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UrbanEntertainment: Siting A Skyline Across The Net

Chris Robinson interviews Polish independent animator Piotr Dumala regarding his latest masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, leading to a discussion of his unique plaster technique, Hitchcock and post-war Poland.

Sliding into the 21st Century, the word 'urban' remains synonymous with 'hip.' If it's urban -- it's appealing, fresh and hot. And if it's, it is way hip and getting hotter each month as the vibrant dot-com paints a fresh skyline across the Net.

Beginning in July of '99 as a B2B Website specializing in the distribution of black independent films, UrbanEntertainment has since evolved into a bona fide destination site featuring acquired and original fare targeting the African-American audience. CEO, Founder and President Michael Jenkinson has attracted the best and brightest of the industry's established black directors, writers, producers and actors who are looking to shape bold artistic turf on the new media stage. In record time, UrbanEntertainment has become a showcase for contagious comedy and on-the-edge drama. Although set-up to service the under-represented niche of black viewers, UrbanEntertainment's programming has, in reality, left no ethnic or non-ethnic viewer by the wayside in its presentation of shows with strong crossover audience appeal.

Taking It To The Street

Today, the young company boasts a burgeoning library of live-action features, shorts, celebrity interviews and now includes five original animated series that have rolled out over the past eight months. The first to debut last March was Undercover Brother from the prolific veteran John Ridley, whose striking resume includes writing the Gulf War drama Three Kings, writer/director of Cold Around The Heart, and current producer/ writer on NBC's Third Watch. For UrbanEntertainment, Ridley's riotous blaxploitation series chronicles the exploits of an afro-sporting, '70s Shaft-type action hero working undercover for a secret organization to "level the playing field for African-Americans." Becoming an instant Web hit, Undercover Brother soon sparked a Hollywood bidding war for the property's offline rights. In May, Jenkinson and Ridley made Internet history by inking a deal with Imagine Entertainment and Universal Pictures, making this the first Net-borne project to get picked up for the theatrical marketplace. Jenkinson and Brian Grazer of Imagine will produce, with Ridley writing and exec-producing the live-action film.

CEO, Founder and President Michael Jenkinson. Photo courtesy and © Urban Entertainment.

Also last spring, the nascent dot-com launched the comic A.J. Jamal's popular Pookie Poo series that centers on a fast talking, street-wise hustler operating on the game show circuit. On the darker side, established scribe Ben Ramsey (The Big Hit) premiered his dramatic series entitled The Contract, which follows the life of a professional assassin as he struggles with inner, and literal, demons. Then the very hip and funny Cisco and Ripple went live as UrbanEntertainment's weekly series for movie reviews. Written and voiced by A.J. Jamal and fellow comedian Spencer, Cisco and Ripple stars two brothers 'straight from the hood' who give us -- with a decidedly urban attitude -- their timely critiques on today's current movie premieres.

UrbanEntertainment unveiled their fifth original series Sistas 'N The City at the end of October, created by well-known writer/producer Tina Andrews (scripter and producer of the theatrical Why Do Fools Fall In Love, writer/producer of the TV miniseries Sally Hemmings: An American Tragedy and writer of the recently aired CBS miniseries Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis). Andrews' comedic and sensitive Sistas revolves around the lively world of four young, self-sustaining black women living in Chicago and what they go through in their day to day life dealing with men, family, money and jobs. Challenged by the huge numbers of people now logging on to the site, Andrews says of her new Net audience, "I want them to be able to come away with something funny, something sort of 'bad,' something sort of wry, something raunchy on occasion -- and something educational." All five of UrbanEntertainment's current series Netcast loud and clear the budding company's aim to serve up fresh ideas and content we would be hard pressed to find anywhere else.

Undercover Brother flying high with the series' growing success. © Urban Entertainment.

