In recent weeks, the entertainment industry witnessed the launch of Michael Eisner's Vuguru, an independent studio that produces and distributes original Internet content. Fox and NBC also banded together to take on YouTube, promising, by the summer, to launch a site that will feature thousands of hours of full-length programming — movies and clips from at least a dozen networks and two major film studios.
But while the big dogs play catch up, QD3 Entertainment, the self-proclaimed first urban digital entertainment company, already has a headstart. "I had new media in mind since the onset," Quincy Jones III, CEO and chief creative officer of QD3 Entertainment, says.
QD3 Entertainment was started by Jones, son of the famous music impresario and television executive Quincy Jones, as a documentary production company in 2002. Since then, the company has grown from a home video business to a multiplatform entertainment entity.
"It's an incredible time for us," Paul A. Campbell, president and COO of QD3 Entertainment, says. "Ten of our titles combined have sold over 1 million units, our reach is 11 million homes on Comcast VOD (video on demand), and we have a licensing deal with Amp'd mobile to stream our content on their handsets. Based on the success of our popular DVD trilogy, Beef, that chronicles hip-hop's most notorious conflicts and resolutions between artists, we debuted an original Beef series on cable network BET, becoming one of its top five highest rated debuts."
From VHS to UGC
When Jones started his production company, he wanted to focus on the many dimensions of hip-hop culture. He didn't want to focus on the negative aspects of the culture that he felt were being exposed in the media. So he decided to tell the story of his friend, Tupac Shakur, a notorious rapper who was gunned down in 1996. Jones previously worked with Shakur as a music producer, and Shakur was engaged to one of Jones's sisters at the time of his death. The film, Thug Angel, directed by Peter Spirer, the director of Rhyme & Reason and the upcoming Notorious B.I.G.: Bigger Than Life, aims to take the viewer beyond the drama of Tupac's notoriety in the press through previously unseen interviews with close friends, collaborators, and scholars as they look back on Tupac and define his legacy.
Distributed by Image Entertainment, the now multi-platinum selling DVD, seeded the foundation of a business where Jones would produce 13 more titles, including the critically acclaimed Beef trilogy, that spawned the BET Beef series, and opened the door to distribution deals with Comcast VOD and Amp'd Mobile. Prospects for the young company may look good right now, but Jones and Campbell aren't simply relying on old school distribution models. "These aggregators have millions of eyeballs, but they don't have an authentic relationship with the audience," Campbell says.
Jones and Campbell are gearing up for the full launch of a new QD3 Entertainment Web site, that already has beta versions of QDiesel, a QD3 broadband channel featuring original programming, such as new comedy content in partnership with comedian Paul Mooney, as well as two user generated content (UGC) areas. First there's Spotlite, where users submit content based upon a particular hip-hop oriented theme, such as breakdancing. And then there's Vee-O, a mashup concept where users get to download a QD3 clip, provide a voice over or effects over the clip, and then resubmit it to the Web site for potential display. A pay-for-play model for viewing some of the site's broadband content is also in the works.
To broaden the reach for the site's UGC content, Campbell is working on a partnership with a major distributor. He also has plans for a video game play down the line, since the company's content easily lends itself to that platform.
"We're in the age of multitasking and integrated media — we have MP3s, videos, and Web access on our cell phones — so I think the integrated approach that QD3 represents is a useful model," Jason King, associate professor and artistic director of the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University, says.
"Vanguard services like YouTube understand this new model innately, while the old guard — record labels, TV networks, and film studios, and so on — have been slow to respond. They incorrectly perceive the idea of shared power between audiences and programmers as a step in the wrong direction on their part."
Can Urban Content Become King?
"In the Web 2.0 world, availability of content is key," King says. "Amazon and eBay made their fortunes on making products available any time, all the time. Consumers generally want as much content as possible delivered efficiently and securely in a way that they can customize and control."
QD3's ultimate strength is its abundant content. In total, from filming documentaries and producing original programs for distribution partners, the company has amassed over 2000 hours of exclusive footage, that hasn't been seen — anywhere. The urban entertainment company's past success indicates that its content is the sort of content that the popular culture entertainment seekers hunger for.
But it's also the kind of entertainment that Norman Kelley, author of R&B (Rhythm & Business): The Political Economy of Black Music and The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome, calls nigga' thug kulture (NTK), which he says is black lower-class culture that's being sold as a commodity to black and white consumers — predominantly white. "It has been argued for years," he says, "that most hip-hop is purchased by young white males, who identify with black culture, but don't have to pay the social cost of being black."
King disagrees. "Urban content that crosses over into the commercial mainstream represents only one aspect of the culture from where it comes," he says. "Since black and Latino people are no longer invisible in the media, one of the things we have to continue to strive for in the development and programming of urban content is not quantity but quality. Better quality, more sophisticated content that reveals more depth and dimension to the urban experience is the key. Urban themed entertainment companies offer the opportunity to offer those under the radar aspects of black culture that are still sometimes swept under the rug by more mainstream companies."
That's exactly what Jones says his company is doing. "We're raising the bar for urban entertainment, especially in how the media perceives it. "We approach it from a standard of quality," he says. "The residual value to the viewer is powerful and it addresses what urban has become — skurban (skateboarding urbanites) and blipsters (black hipsters) — tilting that biege mass all at once. We're not focusing on the artist getting shot to boost his soundscan numbers, we're adding substance and brining you depth. We're bringing soul back."
Still, Kelley doesn't suspect that QD3 is any different than hip-hop record labels in this regard, whereas those companies partner with established labels that control the lines of distribution and end up with no real power of their own. "Maybe it's the game plan to play with the big boys and then build its own infrastructure over the years. It would seem that Paul Campbell would be in a position to do that given his background," he says.
Before joining QD3 in 2006, Campbell spent four years at Microsoft Corporation as the director of business development, where he was responsible for the company's digital media strategy and partnerships with major media companies. He worked closely with MTV Networks on the launch of their Overdrive broadband platform and Urge, MTVN's digital music subscription service. Campbell also created and managed the strategic alliance between Academy award-winning director James Cameron and Microsoft as well as partnering with the American Film Institute on a number of initiatives.
In the end, Jones hopes for an organic viral spread of the company's properties, but there'll still be some good old fashioned business dealing going on. For as much as it seems the future of urban entertainment, as well as the ubiquity of QD3 Entertainment relies on content, it also rests on the shoulders of Campbell's resumé and Jones's network. "He has deep industry experience and relationships. In this disruptive period, you have to have both," Campbell says.