Internet Content Makes Long-Awaited Debut With Film's Release

By DARRELL SATZMAN
Staff Reporter

He's bad, he's back and he's here to rescue us from The Man.

He's "Undercover Brother," the first live-action feature film character to migrate to the big screen from the Web.

Born on Urbanentertainment.com, a site that offers "Driving While Black," "Homiez" and "Sistas 'n The City," the comedy stars Eddie Griffin as a private eye with a fondness for 1970s fashion who goes undercover to fight "the white establishment." It opens May 31.

"The reason we were able to translate ('Undercover Brother') into a feature is our background in the studio world," said Damon Lee, president of Urban Entertainment and a former vice president of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. "From the start, our focus has been on creating content that would work as an online series and as a feature film."

Michael Jenkinson, a former vice president of feature film production at 20th Century Fox, started Urban Entertainment in 1999 to focus on the work of African American writers. The idea was to develop animated works by established or up-and-coming black writers that would gain an audience online and be readily marketable to television and film producers.

Other content sites, like the much-hyped Icebox.com (now Icebox 2.0), were all ready well on their way to expensive flameouts when Jenkinson obtained startup capital from BMG Entertainment and Provender Capital (Lee would not disclose the amount). Last fall, Urban Entertainment secured $5.5 million in a second round of funding from Provender and AOL Time Warner. It signed a first-look deal with AOL subsidiary New Line Cinema.

It was the first company to receive money from AOL Time Warner's Opportunity Investment Fund, which seeks to invest $100 million in minority-owned companies over the next three years, said Wendy Goldberg, an AOL Time Warner spokeswoman.

"They had to meet our investment criteria," Goldberg said. "We really believe this is a solid company with great creative people and great business people."

Beyond the Internet

Like others, Urban Entertainment has found that no matter how popular an online character or series might be, it's nearly impossible to exploit that popularity without the interest of traditional media.

Lance Klein, a media technology consultant and former head of International Creative Management's new media division, said it's to the company's advantage that it is structured more like a production house than an Internet startup. "It's the traditional way of doing it because the other business model, relying on online advertising, is over," he said.

Lee said Urban Entertainment is profitable. The nine-person company derives most of its revenues through licensing and production fees from animated content that's picked up by cable companies like BET and the Starz Encore Group. The company pays its writers, contracting the animation to companies overseas.

Several Urban Entertainment properties are in development as films, but "Undercover Brother" is the only one that has been green lighted by a studio.

Lee acknowledged that the company's future rests on its ability to make more movies. "Part of the problem with businesses like Icebox is they were all over the map," Lee said. "We've learned from those mistakes. We know we've got to get some of these movies into production."

"Undercover Brother" won the support of Scott Stuber, president of production for Universal Pictures, and Imagine Entertainment principal Brian Grazer. Grazer is a producer, and the film is being financed and distributed by Universal.

Besides finding the script funny, Stuber said he was taken by thematic qualities of the "Undercover Brother" characters that made the animated series easily translatable to a feature film.

Working in the system

"Their business model has worked for them because they seek out content where they really understand the marketplace, and because they have gone to established creative forces," Stuber said. He noted that the involvement of screenwriter John Ridley, a veteran television writer who wrote the story for the hit "Three Kings," made the project more enticing for Universal.

The real test of Urban Entertainment's long-term viability will be the quality of the content being developed through its Web site, said Klein.

"There's always that diamond in the rough, but the reality is most of the content that's been developed on the Internet is not very good," he said. "The Internet is a great tool for viral marketing but it's all about coming up with compelling content."

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