AWA Studios, the content startup that develops graphic novels with the hopes of seeding larger entertainment franchises, has assembled a brain trust of prominent writers and directors who will help the company nurture original ideas across a range of platforms.
AWA Studios has enlisted Reginald Hudlin, Gregg Hurwitz, Laeta Kalogridis, Joseph Kosinski, Al Madrigal and J. Michael Straczynski to serve on the company’s Creative Council. The council’s charter is for those established players to use their experience and their connections to help AWA writer and graphic artists “unleash the full potential of their characters and stories, providing a diversity of contemporary storytelling perspectives and putting projects in the best position to be scaled across the entertainment ecosystem,” per AWA.
The company, started in 2018 with backing from investors that include James Murdoch and Elisabeth Murdoch, is focused on producing graphic novels that can then be developed as TV, film or digital media franchises. Kosinski, red hot off his success as the director of “Top Gun: Maverick,” is attached to direct AWA’s first big film project, “Chariot,” which was acquired in 2021 by Warner Bros. The spy-themed thriller is based on the AWA novel by Bryan Edward Hill and will be produced with Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps Entertainment.
Madrigal, a multi-hyphenate known for his work as an actor, writer, showrunner, podcaster and more, published a graphic novel, ”Primos,” with AWA earlier this year. All of the council members were chosen for their familiarity with graphic novels and genre fare. Straczynski is one of the modern pioneers of never-ending media properties with the cult-fave “Babylon 5” sci-fi universe he created in the mid-1990s for first-run syndication. More recently, he worked with the Wachowskis on the out-there Netflix drama “Sense8.” Kalogridis is known for her work on “Avatar,” among many other projects. Hurwitz is an author and screenwriter (“Sweet Girl,” “Orphan X”).
AWA was founded by a group of Marvel and DC Comics alums. Former Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso is co-founder and chief creative officer of AWA. Zach Studin, formerly of John Wells Prods. and Lionsgate, heads the Los Angeles-based movie and TV development arm. Alonso has a long relationship with Hudlin, having tapped the director to write Marvel’s “Black Panther” comics in the early 2000s.
Matthew Anderson, co-chairman and president of AWA Studios, says the graphic fiction focus gives the company an edge.
“When trying to push something highly original, graphic fiction allows you a lot of freedom to push the idea,” Anderson tells Variety. “We like to say we have an unlimited special effects budget. We get fan reaction so fast, it’s amazing. Generally, we like to develop the concept in graphic fiction first.”
AWA’s pitch to creatives is that they will give writers and artists a much bigger say in the long-term development plan for their properties, as well as a bigger cut of profits. AWA has about 20 full-time employees spread across New York and L.A. The company’s investors include James Murdoch’s Lupa Systems, Sister (the partnership of Elisabeth Murdoch, Stacey Snider and Jane Featherstone) and Lightspeed Venture Partners.
Anderson acknowledges that AWA’s pitch isn’t unique at a time when a bunch of investment dollars are going into next-generation content ventures (Peter Chernin’s North Road Co., Range Media Partners, Candle Media, et al). But AWA does have its advantages within this vibrant market for talent. The connections that AWA’s investors bring for content production and distribution are significant. So are the web of industry relationships and depth of content production experience that members of the Creative Council bring to be the table, Anderson says.
“We want to be a source of gravity for creators, a place where they feel they have a home,” he says.
“There are a lot of amazing writers and artists out there who have a choice between going to a place that is 100% creator owned where it’s all on you and you have no support, or getting a big payment upfront but owning nothing. What we have is the best option down the middle. Creators retain an ownership stake in their work for the long term and they get really professional support from people who will help them and fight for their ideas.
“It’s a really fun time to be in the business if you can begin to shape some new models,” Anderson says. “There’s a true hunger out there for really great, original material.”
When director Reginald Hudlin finished his first documentary “The Black Godfather,” which profiled one of the most influential figures in Black Hollywood whom the general public was mostly unaware of, he was unsure if he could ever find a project that would top the experience.
