College of Arts and Humanities

From Hollywood to Tigertown: Meet World Cinema’s newest lecturer and Emmy-nominated producer


Sam Sokolow is on a mission to teach Clemson University students how to make movies. But limiting it to that sells the endeavor short. Under Sokolow’s guidance, more Clemson students will know what it takes to make commercials, documentaries and television shows.

The two-time Emmy-nominated Hollywood film and television producer completed his first semester at Clemson teaching filmmaking to World Cinema students over the fall. Sokolow found a permanent home in the Upstate after moving this summer from Los Angeles with his wife and actress, Julia Fowler.

The growing World Cinema program has long offered respectable film theory and literature courses. Sokolow says he was attracted to Clemson because of program director John Smith’s desire for students to learn how to make productions from the ground up. And Smith hired the man to do it.

“I have several big course ideas I’d like to institute,” Sokolow said. “They want to grow, so let’s see if we can grow this thing.”

Sokolow is a native New Yorker and Boston University graduate. The film industry has been embedded in his family since his birth, as both parents were producers in New York during the 1970s. His older brother, Alec, is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for his work in “Toy Story.”

Sam Sokolow poses for a photo on the red carpet of the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards in 2017 with his wife, Julia Fowler.

After graduating with a communications degree in 1991, Sokolow worked as a crime reporter at The New York Daily News. He learned about the human condition by covering tragedy while on the job. But Sokolow wanted to break into the film industry.

So, he made it happen. It took showmanship, Sokolow admits, but producing enough commercials and freelance jobs led him to write, produce and direct an independent film with a friend in 1997. The pair sold it online through Amazon, a distribution method unheard of in 1999.

“I don’t need Hollywood anymore to have 35 million people take a look,” Sokolow told The New York Times in 2000.

Throughout the 2000s, Sokolow produced shows for CMT, MTV and Oxygen. He found mainstream success as an executive producer in 2017 during the release of “Genius,” a biographical anthology drama series on National Graphic. It also happened to be the network’s first scripted series. The pilot season depicted the life of Albert Einstein, based on the 2007 book “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson.

More seasons were ordered after Emmy nominations rolled in. Season two focused on Pablo Picasso, season three on Aretha Franklin and season four premieres on February 1, 2024 on National Geographic. The following day, episodes will be released on Disney+ and Hulu. The new eight-episode season focuses on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X through Black History Month.

Sokolow’s interview with Clemson News has been edited for length and clarity.

Clemson News: Please share how your journey led you from Los Angeles to Clemson.

Sam Sokolow: “About a year ago, my wife and I decided we wanted to move to South Carolina to be closer to family. My in-laws live in Gaffney. I love teaching. I had an idea to help build a film school, but I wasn’t sure what was going on down here.

“There were opportunities in Myrtle Beach, Columbia and Charleston with film programs. I emailed everybody saying I was a two-time Emmy nominee moving to South Carolina who taught for 10 years at Boston University in Los Angeles. I put a little sizzle in there and got emails from everybody.

“John Smith was the most aggressive and he got on me right away. The program was moving under Interdisciplinary Studies, and I could get on the ground floor. He said Clemson had film theory and history, all important courses, but we needed production. We agreed in mid-July and I was here a month later. Right now, I’m teaching filmmaking for mobile media, which is basically introduction to production to about 20 students and overseeing an intern practicum.”

CN: What was your role in bringing “Genius” to life?

SS: “Once we had a script we believed in, we pitched it to Ron Howard, the dream director for this subject. To get Ron to come over and direct TV was a big deal. Walter Isaacson’s book was our source material, and Noah Pink wrote a great script. Nat Geo had been bought by Fox and they had a big war chest. I suggested we take it to Nat Geo, almost how Netflix needed ‘House of Cards’ as its first big show. They needed an anchor.

“Ron’s producing partner pulled together a meeting very quickly and got everybody to say ‘yes’ to Einstein and the entire series. The season was a hit and 50 million people worldwide watched it. It was my first Emmy nomination as the best-limited series and an amazing experience.”

CN: What motivates you?

SS:“I have a very active approach to life where you try to go get what you want. I’ve never believed I was the kind of person anybody would point out of a lineup and say, ‘Hey, you’re special.’ It came from doing some acting early in my career and realizing that while I thought I was worthy of something, I never got cast in anything. So you’ve got to go make things happen. I became a very proactive partner in my life’s experience. I got to go for what I want.

“You have to be able to take ‘no’ for an answer, and you only get there by asking. The yeses do come. I’ve never been shy about asking anything. The worst thing you can hear is ‘no,’ and then you can check it off the list and stop thinking about it. Part of me is amazed that I just finished my first semester at Clemson. The feedback is great. The dean wants to grow, and this is working because I picked up the phone. Clemson was always the place I wanted to be the most.”

CN: How has your time been with Clemson students?

SS: “It has been inspiring, exciting and fulfilling. I didn’t know what to expect when I accepted the job and came here. I’ve been pleasantly surprised and, in some cases, blown away by the talent level and energy of the students here. They have a desire to make good films, and I think they learned a lot in our first semester together. I’m trying to teach them the process so they know how to create what they want to.

“The people are remarkable, and Dr. Smith is so great and supportive. He shares my ambition as wanting to build this film school. This is all about the students and I’m proud of them.”

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