On Wednesdays, we highlight black web series! It was important for me to do more than just review or spotlight these series by giving a quick synopsis about the show. I wanted to speak to the creators and talk to them about their journey to creating their series. Not just the inspiration but the work model, the fundraising process, and more.
Over the past few months, I have been holding several interviews trying to juggle highlighting independent content creators and working a full-time job, which is the struggle for most creators. Finding the time to pay your bills and pursue your passions. Well, I finally had the time to transcribe an interview with Make Up and Break Up creator, Eric Dickens, and he gave me so much energy, inspiration, and wisdom that I honestly was not expecting. Let’s get into this exclusive The Reel Effect interview.
Meah Denee Barrington: How did you get into writing? What inspired you to do MUBU series? Where there other projects before this?
Eric Dickens: Well I always wrote as a child, that was my thing. I wrote a play in 7th grade and we performed it in front of my class because my teacher picked my play. It was a black history month play, journey to freedom, kind of like the show Underground. From there I always used to write when I was bored, and I was an art major in high school, so I liked to draw and write and that helped me with storyboarding.
As an adult, in college I majored in Television Production and minored in Marketing, so we used to have tv shows on campus, and every year I would intern. My first internship was 106&Park, the best time of my life, when AJ and Free was there. Day one I was there I met Monica, plus I had a good mentor that would sneak me into everything. After that I got a corporate job, making great money but I just didn’t feel fulfilled. I felt like I was missing something.
So I went to ABFF in 2009, and I went to the short film competition and I was just blown away by all the creativity that people had. I went home and wrote a short film and I shot it the next year then we submitted it and got into five film festivals, and from there I did two more short films. After that I started writing Make Up and Break Up. I had been living in Harlem for eight years so I started writing it about my experiences going out in Harlem, but it was a mix between all of my friends and embellishing on different scenarios that we came up with.
MDB: Is the show evolving in the way that you wanted it to evolve?
ED: Absolutely, I think that when we started, the only person we had to look to with a successful series was Issa Rae. So there was really no platform. You did a web series on Youtube and then what?
ED: There was hope that you could get a deal with a network, or hope you could become a showrunner but now there are so many platforms from Hulu, Amazon Prime, Apple, so everyone needs content. Black people are winning now, so everyone wants black content.
But we just stepped out on faith, you really never know. Even when people go to major film festivals and submit a short film they never know what the outcome will be. So now fast forward to season three and we are affiliated with BET, it’s a huge win for the whole team because we didn’t have the blueprint. We just knew that the writing was good, the acting was good, that’s it.
MDB: So how did that come about? Did you leverage your contacts and your network? How did you get to BET?
ED: Well absolutely, I worked for a lot of networks (always 2-3 years), Turner, Viacom, A&E, Disney, and NBC. So I would always go to networking events, always busting jokes, chilling, but I never leveraged a favor. So when the show came out I leveraged every favor! I need a writer here, can you help me get to this person, get me this contact. So out the gate with Make Up and Break Up we were getting write-ups everywhere and that was because I knew a lot of people that were on the publishing side, and I was just cool with them.
But the thing about favors is you only have one so you have to use it wisely, and that is how we kind of leveraged the industry. As far as my contacts at BET, I knew a couple of people there from working at Viacom, but it was still hard getting there. It helped me in one way because I went to a lot of film festivals so MUBU had probably screened at 25 film festivals, and I would go there and meet with organizers of the film festival, and a lot of film festivals are sponsored so they have a strong connection with the network. I went to two film festivals and they took an interest in the show and they helped me navigate. So I had pitch meetings with BET, and other networks, and then we landed on BET so that is how it worked out.
MDB: Was a deal already in place when you went into season three of MUBU?
ED: We already planned on doing season three. A lot of the time when you ink digital deals you put your money up first, so you fund your project, and then when you package it, you sell it. Networks order a season or order episodes, and those are the deals I’ve been privy, and this is what happened with other networks that I pitched to as well. We’ve been talking to BET since season one, but there were a lot of moving parts within the department.
