ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 5.9 - DECEMBER 2000
UrbanEntertainment: Siting A Skyline Across The Net
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As Sir Dunkalot, Undercover Brother dunks college b-ball corruption in episode eight. © Urban Entertainment.
Enlisting award-winning independent producers Nichelle Protho (VP Programming and Production) and Angela Northington (VP Acquisitions and Development), Jenkinson opened shop in the early summer of 1999. They began in earnest acquiring the many African-American films he'd screened over the years which had not been picked-up by the majors or mini-majors with the plan to distribute them primarily to outside video and TV venues. As a marketing gimmick, the trio started the company's first Website UrbanMedia.com where distributors, armed with a password, could access information to Urban's catalog, screen trailers and in some cases, even view the full-length motion pictures. The novelty of selling features online "certainly got us the attention we needed," Jenkinson remembers, "...and as a spin-off, I found that I was getting a lot of traffic from individuals that weren't in the business, who weren't distributors, and they were constantly e-mailing saying, 'How can I watch the movies?' That gave me the idea -- why don't I try to service that traffic? And so I started to buy short films, as well, making those available for everybody to watch on the site."
Jenkinson next focused on the acquisition of Net-friendly Flash animated content but was disappointed in finding very little out there of interest at the time. That's when the risky leap to original series was made. "My idea was that I would get into production and do it with really talented, really experienced storytellers and I would marry that talent with the technical expertise." He admits that undertaking animation for the first time in his career was "really more of a natural progression based on the state of technology...what could really play well on the Net." But subsequently, he declares, "I've become really quite a fanatic of animation. You know, it's just the limitless possibilities of what you can do at a price and it's the best use of the technology in terms of entertainment on the Internet at this point in time."
Damon Lee, Urban's President of Production and Development. Photo courtesy and © Urban Entertainment.
Welcome to the 'Hood
In early summer, with the number of original projects beginning to swell, Jenkinson brought his friend and associate Damon Lee on board as President of Production and Development. Prior to joining the fledgling Netcaster, Lee was Vice President of Production at MGM and had earlier held the same post at Silver Pictures (having first received his MFA from USC). Lee and Jenkinson agreed to stay small and spend every dollar they made on creating productive assets instead of creating costly infrastructure and a numbers-heavy staff. "Our philosophy has been, 'Let's be scalable. Let's only bring in-house the essential team and outsource everything else,'" Jenkinson explains. To that end, they have expanded to just 10 key and carefully chosen employees -- which also fits Jenkinson's belief that, "I've always seen this business as a boutique business and I think you have to be really hands on in terms of who is creating and overseeing the content in order to insure really high quality." The dot-com's roster now includes Casey Cuddy as VP of Market Development, Rebecca Ford as Sr. VP Business Affairs and the recent addition of Debra Langford as Sr. VP Production and Development, who comes to the Netcaster after serving as a Vice President in programming at Warner Bros. TV and an earlier turn with Quincy Jones' television operations. As planned, the site's backend technical needs are all being handled outside the company and animation deals are currently in place with the Burbank-based studio Flip Your Lid for the majority of their series, with Elliott studios in Toronto handling other animation shows in the line-up.
Building Up The Block
Building onto their already impressive first year block, UrbanEntertainment recently revealed a full schedule of new shows that will be ready to launch early next year. Jenkinson, obviously enthused, says, "We have a really good line-up of some of the most established and some of the hottest up-and-coming African-American talents in Hollywood. It's great the way talent has responded. I think that they've been very excited by the opportunity to reach their audience directly without any gatekeepers...being able to prove that their ideas have appeal as opposed to having somebody determine that before they get an opportunity to show it to an audience."
Pookie in bed with Carrie from A.J. Jamal's popular Pookie Poo series. © Urban Entertainment.
First up will be a second animated Web skein from John Ridley, this one based on his sci-fi novel Those Who Walk In Darkness. Departing from the comedic tones of Undercover Brother, Ridley will write, produce and direct this anime-like series centering on a rookie cop charged with the task of hunting down mutants with superhuman abilities. Also mixing his artistic talents for a first online adventure will be noted director Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Boomerang). Signing with Jenkinson last July, Hudlin will write and produce a highly interactive point-of-view series entitled Game where viewers will be able to control aspects of a young man's attempts in seducing women.
Opening the floodgates just last month, UrbanEntertainment added to their lengthening A-list of new production deals by announcing: John Singleton (Boyz 'N The Hood and this year's Shaft) will make his first foray into Internet entertainment, co-creating with comedian Freddy Ricks a New York street life comedy called Hustlin' Hank....renowned director George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food and Men of Honor) will be working with his producer Robert Teitel on an original series currently under wraps....Malcolm D. Lee (of last year's debut hit The Best Man) is working on the tentatively titled Baby Mama Drama, a series where he'll examine the varied philosophies of a pseudo-black nationalist barber constantly juggling his two very different babies' mamas.....There Goes The Nation created by Chris Mack (former staff writer on ER and The Practice) will deal with a multi-cultural, multi-dysfunctional first family of the new millennium.....and from Cheo Hodari Coker, respected journalist and scripter of the in-progress Marion Barry and Tupac Shakur biopics for HBO and MTV, respectively, comes The Devil's Music, which will take us deep inside the music world with an out-of-control gangsta rapper attempting to clean up his act while the powers that be work to maintain the status quo.
Producer Nichelle Protho is brazen in facing the accelerated production slate. A graduate of the University of Southern California's School of Engineering, she went on to a successful career as a software engineer, segueing into a producer of numerous dramatic shorts, music videos, docus, commercials and, most recently, co-producing Ben Ramsey's indy feature Love and a Bullet. Protho states, "The best part of working here is that my creative voice is heard 90% of the time. It's undeniably the most freedom I've had to voice my opinions in Hollywood." The challenge, she feels, "is to be even more groundbreaking" as UrbanEntertainment's focus changes from just getting eyeballs to the site into keeping the audience coming back. In her close work with high caliber, traditional artists (who are coming from longer format TV and feature production), Protho observes that one of the biggest adjustments for some of them is in creating successful storytelling in the limited two-to-four minute Web segments. "We stress the need to be impactful, similar to how a commercial writer/director works," she says. "Fortunately for us, our writer/directors are so full of great ideas -- and the Hollywood studios haven't come close to draining this well of creativity -- that it is nearly impossible for them to miss their mark on the Internet!"
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