Michael Sugar Proves You Don’t Have to Live in L.A. to Succeed in Entertainment

When Allan Loeb sat down with his then-prospective manager, Michael Sugar, he received some tough advice. It wasn’t that Loeb’s career, as the screenwriter behind commercial hits like “Just Go With It” and “Here Comes the Boom,” had stalled. But Sugar, sensing a lack of passion, told Loeb he should refocus his sights on telling stories that were important to him.

“I was burning out,” Loeb remembers. “I had gotten to the point where I had taken a lot of jobs, some better than others.”

If Sugar was to sign Loeb as his client, his priority would be making sure the screenwriter got out of a creative rut. The result of what Loeb calls a “course correction” was “Collateral Beauty,” a Will Smith drama about an emotionally shattered advertising executive, which hits theaters this Christmas and is expected to be an awards contender.

Just as he advised Loeb to make a U-turn, Sugar steered his own career from Los Angeles to New York, a city he has called home since he began producing “The Knick” in 2013.

“I went from a visitor to New York to “Don’t call me after 8 p.m. eastern time,” which I think is the rite of passage for actually living here,” he says.

Conventional wisdom holds that the center of the movie business remains Hollywood, and that to be a power player, producers and managers have to live and work in Los Angeles. But Sugar and his New York-based clients — such as Steven Soderbergh and Cary Fukunaga — belie that notion. They remain firmly rooted in the Big Apple.

In fact, Sugar’s star has only climbed following his geographic shift. He’s coming off a best-picture win for producing “Spotlight,” and he’s got buzzy projects lined up on television and the big screen, including a third season of “The Knick,” “The Noble Assassin” for Dreamworks, and the Netflix series “Maniac.” Through Anonymous Content — the management and production company where he is a partner — Sugar also helps guide the careers of Edgar Wright, Richard Linklater, and Robin Wright, among others.

“As a place to shoot, it’s the best because you can get anything. You can go into the woods. You have the city. You have the water. You can create a very diverse canvas.”
Michael Sugar

As the business has shifted, many of the performers and creators whom Sugar has advised have shown a willingness to branch beyond the big screen to work in other media. And they’ve been rewarded for that flexibility. Soderbergh has done some of the most arresting work on television, not only directing every episode of “The Knick” but earning raves for HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra.” Wright broke out with “House of Cards,” and Fukunaga was the creative force behind the first season of “True Detective.”

Sugar has also broadened his horizons. Beginning with 2012’s “Big Miracle,” he has been as busy producing movies as he has been managing careers. Although he still produces for clients such as Soderbergh and Marc Webb, he has moved beyond that and is now tapped by directors who are not in the Anonymous Content stable.

“Being on set made me a better manager, because I understand better what filmmakers are going through on the day when they’re shooting — so I can give better advice,” he says.

He’s also tried to take advantage of New York’s film and television tax breaks to lure more projects to the city, even trading his fees for one production to make the financing work. He’ll shoot two films and three television shows in the city next year, and half of his development slate will be set in or around the city.

“As a place to shoot, it’s the best because you can get anything,” says Sugar. “You can go into the woods. You have the city. You have the water. You can create a very diverse canvas.”

It helps that Sugar’s offices are just a few blocks from his SoHo apartment. That’s convenient because his wife, Lauren Wall Sugar, recently gave birth to their first child. In the meantime, Sugar is trying to convince colleagues on the West Coast to give Manhattan a shot.

“New York is such a creative hub, and because we’re surrounded by people who are not in the industry, it’s also a lot more grounded,” he says. “If I have anything to do with it, everybody’s going to want to be in New York soon enough.”

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