in 2017. Sanders was a cofounding team member of Dev Bootcamp’s New York franchise, which has trained 400-plus developers to date. He also led the company’s first European courses in Berlin in 2014, and was an active partner in the company when it was acquired by Kaplan in a multi-million dollar acquisition three years ago.
Prior to Dev Bootcamp, Sanders spent the first four years of his career with Google, where he jumped around between the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters and its European and New York offices. Around the time he left Dev Bootcamp in 2016, he cofounded the business development agency Archer Genius Management with a mentor, former Google and LinkedIn executive Ed Bailey. Chad then began writing his television series around his protagonist by the same name, Archer.
It was just over a year ago that Sanders realized he had access to another form of coding that could lead the way for his next adventure. “I found a life hack,” he says. “I’ve been a writer my entire life. Something clicked and I realized I could use my code — language, expression, and imagination — to unlock new worlds the way my colleagues used coding in tech. Companies are investing heavily in young creators and original content right now. I had a compelling story that I felt a passion to tell. I saw the market opportunity. So I jumped.”
Following is an excerpt of my recent Q&A with Sanders.
Give me three words that describe you and your work.
Creative. Instinctive. Scrappy.
What ignited your “life hacker” mindset?
I come from a family of entrepreneurs and business minds. Both of my grandfathers were veterans who started and ran their own businesses when they left the service. My dad started his own law practice and spent time helping countries build stock markets. My mom was an executive at Verizon for almost 30 years. My sister is a lawyer at the SEC. Our dinner table conversations were often about business challenges and problem solving. For fun, we’d play complex board games and mind teasers. I remember thinking to myself, I’m the youngest and I know the least at this table and nobody’s giving me a break. How can I compete? I had to find shortcuts and patterns in the system. Later I learned that those were market inefficiencies. Spending time around software engineers and product managers, I learned how to find those same advantages in business and even art. That’s hacking.
Preparation is key to all things. Tell me what prepared you for this moment.
I grew up in Silver Spring, MD, in a very diverse community: maybe 55% white, 30% black, and 15% international, Asian, Latino, etc. I changed schools almost every year growing up so I learned quickly how to interact and adapt to all kinds of people. I had to adapt as the only black kid in the room in my Gifted and Talented programs. It was a test of patience and constant code switching. It felt kind of like “Get Out” sometimes. After college I moved from Atlanta to Cali to New York to London to Berlin, and so on. That gave me access to so many different ways of living and thinking and the ability to communicate with all kinds of people. As far as performing, my first acting gig came on a TV show called Adventure Camp, which aired on the Discovery Kids Network when I was 12. I played basketball and the piano all through grade school, so I got used to doing a challenging activity while people watched. That’s acting, in a sense.
A large part of being a creator is operating from a place of authenticity, defining your voice and coupling inspiration with imagination. How did you develop your creative voice?
I was really social growing up, but always a bit off from my peers. My parents made sure of it. They pressed me to challenge what I was being taught – not just at school, but on television, at friends’ houses, anywhere. My sister and I were limited to 30 minutes of television per day, and only after we’d done enough to cultivate our own creativity. Play the piano. Write a story. Something. So I got used to having to dig inside myself to unearth new ideas. It was a pain at first, but eventually I got used to being out of the loop on pop culture. I rarely had the cool shoes or CD that had just come out, but I started thinking about how those shoes were made or teaching myself how to play the chords on The Chronic.
Morehouse College gave me poignant cultural context and showed me real diversity within my race. As an English major I learned how to communicate precisely and empathetically; how to bring the reader into my world. But the people that most inspired me to develop my authentic voice creatively were honestly musicians – Michael Jackson, Kanye West, OutKast. I loved them because they didn’t hedge. They felt something and they shared it with the world. They were visceral.
How did you come up with this television series concept, and how did you get Spike Lee onboard?
Two years ago, at the Berghain nightclub in Berlin of all places, I realized I had this crazy story to tell. I’m a passionate storyteller and I just wanted to share some of the fun and interesting stuff going on around me. After I wrote the first episode, I shared it with a small group of friends. We did a little table read in Williamsburg at two of my close friends’ apartment. We had such a blast with it and I was really growing enamored with the characters, so I just kept writing more.
The weird thing is I met Spike [Lee] outside of the same coffee shop where I wrote the pilot episode, but a month before I started writing. I have been a fan of Spike’s since I watched Malcolm X and He Got Game as a kid, so I walked over and introduced myself. He was wearing his iconic frames. We are both Morehouse guys and he was extremely warm. But I didn’t even have the project then. The most circuitous path led me back to him.
After I wrote the first episode, I went on the Reality Global trip to Israel with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation. I met an incredibly supportive friend there named Tina Wells who took a look at my script. She connected me to my manager which led to the rest of my representation. But I was reintroduced to Spike by Rev. John Wilson who officiated my sister’s wedding in May. Rev. Wilson asked me what I was up to at the wedding and I told him about the project. Less than a week later Spike called me on my cell phone and asked for the pitch. A few days later he and I were going over every page of the script at his studio in Fort Greene. Spike is a pioneer in film and a visionary entrepreneur who loves to empower young creatives. He believed in the project in a way that was very clear to me.
I know we’re of the same mind, but who inspires you? Who is on your creative “Mount Rushmore”?
I’m inspired by anyone who has the heart to speak and live the truth as they see it. I was blessed in that I never had to look far for inspiration. My parents and my sister are the boldest, smartest people I know. My creative Mount Rushmore is Michael Jackson, Kanye West, Prince and Spike. It’s going to take a lot for someone to shake one of them from the list.
What are some of your keys to life hacking that younger generations can learn from?
Listen to your inner voice. Your brain is a computer that is processing information at remarkable speeds. When it tells you to make a move – or sit still – listen. That’s instinct.
You have to shoot to score. Get comfortable with misses and mistakes. Those can be scary, but they’re not dangerous.
Stop heroizing your future self. Be the future self you idolize today.
Pray and take action.
Get past the fear of judgement.
Teach people how to treat you.
Simplicity breeds creativity. Less is more.
What’s next? How do you plan to connect and disrupt film and tech?
The 10 leaders in original content will spend more than $40 billion on new content next year. Netflix has said they’re going to end the year with about 1,000 hours of original shows and movies this year. I imagine their competitors will aim to push or come close to that number next year. That is a considerably large market for television. The tech business world taught me how to build a valuable product and reach such a market.
Finding the right network or digital partner to help produce the show and reach the market is now paramount. I am excited about the nucleus of me and Spike. Now, partnering with a network with similarly ambitious vision and passion for Archer is key. I’m excited to learn and create at each step with those partners. I’ve poured so much into this story, I love seeing it take on its own life.
Posted with permission of Forbes Media LLC.
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