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An Actor Turns Entrepreneur: Al Thompson Sells His Web Series to Atom March 24, 2010

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Originally published on the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog

Al Thompson got his big break from an unlikely production: a New York University student short film called “3D” that screened at Sundance 10 years ago. Hollywood came calling, auditions were scheduled and he spent weeks crashing in Los Angeles with actor friends. Thompson took this couch-hopping experience and wrote a Web series, “Johnny B. Homeless,” which generated buzz at last year’s New York Television Festival, winning the People’s Choice Award.

The show’s critical success drew interest from Viacom and Comedy Central’s Atom.com, which this week announced that it had bought the nine-episode first season and committed to a second season. “Johnny B. Homeless” will also air on “Atom TV,” Comedy Central’s half-hour late night series. The first episode is planned for a May release.

“He’s made a funny, fast-paced series that is sure to resonate with Atom viewers, many of whom are experienced couch surfers themselves,” Scott Roesch, general manager of Atom.com, said in a release.

“Homeless” follows Johnny (played by Thompson) as he wakes up in a different place each morning, “Quantum Leap”-style, not knowing where he is and having to reconstruct the (often drunken) night before. The series will feature “SNL” star Kenan Thompson, who plays Johnny’s squatter nemesis, and, in the second season, “The Blind Side’s” Quentin Aaron.

The Harlem-raised Thompson, who is also in talks to distribute his second Web series, a drama called “Lenox Avenue,” wrote “Johnny B. Homeless” to expand his options as an actor, especially as a black actor.

“As an actor you really don’t have too much control at all,” Thompson said. “You have your actor friends who are also cast as thug #10, thug #5, and they’re like ‘I’m tired of this sh–.’”

He wanted to direct a slick production with a simple premise, something along the lines of an earlier dude-comedy hit, “We Need Girlfriends.” It joins the ranks of other prominent black Web series’ like Tatyana Ali’s “Buppies” on BET and “Diary of a Single Mom” by Robert Townsend.

Like many upstart Web hits of the past, Thompson did not have corporate backing. So he self-financed most of the first season, using money from commercial work and residuals from his mainstream film gigs, including “A Walk to Remember,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Love Don’t Cost a Thing.” He’d stayed in touch with independent and industry contacts in New York and Los Angeles, who volunteered time, references and skills. These contacts also helped him keep the series as professional and polished as possible. As a first-time Web series producer and director, he wanted to make sure his actors and crew knew he was taking the medium seriously.

“It’s kind of like the Wild West of independent television,” he said. “But I didn’t want to treat it like, ‘this is for the Web.’ I wanted to treat it almost like I was pitching it to a network.”

You can see a  preview of Johnny B. Homeless here.

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