“I just said, ‘Well, I guess it’ll be a while before I find a subject that could follow Clarence Avant,’” the filmmaker recalled during a recent phone interview with IndieWire. “And then you get a call saying ‘Sidney Poitier,’ you go ‘Whoa, there you have it.’”
Before Hudlin officially said yes to directing “Sidney,” his Apple TV+ documentary about the groundbreaking movie star who was the first Black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor — and which has garnered three Critics Choice Documentary Awards nominations, including Best Feature and Best Director — he connected with Poitier’s family through the producers at Network Entertainment. “I just wanted to make sure that we could tell his whole story, and there wasn’t any kind of, ‘Oh, don’t go there,’ which there was not,” explained the director. “So I said, ‘OK then, we can really tell the movie as it should be told.’”
Still, the last element he needed to do so was executive producer Oprah Winfrey. The entire reason Poitier himself appears in the film is due to the fact that the former talk show host allowed the film to use any footage her network OWN had shot of the actor for his 2012 episode of “Oprah’s Master Class,” footage that amounted to two days of interviews with the icon.
“[Winfrey] was able to do that because she was a Sidney expert. She talked to Sidney every Sunday for years. So her encyclopedic knowledge of his life, big and small incidents, was invaluable in the process,” Hudlin said. Though Poitier had originally made a deal with the mogul to only broadcast his episode once before shelving it, he and the family later agreed as well to let Hudlin have access to it to make “Sidney.”
Much like its subject, the film transcends the traditional Hollywood narrative seen in many recent biographical documentaries, and dives into Poitier’s greater sociopolitical influence. “The challenge with a person like Sidney Poitier is that he lived a very long time. And every year of his life was very consequential from the circumstances of his birth, where he defeats death, on,” said Hudlin. “He was an activist both on and off screen. And when he made choices about movies, there was always a political aspect to those choices. This is a man who single-handedly took on all the corrosive, toxic racial stereotyping that Hollywood had done almost from the beginning — from ‘Birth of a Nation’ on — and he single-handedly is smashing all of this racist imagery with his intelligence, with his class, with his courage, with his moral compass.”
One particularly poignant correlation the film makes is that the three films that make Poitier the biggest box office draw of 1967 and 1968 — “To Sir, with Love,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” — were released within the three years between the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
“These three movies perfectly capture this inflection point in popular culture, and he’s making moves that are right where the culture is. And finally, and this happens to anybody, the culture starts moving ahead of the timeline it takes to make a movie. By the time that ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ is out, now the goalposts have moved, and there’s a radical movement that’s now questioning where everybody was only a few years ago,” said Hudlin.
Poitier’s co-star in the film Katharine Houghton even says in “Sidney” that the actor told her on set, “‘Yeah, this is probably my last movie,’ because the culture shifted, which meant Sidney was completely aware of what was happening. He was totally plugged in,” added the director.
“When we look back at it historically, you just go ‘Well, Sidney was doing exactly what we as a people needed him to do.’ He was the leader in the war on the pop culture level by doing what he was doing,” said Hudlin. Once Poitier saw the shift away from “respectable” roles, Hudlin explained, “he knew well, ‘What I’m doing, we don’t need that anymore.’ So what he did was reinvent himself. He says ‘If I don’t have to be that anymore, then I can be something else. I can become a director. I can play an everyman character instead of having to play the perfect character.’ So when you see ‘Uptown Saturday Night,’ that’s a guy free of his previous obligation, so he can expand in a new direction.”
Although Poitier’s achievements are a well-documented series of firsts, “Sidney” puts them into a historical context for its younger audience, showing just how difficult at the time it was to achieve the heights the icon reached.