An Urban Dream

A Canadian by birth, Michael Jenkinson ventured through several different landscapes before launching himself onto the Internet frontier. After working as an attorney with the Federal Department of Justice in Toronto, he obtained an MBA from the prestigious Ivey School of Business and subsequently spent a year working in the financial industry for Chase Securities in New York. Embarking on a new career path, Jenkinson then crossed back over the border to become a resident producer in Norman Jewison's Canadian Film Center where he spent the next year in intense and immersive studies of the entertainment world. Wanting to be at the "epicenter of the activity," he struck out for L.A. and quickly landed an intern position at 20th Century Fox. In the ensuing six years, Jenkinson rose first to VP of Acquisitions before moving over to work as Fox's Vice President of Development and Production.

Although valuing his experiences there, Jenkinson became more and more frustrated over the limitations of shepherding ethnic related projects through the entrenched studio systems. The Web's landscape during the fall of 1998 was pivotal, then, to Jenkinson's next move. Online trading services like Schwab and E-Trade had just hit their stride and Jenkinson, having always been fairly active in the stock market, says, "In doing my research for investment purposes, I focused on Internet entertainment companies." He recalls, "It wasn't hard, if you were paying attention, to see that something really fundamental was happening to the way we communicate and entertain ourselves and conduct commerce. It became a really appealing time to do something entrepreneurial, which was always part of my plan. I felt that I had a pretty well-rounded background that would lend itself to allowing me to start something -- the legal background, the business background, as well as the creative entertainment experience. It just seemed like an irresistible time and so I launched UrbanEntertainment."

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 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!"

Are blacks and whites finally living in harmony, or is it The Man's Hallucinatrometer? You can find out in episode nine of Undercover Brother. © Urban Entertainment.

Painters On The Scene

John Ridley could not sound happier in describing his first experiences in Net animation. On Undercover Brother, he says, "It was literally from the time I got the first script in and the time we got up on the Internet was about three weeks. It's a very streamlined process and one of the great things about working with UrbanEntertainment is that they don't develop. They only pick up things that they want to do. Once I pitched the idea to Mike and he approved it, we were good to go. They're there to really help the artist," Ridley continues, "and that's what is exciting about working in the Internet. It's not about the money, it's about having the opportunity to be creative and have people support your creativity." That new attitude was especially relevant with his second series Those Who Walk In Darkness which stars a black, female lead. "When I first went out with this property," he says, referring to making the rounds at traditional media studios, "the first thing that people always asked me was, 'Does it have to be a black woman?' And I'd say, 'Well, no it doesn't have to be a black woman. I choose to make her a black woman.' That never came up with UrbanEntertainment -- and that's actually one of the things that was very attractive to them because they know that that is an audience that's not being served. So, they had more incentives, not less, to go with this property. And obviously, I'm very gratified about that."

Ridley is also enjoying the 'smallness' of Web production, elucidating how his world in television series is replete with huge crews, revolving directors and tons of writers. For his Net series, on the other hand, "If I need to make a phone call, I don't have to call 50 people. I can call Mike and say, 'Hey, can we change this,' or 'Add that"...and it gets done." Ridley speaks highly of Flip Your Lid (the studio animating both his series) saying, "They do a great job and they're very creative people, as well." Same goes for his voice actors, he states. "When they go in, they know the kinds of things that I like and they are not afraid to come up with some ideas that are also very funny on their own."

Tina Andrews' Sistas 'N The City portrays four African-American women in Urban's fifth original series. © Urban Entertainment.

Tina Andrews is also elated by her first time out in animation and Internet production. Her adventure began when Jenkinson approached her last June. "One of the things that I was lamenting about at the time," she says, "was the fact that we couldn't get any really cute, quirky black shows to be committed to on the networks. I would say, 'Where are the black Ally McBeal s? Where are the black Providence s? Where are the black Sex in the City's?'" And when Jenkinson replied that that was just the kind of material she could develop for UrbanEntertainment -- where she would have complete autonomy to do whatever she wanted to do and say whatever she wanted to say -- those were golden words.

"For somebody who is very controlling," she laughs, "this was music to my ears!" Working with Flip Your Lid through the design stages was very stimulating as well, especially given Andrews' own artistic endeavors in painting and photography. "I was very specific about what I wanted the girls to look like in terms of skin colors, hair texture, hair length and features because I wanted a representative cross-section of a lot of different types of black women." The animators didn't disappoint her, nailing the final designs down within the first few drafts. The art of animation has been a fulfilling trip for her overall, Andrews declares. "I will tell you that what's the beauty of it is actually designing and creating those characters and seeing them exactly as you envisioned them as opposed to going out and trying to cast someone to come up to that vision. It's like having someone actually paint your fantasy and giving it back to you!"

