City Paper is not for tourists
In 2009, Regi Allen pitched a program to Black Entertainment Television. They stopped him at the show’s name: Fried Chicken Cinema.
To hear Allen tell it, the BET executives weren’t interested in a show geared toward black audiences that was named with a persistent African-American stereotype in mind—never mind that the network itself frequently faces criticism for its negative portrayals of African Americans. And never mind that with his brainchild—an update of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for lovers of Blaxploitation films—Allen wanted to confront and dispel the stereotype, putting it in viewers’ faces and making it funny.
Allen says he was asked why he wanted to call his show Fried Chicken Cinema. “Because ‘Baked Chicken Cinema’ doesn’t have the same ring to it,” he quipped. He says the executives didn’t even bother watching the show’s demo.
What Allen knew even then was that Fried Chicken Cinema is probably too smart for BET. It’s definitely too weird.
Allen, 43, is an award-winning senior editor at the Discovery Channel, but for several years he’s been hatching what he hopes will be the home of Fried Chicken Cinema and similar programming geared toward a young, quirky, well-educated black audience: FunkTV.
He’s found partners and he’s raised capital. Last month, Allen’s group submitted a 25-page pitch to cable behemoth Comcast, which earlier this year put out a call for “diverse channel” proposals. By 2019, Comcast plans to add at least 10 new, independently owned and operated networks to its digital cable package. That includes three that will hit the air by 2013—one with English-language programming geared toward Latinos, and two that are majority black-owned.
In the proposal, Allen’s team describes itself as a “team of television experts” focused on “providing a multidimensional view of diverse cultures not seen on television.” FunkTV would also be interactive, according to the proposal, incorporating viewers’ online comments into its broadcasts as they air.
The proposal also introduces the fictional Danny Tango, FunkTV’s mascot and “CEO,” a former nuclear physicist and “amalgamation of the African American, Hispanic/Latino, and Asian cultural experience” who wears a lucha libre mask. You can’t call your network FunkTV without getting funky.
In some ways, Allen is going after a demographic to which programs like Chappelle’s Show and The Boondocks appeal. According to the proposal, “FunkTV’s core target audience demographic was born in the 1980s and raised on Beverly Hills 90210, Walkmans, Smurfs, John Hughes movies, Nintendo Game Boy, gothic, and McDonald Happy Meals. Coming of age long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the proceeding ’90s-era culture wars, for this generation, hip-hop was not so much a counter-cultural statement but a fact of life. For the FunkTV folks, the environment has always been in crisis, America has always been at war somewhere in the world and the television has always been on.” In addition to original shows like Fried Chicken Cinema and documentary series in the Current TV vein, Allen wants to build an on-air home for cult movies and long-lost music—obscure black kung-fu films, for example, or the video for Musical Youth’s 1982 bizarro reggae single “Pass the Dutchie.” FunkTV, Allen says, would be the first urban alternative network.
“I have a love for the shit that no one knows exists,” says Allen. “There’s another voice out there, and it really freaks me out that no one has claimed that space.”
The MacBook Pro in Allen’s Mount Pleasant condo is wired to a triptych of flat-screen televisions. Wearing a blue janitor shirt and striped shorts, Allen sits back in his chair and cues up some of his latest visual obsessions: First comes abstracted, pink-hued video art; then, neo-soul singer Erykah Badu performing some sort of interpretive dance; then, The Impossible Kid, a 1982 Filipino kung fu movie starring the two-foot-nine Weng Weng, who, using poorly executed martial-arts moves, thrashes foes thrice his size. By most standards, it’s an easily forgotten and downright bad movie. That means it’s charming.
Allen’s tastes are eclectic, and so is his background. He was raised in Brooklyn, and studied philosophy and architecture at the University of Barcelona. He returned to the States and eventually began working as a commercial film editor, while creating his own art films on the side. He won an Emmy for his editing work on Sesame Street, and was nominated for another as an editor on Peter Jennings’ The Century news series. In 1997, his directorial debut, Planet Brooklyn, won the Community Choice Award for best experimental film from the National Black Programming Consortium.
