*With the success of BET among his various accomplishments, Bob Johnson knows a bit of something about having a vision that falls beyond the confines of the present.
Nowadays, the businessman has broader intentions as he looks into the future with Urban Movie Channel (UMC), a digital, subscription-based service he launched last year with his company, RLJ Entertainment. Like BET, Johnson’s latest venture is out to serve an African-American and urban audience with distributing feature films, comedy specials and documentaries.
Among the projects UMC has taken on is the release of the coming-of-age drama “Blackbird,” starring Mo’Nique, Isaiah Washington and newcomer Julian Walker. In an interview with TheWrap.com’s Anita Bennett for “Office With a View,” Johnson opens up about distributing “Blackbird,” entering the digital age with UMC and Hollywood continuing to fall short on diversity.
Below are highlights from the interview:
TheWrap: What prompted you to launch Urban Movie Channel?
Robert Johnson: We recognized that there’s a need for content that appeals directly to African-Americans. I recognize that there’s a tremendous amount of talent within the urban African-American community that is looking to tell their creative, provocative story and are looking for a financial model that will allow them to tell those stories and to make a profit off of those stories that they want to tell. Then, the third thing is, I realize that just as cable and satellite were the pathway to get BET all around the country, today digital transmission and over-the-top streaming is the way to hook up the world.
What are the goals of Urban Movie Channel?
The goal is to become the preeminent distribution site in digital form for content targeting urban and African Americans… There are 10 million African-American households now taking in both HBO and Showtime, or some variation of the two. Ten million households paying about $40 a month — when you combine the two — to get HBO and Showtime, which in my opinion, is great programming, but they don’t target the African-American urban audience. We think at $5 a subscriber, we could pull anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of that ten million.
You are distributing “Blackbird,” starring Mo’Nique and Isaiah Washington. How did this relationship come about?
It’s a very provocative, timely film that focuses on a young man in a small, rural town dealing with his sexuality and lifestyle of his particular form of sexuality. It’s something that both Mo’Nique and Isaiah are passionate about. It’s the kind of project that the Urban Movie Channel wants to premiere to show that we don’t have to deal with gatekeepers or the studio system. It proves that we are changing the model of how urban content can be distributed and how creative and provocative stories like “Blackbird” can be told.
Let’s talk about Hollywood. Is there enough diversity on television and in film?
There’s never enough diversity… There are over 300 million people in this country and a billion in China and billions of people in India and every person born every day is a new spark of creativity. I don’t see how anybody can say there’s too much diversity. The most boring thing in life is not to have diversity.
Get more of Bennett’s interview with Johnson at TheWrap.