The web series world woke up to incredibly sad news this morning, of a dear friend, mentor and fellow conspirator losing a hard-fought battle against pancreatic cancer.
Michael Ajakwe was a true pioneer in every sense of the word. Half man, half amazing. A legend, through and through.
Big Mike was an accomplished creative. A writer, producer and director with extensive experience from stage to screens of all sizes, and with a plethora of awards to his name, including an Emmy.
But it was LAWEBFEST that made the greatest mark on the world. At a time when the industry scratched their heads about online video, Michael saw potential to shake things up in the sector. He had worked in the studio system for two decades, and with LAWEBFEST he became a real catalyst for change. I fondly remember one of the first conversations we had about web series. I was in LA for the first time in 2012 and was completely blown away with what I could see Michael was building with the festival. “If you don’t’ like the way that things are done, you gotta step out and change things yourself,” he told me.
Michael was an invaluable mentor to so many. He was all about inclusion and diversity, and LAWEBFEST was the significant starting point in the legitimisation of the web series format. He blazed the trail himself as a creator with the 2009 web series “Who…”, which was successfully adapted for TV as Beauty and the Baller. The first season ran on the BET network in the US in 2017. He did it all off his own back, with the help of a large network of dedicated friends – proving that it can be done on your own terms.
All the while, he was always more curious and interested in what other people were doing than talking about himself and his accomplishments. That alone speaks volumes of his character. He was always looking for ways to discover and celebrate new and emerging talent, he opened doors, and he gave countless creatives a platform which has brought up a new generation of filmmakers.
With his help and guidance, a number of web series festivals have popped up all around the globe over the past five or six years. We all learnt from the master, who happily shared his wisdom – from both his triumphs and failures – and we are all better people for it. Michael gave the keynote speech at the inaugural Melbourne WebFest in 2013, and he was back two years later as a jury member. The impact of his work and generosity is notable and can be traced to all corners of the world.
With my hand on heart I can say that that if I hadn’t known Michael, if I hadn’t attended LAWEBFEST in 2012, I would not be where I am today. Michael and his long-time friend and collaborator, Kathie Fong-Yoneda, have often joked about our first encounter in LA, and how they saw a young man, a seeker and a dreamer, experiencing a torrent of lightbulb moments.
Michael was the Alchemist to my Santiago.
We only knew each other for a few years, but we formed a strong bond and friendship fast. I count myself lucky to have walked alongside him in a small part of his monumental journey.
The last time we spoke, about a month ago, Michael repeated a familiar mantra: “I feel blessed that web series has allowed me to meet and make friends with so many brilliant progressive and friendly minds all over the world.” I know that everyone who has ever taken part in the web series festival circuit, whether as a creator or a festival organiser shares this very sentiment. And we would not have this incredible, supportive and collaborative community were it not for Michael.
Today is a day of mourning, both on a personal level and for the industry and web series community as a whole. Seeing the tributes pouring out on social media, it reminds us that today is also a day of celebration. A celebration of the legacy of a great man, Big Mike. It is also a reminder that we must keep his memory alive by continuing the important work that is being done in our sector of the industry.
We offer our deepest condolences to Michael’s amazing wife Tammy, and to his family and friends.
Fare well, dear friend. You may be gone, but you will never be forgotten.