Admit it – at some stage of your life you wanted to be on TV! The Film and Television industry is known for its lustre and glamour, but none of it would be possible if it weren’t for the those who work behind the scenes, where all the high-speed work, energy and long hours is required! Meet Wanda Sondiyazi, a Masters in Fine Arts graduate who studied Creative Producing at Columbia College in Chicago, USA. Wanda was one of the fortunate few to be awarded the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to study towards a degree in the film industry, followed by an internship at film & television production company, Lin Pictures. Read further as Wanda takes us behind the scenes into the world of film production and creation…
Full name: Wanda Sondiyazi
Current title/company: Film Producer
Educational background: MFA – Creative Producing Columbia College Chicago; BCom Marketing, UNISA
Current city: Johannesburg, South Africa
Wanda, you previously resided in Los Angeles, California where you served as an intern at Film & Television Production Company, Lin Pictures. Could you take us through the journey to how this occurred?
I received a Fulbright Scholarship to study an MFA in Creative Producing in Chicago in 2012. Part of the requirement for my graduate program was a move to Los Angeles to complete the program. I planned on leaving LA after the semester was over but I was offered the Lin Pictures internship shortly after the semester ended. The internship led to many more opportunities so I ended up spending almost a year working in Hollywood.
Subsequent to completing a BCom in Business Management from UNISA and a Certificate in Video Production Operations, you were awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to complete your Masters in Fine Arts, specialising in Creative Producing from Columbia College Chicago in the United States. As a highly competitive award, the Fulbright Scholarship is a prestigious and merit-based achievement. Could you tell us what attributes you believe were most influential in landing you this achievement?
I was very intimidated by the prestigious scholarship as well as the rigid application process. If it wasn’t for the encouragement of family and a dear friend who had previously received the scholarship, I wouldn’t have had the balls to do it! It certainly is highly competitive and very few Fulbright’s are awarded for film and so I am honoured to have been chosen. As for attributes, they look for people who have clear objectives for studying in the US. It’s important to be targeted and able to articulate your passion for your field of study. A big requirement is a willingness to return to your home country and contribute the skills that you have learnt whilst studying in the US. There are a few other technical requirements such as you must be applying for a Masters or PHD program, be academically accomplished and have strong essays and references. I would encourage people to apply for the scholarship and especially to reach out for advice to those who have already gone through the process.
The Film industry is particularly difficult to break into. What has motivated you to succeed in your field?
Mostly it’s my faith in God and knowing that I am living out my purpose. It’s also the passion and fulfilment I find in my work and the encouragement of seeing the results of a good work ethic. I’m motivated because I believe that I’m living out my purpose. As with many other industries, you have to start at the bottom doing menial work and work your way up to greater responsibility. During this process it’s easy to get discouraged so having a greater goal in mind is vital. It’s also important to be a good steward of what’s in your hand at the time and network by making connections with the people that you work with (you most likely will work with them again) Do your research and don’t be afraid to reach out to mentors even if it’s for a one-time mentoring session. I reached out to one of my favourite producers working at Sony at the time, DeVon Franklin. He really encouraged me to pursue a career in film development. He said that the only way for me to know if it was for me was to dip my toe in and give it a try! That’s the best advice that I received in Hollywood because it led to my Lin Pictures internship which then led to many other things. His advice still motivates me today.
Some of your accolades include producing a documentary funded by the National Lottery in early 2012, which explored the impact of colonization and land acquisition in South Africa. Has Film Production always been something you wanted to pursue? When did you ultimately determine the career path you wanted to pursue and when did this “Aha” moment take place?
Producing that documentary was a turning point for me because I was fortunate to travel around the Eastern Cape speaking to different scholars -normal South Africans and even royalty – exploring how the entry of the British colonialists had affected the South African story. I realized that our history has many different layers and perspectives, colours that haven’t all been written down in history or recorded in the media. It was an AHA moment for me because I realized the mantle that we have to tell our own stories but also the importance to acquire the skills and resources to do so. I knew that studying in the US and learning from the best in the world would equip me to continue on that journey to tell meaningful stories back home.
As a South African working and residing in a country which ranks Top 3 in Film Production, what lessons would you give to South Africa’s film industry? What do you believe is required of SA’s film industry in order for it to flourish?
There are structures and processes in the US that we don’t have in South Africa. We need to up skill in the business aspects of the industry. We have a wealth of talent but we need to match that with business, finance and technological skills. With global advances in VOD and online streaming services, we need to be able to compete with the rest of the world but we are currently unable to. We also need to increase the production value of our films and TV shows. I would also encourage us to continue telling our own stories in entertaining ways. The world is hungry for universal themes within African stories that can reach a global audience. It’s very exciting and I am passionate about solving some of these challenges in South Africa.
As a Development Intern at Lin Pictures, what were your roles and responsibilities and what did a typical work day look like for you?
My main role was to read and write coverage (which is story analysis) for film and TV scripts. These were my main responsibilities during all of my internships as I chose to specialize in film and TV development which is story driven work. I worked under Creative Executives whom I learnt a lot from. Due to Lin Picture’s first-look deal with Warner Brothers, I saw first-hand the relationship that a production company has with a major film studio. I was given the opportunity to learn how to pitch TV ideas to A-list producers. In other internships at OddLot Entertainment and Material Pictures I received exposure on how a production company over sees intellectual property from conception all the way through to distribution and exhibition. I was then offered a job at a Talent Management company where I assisted a talent manager to oversee a long list of working actors in Hollywood. A typical work day consisted of liaising with my boss, the actors and agents. I was the first point of contact and provided administrative support on an on-going basis.
As a Story Development Intern, what would you say were your most difficult obstacles and how were you able to overcome them?
It’s not always easy for foreigners to receive opportunities in the US. Working for no pay for an extended period of time isn’t fun but in Hollywood, it’s the only way in. I overcame these obstacles because of the support of my family back in SA as well as the wonderful friends, colleagues and roommates that I met in the US. It’s the people that have made this adventure worthwhile but most importantly the support of my parents who believed it was worth the money, time away from home and sacrifices.
What is most fulfilling about your career?
Watching content that I have written and produced come alive on screen is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my career. Travelling and meeting people from all over the world whilst telling meaningful stories is also hugely fulfilling.
Advice for aspiring Film producers and directors?
Figure out your end goal and make sure that you’re in an environment that will nurture that goal. The career path for an aspiring director is very different to that of an aspiring actress or producer. Find out where you can learn the most about your field and work towards getting to that place. For me, it was moving to the best film economy in the world, studying a Masters in film and then working in Hollywood. Hollywood was the place where I would get maximum exposure on how a structured film industry works. I now have the knowledge and skills to contribute to South Africa. Know what you want to achieve and map out the steps on how to achieve your goal. Remember that in this industry you have to nurture good relationship because making a film takes a village!
Morning or night? Night
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Oprah and sushi
The African continent needs… More confident women
African women are… Worthy, capable and valuable contributors
Worst money mistake… Eating out too often
Best investment… An education
Motivation in 3 words… Faith Hope Love