Thursday, May 2, 2013

Black Hollywood gets really reel with Atlanta's forthcoming UnScripted Reality Awards

Posted By on Thu, May 2, 2013 at 3:42 PM

THE REEL BLACK HOLLYWOOD: Atlantas reality stars to honor themselves with UnScripted Reality Awards in September.
  • THE REEL BLACK HOLLYWOOD: Atlanta's reality stars to honor themselves with UnScripted Reality Awards in September.
A sea change is underfoot in Black Hollywood. Once used as an ambivalent signifier for Atlanta's emergent class of urban movers and fakers, that tag is no longer defined solely by the aspirations and extravagances of the city's entrenched music industry. Instead it's being usurped by a more literal version of Black Hollywood - Atlanta's urban film and TV industry.

Which has pretty much come to be defined in this town by reality TV and the proliferation of such shows filmed in Atlanta. The groundwork steadily being laid since NeNe Leakes was anything but the new normal culminated two nights ago with the announcement of Atlanta's first annual UnScripted Reality Awards show.

Scheduled to take place September 14, 2013 at Atlanta's premiere Woodruff Arts Center - yes, that Woodruff Arts Center - the UnScripted Reality Awards is being produced by "Real Housewives of Atlanta" cast member Peter Thomas. Besides being the visionary behind UnScripted, Thomas created such past productions as the defunct but influential How Can I Be Down Music Conference, and the Source Awards. He's partnered with his old Source magazine compadres, former owners Dave Mays and Benzino (current honchos at Hip Hop Weekly), and Stacii Jae Johnson (former entertainment and special events director for Mayor Kasim Reed's office).

Thomas, who envisions the award show as a way to "celebrate the space," credits his wife, "RHOA" star Cynthia Bailey, for coming up with the name "Unscripted." Though the first award show won't air on television, it could in the future. Beyond that, producers see it as a platform through which they can begin to "honor [reality stars for their] fabulosity, [their] beauty, and [their] sheer ratchetness, too."

While touted as reality TV's equivalent to the Oscars in film and the Emmys in scripted TV, the UnScripted Awards draws its closest comparison to hip-hop - as Thomas pointed out during Tuesday night's press event at his BarOne club on Memorial Drive.

"To me, reality shows are like hip-hop back in the early '80s, where ain't nobody really feeling you, they don't see you, you're not relevant," he said, addressing the gathering of Atlanta-based reality stars from a laundry-list of cable shows ("Married to the Medicine," "Taking Atlanta," "Big Rich Atlanta," "Love & Hip Hop Atlanta," "R&B Divas," "Kandi Factory," "Basketball Wives Miami," and "RHOA"). "We know there's haters, right, cause we're in a world where everybody hates on us. Haters are never going to tell you you're doing a great job, you're the shit, you entertain me. They celebrate mostly when you crash and burn ... but they're watching. We're entertaining a lot of people."

Thomas drove the point home further by calling on stage Mays, who Thomas created the legendary Source Hip Hop Awards with back in the '90s. "Reality TV gets a bad rap," said Mays. "I think there's a lot of parallels."

Thomas even alluded to the historic 1995 Source Awards and Suge Knight's infamous Puff Daddy diss. That was also the year that OutKast got booed while receiving their Best New Artist award and a heated Dre prophetically forewarned the crowd that "the South got something to say."

Which makes Atlanta's current status as the black reality show capital all the more ironic. As a local industry insider whispered to me Tuesday night, "Atlanta's gotten really interesting, huh? It definitely means more money coming to the city, but it's gotten interesting."

That ambivalence was acknowledged by Atlanta music industry vet Vawn (also a reality vet: "Welcome to Dreamland"), who was in the crowd along with producer Jazze Pha. "When you think of reality TV, you think of something with ugly connotations. But this is a great platform," Vawn said to the audience before offering his musical services to UnScripted. When Jazze Pha echoed his offer, it felt like a symbolic passing of the torch from the city's musical players to those on the (reality) TV side.

But the struggle is real, as many reality cast members attested during the press conference. "People ask me did I know what I was getting into, and I say, no the fuck I didn't," said Mimi Faust, whose love triangle/baby-daddy drama with music producer Stevie J is the biggest draw of "Love & Hip Hop Atlanta," VH1's top-rated show. "I had no idea what I was getting myself into."

Bart Phillips (left to right), Mariah Huq, and Princess Banton-Lofters talk behind-the-scenes reality show production.
  • my iPhone
  • Bart Phillips (left to right), Mariah Huq, and Princess Banton-Lofters talk behind-the-scenes reality show production.

More industry veterans and wannabes are eager to get in where they fit in, however. Last week, April Love, who handles publicity for several Atlanta reality show stars/producers and is the Atlanta delegate for the American Black Film Festival, hosted a roundtable with several big-name reality TV producers. The REEL Reality TV panel/mixer featured Princess Banton-Lofters (creator of the "Real Housewives of Atlanta" franchise), Mariah Huq (newcomer creator/star of BRAVO's "Married to the Medicine"), and Bart Phillips (a longtime television producer who's just entering the reality show world).

In a private room at Gordon Biersch on Peachtree St., about 30 attendees paid to gain access to and insight from experienced show creators on taking their reality TV show ideas from concept to development. The conversation ranged from how to pitch shows to how to cast: Huq pitched "Married to the Medicine" to "everyone," she said, including Russell Simmons, Stan Lathan, even co-panelist Princess Banton-Lofters, before getting a greenlight from Fremantle Media. "Casting is king," Banton-Lofters said, recalling the first time she met future "RHOA" star NeNe Leakes at her home: "When she opened the door, she had on a baseball cap, fatigues, a black shirt, and a glass of wine."

As for the future of local production, "Atlanta's the truth in terms of TV and film," Phillips said at the roundtable. "I've got maybe 15 new friends that have all moved to Atlanta from L.A., and it's not going to go away anytime soon with the movement of studios here now."

While Phillips admitted to avoiding reality TV for a long time, he was inevitably sucked in. "To be real honest, I didn't like reality TV," he said. "Right now is the first time I can admit that I am doing a reality show. And of all the people that I could do a reality show with, I'm doing it with a gay guy who wears high heel shoes - my good friend Derek J." He has two new reality shows on the way, one titled "I'm Coming Out," starring celebrity hairstylist Derek J of "RHOA," and the other starring rapper 2 Chainz.

Indeed, it's the characters in front of the camera with which Atlanta seems to runneth over. And if the level of self-exploitation is comparable to that found in the rap game, it's surpassed only by the eagerness to cash in on the overwhelming opportunity. "Anyone who's doing this, please use it," said the always classy Cynthia Bailey, who credited the successful launch of her Bailey Modeling Agency to her "RHOA" TV exposure. "Please get rich off of it. Because I want to be the last one laughing, I'm telling you."

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