On the rocky—but rewarding—road of bringing an indie film to the masses.
Nikki Silver C’89 can pinpoint the exact moment she discovered what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She had spent her first year or so after graduating from Penn working in New York’s vibrant commercial and independent film industry, first at a low-level job for PBS and then freelancing as a production assistant, embarking on predawn coffee runs for the crew. She was questioning whether she’d ever go further, when a friend who taught at a public middle school suggested she come visit her class and help out on a project that involved updating A Christmas Carol into a short film. “I helped them figure out how to become writers, directors, actors, gave them cameras, and turned them loose,” Silver says. “They came up with the idea of Scrooge as a Harlem landlord.”
The experience was “life-changing,” she says now. “I saw that media could impact young minds. I remember watching their energy and excitement, and feeling a sense of purpose that I had skills that could help get kids thinking.” That realization has led to a long Emmy award-winning career producing entertainment for young audiences, including Monster, which premiered on Netflix this May. Part of an ongoing creative partnership with Tonya Lewis Lee, an entrepreneur and filmmaker (and the wife of director Spike Lee), the film is an adaptation of a 1999 novel by YA author Walter Dean Myers. It tells the story of a studious and creative Black high schooler who gets mixed up with a bad crowd and finds himself in jail and on trial.
Silver’s love of history and the documentary form was fostered at Penn, she says, pointing especially to an intellectual history course with Alan Charles Kors, now Henry Charles Lea Professor Emeritus. Penn is also where she met her husband, Brad Silver W’89, and where their three sons have followed in their footsteps—Harrison EAS’20, Jack C’21, and Justin, who’ll begin at Wharton this fall. And it’s where she made lifelong friends, including a group of women with whom she hosts an annual Oscars watch party. “It’s a lovely tradition that started senior year,” she says.
Shortly after Penn—and her formative experience with the teen filmmakers—Silver landed a job at Lancit Media, the team behind the long-running children’s show Reading Rainbow. She eventually left to start a company with Lancit’s head of production, Orly Wiseman. In addition to their continued steerage of Reading Rainbow (during which the show continued to pick up Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Children’s Series), they also began optioning young adult books, including Miracle’s Boys by Jacqueline Woodson.
Silver recalls a Viacom executive asking if they’d be open to turning the book into a TV series about Irish Americans. “I’d be happy to develop something about Irish Americans,” she recalls responding. “But the mother’s name in the book is Milagro, which means miracle in Spanish, and it was written by an African American, so no, that’s not this story.”
At that point, she was introduced to Lewis Lee. “We had an instant connection, a real desire to make change,” Silver says. In 2014 the two formed ToniK Productions (a combination of their given names), which specializes in projects with social justice themes, such as The Watsons Go to Birmingham, adapted from Christopher Paul Curtis’s 1963 award-winning novel about an African American family’s road trip during the Civil Rights era.
“We complement each other,” Lewis Lee says. “Nikki is a great producer; she came up through the ranks and understands how films get made. She’s also got a great eye for talent and great taste in content, while I’m a writer myself and also a lawyer by trade. We’re both comfortable, though, with having difficult conversations about issues like race or religion, even if we don’t always agree.”
It’s no wonder that Monster appealed to both of them. “It tells a universal tale of how one decision can change your life, but if you’re a young Black male, the consequences are 100-fold,” Silver says. She optioned it more than 10 years ago, eventually bringing it to Lewis Lee once they began working together on Miracle’s Boys. It became a ToniK production, but things did not go smoothly.
“Three different scripts, a couple directors, a couple different actors, a title change,” Silver says. “It seemed as if it might be easy to adapt because much of the book is written as a screenplay—but in fact it made everything harder because it’s all internal.” The final product represents the feature debut for Anthony Mandler, best known for directing music videos for Beyoncé and Rihanna. John Legend C’99 Hon’14 is an executive producer, and the film’s cast includes Kelvin Harrison Jr. as the lead character, Steve; Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson as Steve’s mother; and John David Washington (Denzel’s son, who’s starred in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet) as a neighborhood thug involved in a holdup.
If making the film was half the battle, selling it was the other half. “There’s been a lot of speculation about this film,” laughs Silver. “How did a film that received the only standing ovation at Sundance, with the cast that it had, take so long to sell?” She and Lewis Lee have varied theories, but mainly, “I think it was because 2018 was a strange year,” Silver says. “For one thing, the industry was coming out of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. There was also confusion in the marketplace because Kelvin, the star, was in another new release with a similar title, Monsters and Men.
But even while the film hung in limbo, Silver and Lewis Lee never stopped producing and pitching. A handful of other projects are now in various stages of development, including Muzz, a television series centering on the relationship between a Moroccan Jewish girl and a Moroccan Muslim guy and Trell, an adaptation of Dick Lehr’s thriller about a teenager who sets out to prove her father innocent of a murder committed when she was a baby.
“We’re constantly looking for new perspectives on stories that we may all think we’ve heard before,” Silver says. “I know what my purpose is now. From that moment in that incredibly diverse New York City classroom, I learned that if we work together, we can make a difference.”