by Rahwa Asmerom
Robert Townsend broke major ground when he released the classic comedy, Hollywood Shuffle, in 1987. The satire about the relationship between blacks and the Hollywood industry made waves, but the behind-the-scenes narrative of how he financed the production on his credit cards became legendary. A lot has changed since then and the business of film production has drastically evolved to become more accessible as amateur and veteran filmmakers now have the online platform by which to distribute their programs. Townsend, now a household name, is exploring the relatively new frontier and taking his expertise online with his latest project, Diary of a Single Mom – a web series on the Public Internet Channel about three single mothers and their challenges with child care, health care, education and work.
“Because of the internet now, you can reach millions and millions of people to see your content” he said. “200,000 plus people have already seen Diary of a Single Mom on the internet and I’ve just started to do interviews now.” Townsend became involved with the project after meeting Ray Ramsey, the founder and CEO of One Economy Corporation, a non-profit organization which seeks to empower low-income people through technology and information. Their similar visions, yet different industries, led them to cross paths in Washington DC, where Townsend’s duties as head of the Black Family Channel frequently led him to engage policy makers and politicians on Capitol Hill. When Townsend ended his run at the Channel, Ramsey recruited him for his organization’s crusade.
In his role as producer and director of the Diary of a Single Mom series, Townsend created programming which delivered content that One Economy used to engage its targeted audience and stories that spoke to his own standards of positive entertainment. “Part of it is to make content that people can see but content that people need,” he said. “As people are watching Diary of a Single Mom, they can click on different buttons and learn. For example, one of the characters is trying to get her GED, so if you’re interested in that, you can click on the button and learn more about it.”
Although Townsend has been successful in his first foray into web series production, the $500,000 budget he had to work with for the season is a far cry from the television and film limits that he’s used to. “Because the web is such a new frontier, the budget is always going to be tighter because everybody is still figuring out how to monetize the model,” he said. Now that Diary is in its second season, the model appears to have proven itself and the series is looking to capitalize on its popularity. “We’re having discussions with television networks to potentially buy the show and advertisers to promote on the shows,” he said. Along with advertising, he added, DVD sales compose the bulk of the potential revenue for web series.
Despite his success with this show and the success of so many filmmakers who have utilized the online production and distribution model, Townsend wouldn’t evangelize it over other traditional routes, especially to the budding filmmakers he guides through his Robert Townsend Foundation. “Many roads lead to Rome,” he said. “There’s no one way to go about it. It’s a bit of mixing and matching and figuring out what really works.” Since his own start in Hollywood, Townsend has witnessed what he calls the Hollywood “reshuffle” and wants to address the decline of African-American representation in programming through cultivating other filmmakers and helping them to refine their craft, expertise and professionalism. His latest venture may capitalize on a new trend, but the focus for Townsend is still the same: producing positive and uplifting entertainment.