Successful screenwriter discovered his passion while at the University of Redlands.
Michael Ajakwe, Jr. ’87 achieved success in show business by drawing on both his talents and University of Redlands opportunities.
When he first arrived on the Redlands campus in 1983, Ajakwe assumed he would be a journalist and landed a work-study job in the department then called News Services, as well as freelance assignments covering sports for local newspapers. But a playwriting course his sophomore year sparked a fascination with screenwriting.
With the help of his advisor, Professor Bruce McAllister (a renowned science fiction writer), Ajakwe landed an internship his junior year on the set of Cheers, where Glen Charles ’65, Les Charles ’71 and David Lee ’72 were writers and producers.
“I can’t say enough how much that internship changed my life,” he says. “I was originally supposed to do it for a month. Even though I had to drive many miles to and from school two to three times a week, I was learning so much that I asked if they would extend my internship for another month—then another, then another. I wound up interning for almost the entire season five. It was like getting a master’s in great TV writing for free.”
Upon graduation, the English and political science double major received a fellowship to law school but deferred it for a year to see if he could make his Hollywood dreams come true. His Cheers internship provided access to the Paramount Studios lot, where he landed his first paying gig in the industry—making $400 a week as a night operations supervisor for Entertainment Tonight.
“I was essentially a graveyard production assistant with a fancy title,” Ajakwe recalls, “because the only person I supervised was me.”
He held that job for six months, then moved to the day shift to serve the next two years as an administrative assistant, giving up his law school fellowship in the process. “I used to wonder if I had done the right thing, because I honestly didn’t see how working for Entertainment Tonight was going to help me reach my goals,” Ajakwe says.
Finally, in 1988, he got the chance to write and produce stories. A year later, he had produced 13 stories for Entertainment Tonight while still performing his administrative duties. Although the transition seemed to take forever at the time, at age 24, he was promoted to segment producer.
Ajakwe, however, was restless and started drafting screenplays on his own time. After a dozen failed attempts, he caught a break writing what originally attracted him to screenwriting: a play. "Reasons" ran in Los Angeles for eight months in 1993 and led to a job writing for the Fox comedy, Martin. Since then, Ajakwe has written for more than a dozen comedies and dramas.
Along the way, Ajakwe—whose brothers Robert ’88 and Reginald ’98 are also U of R grads—has paid it forward, arranging internships for other Redlands students, including David Eick ’92, now best known as executive producer of Battlestar Galactica. However, Ajakwe does not downplay the challenge of working in the entertainment industry. “You need to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, because it’s a very tough business—even when you have talent and connections,” he says. “Make sure you’re in it because you love it, because you have something to say.”
He points out that today’s landscape includes more options than ever for those breaking into the field, including countless cable TV channels, emerging streaming networks such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, and “the mother of all disruptors”—the internet. To keep up, in 2010 Ajakwe founded a first-of-a-kind event—Los Angeles Web Series Festival (better known as LAWEBFEST)—to showcase the creations of gifted, mostly independent voices making online TV.
Ajakwe—who is currently writing for an upcoming network drama, The Harlem Code—recently used his own web series, Who … , as the foundation for a TV series he created, wrote and directed. He recently licensed season one of the show—now called Beauty and the Baller—to cable TV giant Viacom to air on its BET (Black Entertainment Television) network later this year.
“Ever since the internship on Cheers, I’ve dreamed of having my own sitcom just like U of R alums Glen and Les Charles and David Lee,” Ajakwe says. “Now, 30 years later, I’m finally getting my opportunity.”
—Mika Elizabeth Ono