“You have to tell the story for each generation,” said Hudlin, citing his admiration for The Beatles’ ability to self-mythologize enough to where even children know who John Lennon is. “That’s why I wanted to make the movie. So that the next generation, my kids, are even aware that, ‘This guy, without him, your dad doesn’t exist. Oprah Winfrey doesn’t exist. Barack Obama doesn’t exist. And if you’re interested, you should see these movies, because they’re amazing movies.’ They’re amazing cinematically, but they’re also important parts of Black history because they changed history.”
Hudlin recalled a conversation with John Boyega, asking the 30-year-old actor who Sidney Poitier was to him: “And he said, ‘He’s the first Avenger.’ There’s no better line than that. That’s the ‘Boom, drop the mic’ moment. That’s a perfect summation of who Sidney Poitier is.”
The challenge in making Sidney — about the pioneering Black actor, filmmaker and activist Sidney Poitier — was knowing where to stop, director Reginald Hudlin said during an appearance for Deadline’s Contenders Film: New York event at The Times Center in Manhattan.
“He had a long life, and every year of his life was consequential,” Hudlin said in a live video interview discussing the Apple Original Films documentary. “His teenage years were consequential. The circumstances of his birth were consequential. His retirement — he was an incredible mentor to an amazing range of people. So we wanted to get everything.”
“And honestly, there’s always a slight period of mourning after you finish a movie like this over the things you weren’t able to put in,” Hudlin said.
Poitier, who died in January at age 94, did not live to see the finished film, Hudlin said. But the anchor of Sidney is material from two days of interviews, previously unaired, that the Oscar winner did with the film’s producer, Oprah Winfrey.
Poitier talks about growing up on tiny Cat Island, in the Bahamas, without water and electricity; coming to America, and Harlem; learning to read, and copying diction from news broadcasts; and a career and life that, as he says in the film, had “more than a few wonderful, indescribable turns.”
“So we had eight hours of him telling his life story, and then we’re talking to everyone else,” Hudlin said. “Everybody’s got their favorite Sidney movie, their favorite Sidney story.” Hudlin offered his own on Saturday: “I remember catching two buses to go see Buck and the Preacher in a theater and spending all day there.”
With 1963’s Lilies in the Field, Poitier became the first Black actor to win a leading role Oscar. With his intense gaze and confident bearing, Poitier went on to play indelible characters in films such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and In The Heat of the Night (1967) that challenged audiences to rethink the racial assumptions ordering much of American life.
Poitier’s barrier-breaking rise to movie stardom paralleled, and embodied, the aspirational arc of the civil rights era, and he didn’t shy from using his platform to lead by example and speak out. “There’s always those questions, do the times make the man or does the man make the time?” Hudlin said. “Because he was so self-made — literally — he knew how to reinvent himself, and he knew what to keep. And he was willing to risk it all.”
In an anecdote discussed in the film, Poitier and fellow actor Harry Belafonte drove through the heart of the segregated South to deliver money to racial justice organizers — and were nearly run off the road by a following car.
“That’s the absurdity of being Black in America,” Hudlin said. “There are so many stories like that, where Black Americans achieve extraordinary success and at the same time have to face the most mundane and pathetic forms of racism.”
Along with peers such as Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, Sidney features interviews with African-American film royalty including Spike Lee, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey — a producer of the documentary — who credit Poitier with blazing a trail to Hollywood that they could follow.
Hudlin, director of House Party (1990) and Boomerang (1992) and a former BET executive, also worked with Poitier’s widow, actress Joanna Shimkus Poitier and daughter Anika Poitier, a director herself, to bring Sidney to viewers, and he said they agreed it should not be a “puff piece” that would gloss over some of the conflicts and disagreements he lived through, including a rift with younger Black audiences that began to regard him as a “sellout.”
“So the fact that his family has embraced the film and loved it and laughed and cried, and told me how much their father would love it — means the world to me,” Hudlin said. “And that since then, so many people who knew Sidney — and there’s so many people who know Sidney — they emailed me and called me and texted me and said, ‘That’s the man I knew. That’s the man I loved.’ So that validation from people who know his truth means the world to me.”