Black Men’s Dossier talks with “Lenox Avenue’s” creator Al Thompson and writer Chuck Burks about the emerging new era of scripted black web series.
“Lenox Avenue” depicts the single lives of what Al coins the “Obama Generation” men as they navigate their romantic involvements in this new Harlem. Harlem’s history dates back to the 1920s as the epicenter of black culture, and fostered a new movement of black identity expression through the arts. For six decades, central Harlem was well over 85% percent black. Today, the gentrified Harlem is the multi-ethic extension of Manhattan. Along with this new era of Harlem is a new era of black entertainment on the web. “Lenox Avenue” serves as the catalyst for this era of online black scripted content. Unrepresented black audience, artistic freedom, social media, new film technology, and web video distribution converges to create a new era of programing.
Most of us thirty-somethings were spoiled by the golden era of black television. In your teens, on any given night you could watch a good black show. In the 1990s, there were over fifty black shows. As chuck reiterates, “You got that explosion in the 90s. You can’t stop the beast once it starts. I mean not to say black entertainment is a beast, but think about it. Once they got a taste of how successful black entertainment television is. Then, you can’t just stop it. You also got to think about the explosion of cable television too. [Cable Television] provided more opportunity for syndication [and] more shows, but nowadays you’re not seeing as much scripted television.” Today, your left ravenous and scratching your head while reviewing the guide of 500 channels searching for quality black programming on television. This leaves a huge underserved market that “Lenox Avenue” can tap into. Chuck mentions “Al was definitely a pioneer in capturing the voice of what’s not out there. You don’t see that many African American good shows out there. The ones you do see are on one or two networks.”
Within the last few years, film technology advanced to economical high quality equipment. Major productions such as the recent blockbuster “Marvel's The Avengers” use $1800 DSLR cameras. Independent filmmakers have major production level equipment at their disposal, and filmmakers like Al take advantage of economical solutions. For “Lenox Avenue”, Al mentions “110% [he] took advantage of the shift in economics of the technology and what’s available and accessible. That was one of the things that is great about the times that we’re in now. Where it’s really almost as an artist and filmmaker there’s almost really no excuse. The cameras are so high quality but not as expensive. Where prior you had to have a full camera package deal from Panavision that would cost you know thousands and millions of dollars just to be able to shoot something.” Chuck chimes in that “now you have this opportunity to bring things digitally at a more affordable rate and you get quality at the same time. You’re not compromising talent and quality for expensive giant, huge budgets.”
The new era brings an uninterrupted level of creativity. Chuck understands firsthand the intervening of network executive dictating your creative process while working on the first season of the “Chappelle's Show”. By the third season, the network executives’ contingency with creators was the demise of the show. On “Lenox Avenue”, Chuck is a part of a three writer team with Jorge Rivera and Jessica Rotondi. Chuck mentions “If you have a good creative team, [and] when you don’t have that [network] over your head, its just what you guys (the writing team) feel. [On Lenox Avenue], Al allowed us to be able to create what we wanted, and basically we came together as a team. And it wasn’t like this way or no way. So we weren’t held hostage by funding. We weren’t held hostage by a contract that we beholden to from a larger entity.”
For over seventy years, television was the main medium of entertainment amongst American households. The internet on the other hand came into households in the mid to late 1990s. Seventy years versus twenty years. It’s fair to say the internet is still in its infancy. Although in its infancy, today the internet is quickly becoming the entertainment medium source, and threatening the existence of the antiquated television. The web has always had video. However, within the last few years, rendering high quality video has exponentially improved. In the early 2000s, it took fifteen minutes to watch a two minute clip with the obnoxious buffering. “Lenox Avenue” uses YouTube as its video rendering engine and storage which Al embeds into his wordpress site, LenoxAveSeries.com. Al also uses his Google Premium YouTube channel to distribute his programing. Al mentions that providers like Google “need quality scripted content. Not only for their websites, but it’s to keep people engaged and keep them on the websites longer. They can only go to those particular websites to see this particular programming. So it’s definitely shifting a lot in that realm where there’s more money available to do these things.”
For a while, marketing was the advantage the cable and broadcast networks had over independent filmmakers. Social media evened the playing field for independent filmmaker such as Al. Before, there was a wall between the creators and viewers. Twitter is one of the social media platforms that breaks the wall, and allows the direct relationship with the creators. Al says “That’s the difference in today’s day and age where you can actually connect with writers and creators of these projects that you’re watching” For example, you can talk to Al @AlThompsonInc about the Chapter I episode on Twitter, or hit Chuck @chuckburks about the conversation the cast had in the script.
The “Lenox Avenue” web series premieres Monday, October29th on LenoxAveSeries.com. The nine show series brings authenticity to the upwardly mobile black male. Most times when you see men on television it is as if they don’t want to be in relationships, married, or have children. As Chuck says “You gonna hear some stuff that you probably never would hear on regular television, because it just seems that Hollywood from time to time they want to put the image that they want to put out”.
Al Thompson stars in the show along with Dorian Missick (TNT's Southland), and Ryan Vigilant( Gossip Girl). You’ll see supporting cast appearances from Victor Williams (King of Queens), Vanessa Bell Calloway (What's Love Got To Do With It, TNT's HawthoRNe), Jamie Hector (Heroes, Marlo Stanfield of HBOs The Wire), Chenoa Maxwell (Hav Plenty), Lord Jamar (Rap Group Brand Nubian), and Michael K. Williams (Omar Little of HBOs The Wire).