He dreamed up Fried Chicken Cinema in 2009, and tried shopping it at a conference of television executives in Las Vegas that year. There he met Philip Hopkins and Ralph Stevens, who run Film Chest, a New York-based company that provides programmers with high-quality versions of films in the public domain—and whose library is rich in B-movies and cult gems.
Hopkins and Stevens told Allen they were looking to start a network that would in part find a use for their old, obscure films. But they liked Fried Chicken Cinema, and gave Allen the money to produce a sort of pilot. Then they helped him pitch it to BET and TV One, another network geared toward African-American audiences. “When we didn’t immediately get the response we were looking for, I then saw FunkTV as being a much more attractive project,” Allen says. “Why produce a show when you can produce a network?”
The Fried Chicken Cinema demo describes itself pretty aptly: “the movie review sitcom interactive cooking show program… thing.” There are its four hosts—one is unemployed, another works in a video store, another for a gossip blog, and the last is the aberrant superintendent of the building where they hang out—who gather in a cramped apartment to watch cult movies and eat different fried chicken recipes. There’s an actual cooking segment, featuring a recipe for honey-glazed wings. There are viewer comments and user videos. It’s not always funny, but it’s always manic, with snippets of cult films responding to the characters’ jokes—kind of like the kung fu-movie samples on a Wu-Tang Clan album.
In the demo, the characters riff on Get Christie Love!, a 1970s made-for-TV movie and later a TV series starring Teresa Graves—which you probably know because Quentin Tarantino’s pop culture-obsessed heist men banter about it in Reservoir Dogs.
“They could never have a show like this on BET,” says Allen. “This was my own way of being racy, being a little provocative, and pushing the envelope. And if a black network got behind this, it would’ve been fucking brilliant.”
To hear Allen and his partners tell it, there’s a serious void in black programming these days. Allen describes BET as low-brow and lemming-like, with unoriginal shows like Gospel Idol and Baldwin Hills. And there aren’t many black filmmakers producing original content on a widely available, national level.
A lot of black films that are created don’t earn much money, says Jacquie Jones, executive director of the National Black Programming Consortium, which funds black programs for the Internet and TV. And on television, “We get the same recycled black family, the same black story over and over again,” Jones says. “Spike Lee had it when he started, but that was 25 years ago. We need a new voice to fill that void, and I think that’s where Regi wants to be.”
Allen says his content caters to middle-class viewers of all colors, between the ages of 18 to 35, who aren’t struggling to keep food on the table, but who aren’t eating lobster tails, either—indeed, a demographic that consumes much of its entertainment on the Internet.
So why try to start a network, and not the next Funny or Die? Online isn’t good enough, Allen says. “I want to basically get people paid. Let this stuff die on the Internet, or die in some hole on the shelf, or get famous and be out there.”
Allen is optimistic about FunkTV’s success and looks to greener pastures—far beyond the late nights of editing and searching the Internet for new content. From that desk chair in his home office, Allen calmly anticipates his future, speaking as if it’s already happened. FunkTV will break ground for urban alternative programming, he says, and an investor will want to buy the network in the next year or so. “We would cash out, take a break and then come up with another idea,” Allen says. “The people who bought the company from us would know that we know what the flavor is. We would be the go-to people for something else.”
Of course, FunkTV’s Comcast pitch likely faces a lot of competition.
“I’m not confident of anything in this business,” says Film Chest’s Hopkins. Film Chest has provided FunkTV with a library of 2,000 films. “I think it fits with Comcast because it makes sense. It’d be great to get the deal, but I think we’ll move forward regardless. We’ll just have to see what happens.” Indeed, an Internet-only network is an option, Hopkins says.
Or Allen and his partners could chop up FunkTV for parts.
“We have structured the network as ‘programming blocks,’” he writes in an email later. “These blocks could be sold and packaged in a variety of ways—other cable networks, satellite, mobile, VOD, Hulu, Amazon, iTunes, etc. Other networks could ‘round out’ their programming with our special brand of content, i.e. ‘We interrupt your normal programming to say FunkTV is now broadcasting from its top secret location…stand by to feel the Funk in your area!’”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery