Townsend Plays Across Platforms

Over a career that has spanned more than three decades, actor, filmmaker and director Robert Townsend has been at the forefront of producing popular film and television content featuring multicultural actors and themes. Townsend, who most recently completed the family film Playin’ for Love for cable network UP, talked with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the evolving entertainment marketplace and the increasing opportunities content producers have to distribute their content across both traditional media and the emerging digital space. Townsend, best-known for such theatrical movies as Hollywood Shuffle and The Five Heartbeats, as well as television comedy series The Parent’Hood, also talked about the explosion of programming featuring people of color both in front of and behind the camera. An edited transcript follows.

MCN:As a producer, is this a golden age of sorts, given the multitude of outlets and distribution platforms to showcase your content?

Robert Townsend: It’s a really exciting time — it’s just trying to figure it out, because pieces move so quickly. All of this technology is developing so quickly — now you have Periscope, video streaming and VOD — so part of the game now is learning. Once you have the content, everybody is trying to figure out how to monetize it. So there are maybe new distribution platforms, but it’s also about understanding how to best use it. There has never before in history been a time when you could reach your target audience yourself. I think everybody is trying to figure it out and we’re all in a learning curve right now.

MCN:Having said that, have you explored these other platforms for your film and TV content?

RT: Here’s the thing: I’m in it totally. I’ve played a little with the Web and I’ve never been afraid to explore. I explored the Web when it was developing when I was doing content for the Black Family Channel, so I’ve always been an explorer and I’m always looking at what’s next. I get the traditional system — I just did a film with UP on cable and my next studio film will be a remake of Brewster’s Millions — and I will always have one foot in dealing with the studios and the traditional media. But I will always look ahead. It’s really an exciting time because there are so many outlets doing content — again, as always, it’s trying to find the right fit for my content.

MCN:Do you see yourself continuing to work within the traditional TV arena going forward?

RT: My film with the UP channel is the first project we’re doing together, but we’ve been talking about doing other things. I have different ideas — some are family-friendly and some are more edgy — but we’re looking at other opportunities, including a series.

MCN:Your films typically fall into the family-entertainment genre. Given the recent popularity of edgier, more adult-themed dramas on television and in film, is there still a viable audience for family-friendly programming?

RT: It’s a funny time now, because we have some films that are family, but you don’t have a lot. I see today the kids are looking for content that’s much edgier, so I think when you try to pull it back some and allow these kids be kids for as long as possible, they don’t really have a lot of outlets that encourage that. So, on one hand, you have a lot of these edgy reality shows, but then for kids, you have to find those other vehicles that provide more uplifting content.

MCN:In the past year, there has been a flurry of successful television shows featuring predominantly multicultural casts. Do you see that trend continuing, particularly as more content distributors look for new and unique original programming?

RT: Everything comes in cycles, and right now we’re at an upswing where you have the different networks producing content like Empire and Black-ish. When I think about Shonda Rhimes, I think of an amazing, visionary artist who’s now able to do her own thing — she’s one of the most prolific showrunners in history and she happens to be a woman of color. I’ve been in the game for a long time, so for me this time is what I’ve always been talking about in terms of people of color really breaking through, so it’s an exciting time.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.