In episode one of Sistas 'N The City, it's one of those

Sistas 'N The City is influenced heavily by Andrews' continuing interaction with her own long-time girlfriends and she incorporates much of their true-life humor and characterizations into her series (including their Friday night card games). Directing the voice recordings herself assures Andrews that the characters will remain true to each one's distinctive attitudes and distinguishing vocal deliveries. She's thrilled with the incredible talents her four main actors bring to each session -- where they also voice all the other female parts in the series, as well. Andrews, who had her own prominent acting career early on, remains untempted to jump in front of the mike for this series. She laughingly responds to that idea with, "Oh no-no-no, it really is enough to be executive producing, directing the episodes, writing the episodes and overseeing as much of it as possible!" However, she then trails off with, "There is one character coming up in a wedding sequence, though..."

For her initiation into Internet series, what has also proved crucial for Andrews is the ease with which Web production can be handled. Virtually all the scripting, animation, design and track edits can be zipped for comments and approvals via e-mail files, allowing her to keep up with the voluminous amount of other work on her plate (including a hip-hop version of The Wizard of Oz, a mini-series on Coretta Scott King and an upcoming tour for her book depicting the sixteen year journey of the making of the Sally Hemmings film). Although she says that the tricky part of her Webisodes is writing storylines in just four pages, it's readily apparent that she's enjoying every minute of Sistas 'N The City -- describing her stint with UrbanEntertainment by saying, "It really allows me to stretch in new ways and sort of exercise new muscles that I would not have done in conforming to offline television and film work."

City Scaping The Future

Jenkinson excitedly talks about the upcoming 'version two' of the UrbanEntertainment site. "It will definitely incorporate much more community and much more opportunity for feedback and, even to some extent, interaction with the more popular characters," he says. He believes audience response is increasingly vital to their operations not only because of its helpful direction for the shows' creators, but it gives the company valuable data with which to arm themselves when they go out pitching their shows for offline possibilities to the television and feature studios. What sets UrbanEntertainment apart from so many of the struggling destination venues is that -- because of their offline sales and distribution of films -- they have had a solid revenue stream from day one. As their online offerings expand, however, Jenkinson is naturally looking closely at developing all other revenue potential including syndicating their series as re-purposed programming (e.g. for interstitials), rich media advertising, sponsorships and product placement opportunities. Additionally, the company is involved in several proof-of-concept structures where they will be providing content to emerging technological platforms -- thereby positioning themselves and creating the relationships that will ensure them an early place in tomorrow's entertainment environments.

Urban's Cisco and Ripple deliver film reviews with flavor. © Urban Entertainment.

The important consideration in building a new online forum, Jenkinson thinks, is in how to approach both long and short term assessments. "Every decision becomes that much more complicated because you're dealing with rapid obsolescence and opportunities you'll have to forego if you're already locked into something else." He concludes that, "The biggest challenge that faces all of us is the ability to maintain flexibility and scaleability while at the same time putting into place things that make for a viable and long-lasting enterprise." New challenges notwithstanding, Jenkinson is having a great deal of fun working within the new freedoms of Net production. "Here, we make things and immediately get feedback and so the process feels so much more productive than anything that I'm accustomed to. It's very exciting to get up in the morning knowing that I'm going to achieve something today. It'll either be great or it'll be bad," he laughs, "but at least I'll know it very soon!"

Devoted viewers can now be heard offline mimicking the signature closing for each Cisco and Ripple movie review, where the duo asks the audience: "Who can you trust?" In rolling out its daring, energetic and innovative programming, the brothers' very own Netcaster, UrbanEntertainment, is assuredly answering the call.

Lee Dannacher, currently based in New York, is a supervising producer and sound track director of over 350 half-hours of television animated series, along with numerous home video and film productions.