So if you’re always patiently creating, it will happen in time. The timing for ours was actually perfect. When I had to deliver all my assets from video, to creative, to visual, I was ready. I didn’t have to say give me another week for this. Everything worked out perfectly, so I tell people to be ready when you’re called because you never know when that call is going to come.
MDB: What advice would you give someone that has never worked in entertainment but wants to create content.
ED: Issa Rae said a good thing when she said “network across don’t worry about networking up.” Even in my corporate setting every job that I’ve gotten has been from one of my friends, “Like hey they are hiring over here do you want the job?” So I tell people that’s the best thing because when you get to a certain age you don’t want to have to fill out an application you just want to put in a call or an email.
ED: Save your money! Dame Dash said one thing “Always invest in yourself!” After the first season, people would come to me to invest in the show and I’m like if I sell the show what does this split look like? You don’t want anything to come back when you finally ink your deal where you owe money, etc. So always be smart. Save your money and plan.
Definitely, treat your project like it’s your baby. A lot of people aren’t going to see the vision until it’s done, and already there. Of course, we signed our deal and everyone is super excited but when we were in season one people were like, let’s see what it does. So you really have to go hard for your own stuff.
My aspect was I worked a corporate job so I could sustain my dreams and passions. But in doing that you have to be able to work endlessly and be tired, and some people don’t have the drive to do that. You have to be disciplined to do it.
ED: Lastly, always have positive people around you. We have a small production team but our production team is pretty tight-knit, they just bring a lot of positive energy to set, everybody is super positive. I could be like let’s shoot a scene in space and I don’t have anyone on set that’s like we can’t do that. They are just like let’s figure it out, how are we going to map it out? And that’s how we kept making the scenes innovative and figuring out which direction we wanted to go.
MDB: How did you prepare to write this series? How did you build your skills along the way?
ED: Anytime I write anything I always start with the understanding that I need a beginning, middle, a climax, and an end, but you always want a plot and a subplot. So you can’t just sell on this one plot, there always has to be a subplot brewing. By the fourth or fifth episode, you want to introduce another plot so people can always stay interested.
I always start at the character. Who is going to front the series, what characteristics are they going to have, what are their weaknesses? All characters should have a great flaw, nobody’s perfect. And figure out your setting, for me, I like shooting in cities, my favorite cities are Chicago, New York, D.C., and Philly.
As far as the writing process, I write really late or early morning when I feel like everyone is asleep. So I know my phone isn’t going to go off and I’m not pressed to check Instagram because no one is up yet. I used to always listen to 90s RnB, whatever theme I was going for that scene, I would listen to a song that was related to that scene specifically.
I’m still trying to figure out how I want my career to go, of course, I want to be a showrunner, but if I had to go into a writers room I always push myself to write under a deadline. So I would always be like let me see if I can write this episode in two days, or let me see how many times I can write a revision.
The best thing is to always keep a schedule. I would say let me write a page a day! If I want to do a 30 minute series with commercials that’s 21 pages so in a month I’ll have my script, and I just worry about revising. Same thing if I want to a 42-minute script which is an hour-long show.
I tell people you have to pace yourself. “It’s not about how good the writing is, it’s about how real the writing is.” Some writers can really capture a real conversation and some people capture what they observe, and I tell people you have to break the two apart. For example, if you’re talking to your friend and you have slang some people may think it’s too urban but some of your greatest films Boyz in the Hood, Menace II Society, that’s what it is and it’s authentic. A lot of people that haven’t grown up in those environments can’t capture that authenticity.
MDB: What’s some advice you’ve received that really helped push your career further?
ED: Always be open to criticism. I remember when I first started writing and people would tear my scripts up and I would take it really personal. My friend told me you want people to do that because this is how you grow, you can’t take anything personally. Now I’m open to criticism, I prefer when people tear my work apart because I want it to be better, and most important is to work on being consistent. Sometimes you don’t want to be a shot in the dark where you come out with a hit series and everybody is raving over it and then you try to do it again and it’s a flop! If you always make sure your foundation is there on your script you’ll always have something.
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