"How can there be a series about four intelligent women in New York City who do not interact with any people of color in a substantive way?" asks Tina Andrews, screenwriter and creator of Sistas 'N the City, an animated parody of the HBO comedy featured on UrbanEntertainment.com. "I do not see myself or my relationships with my friends reflected on TV much. I wanted to create and write a show that explores the interpersonal relationships between four African-American women in Chicago, since I am from Chicago."
The first African-American female recipient of the Writers Guild of America Award in 2001, Andrews is the writer/co-executive producer of the CBS miniseries, Sally Hemmings, An American Scandal. She also received the 2002 NAACP Literary Image Award for her book, Sally Hemmings, An American Scandal: The Struggle to Tell the Controversial True Story, and the 2002 MIB/Prism Filmmaker Image Award for her contributions to television and film. She is currently writing and executive-producing the pilot for Queen Latifah's new CBS series, Mali Anderson; writing and executive-producing a miniseries on the life of Coretta Scott King; and writing the book, music, and lyrics for the Broadway version of Why Do Fools Fall in Love, a Warner Brothers feature film she developed in the 1990s starring Halle Berry and Vivica A. Fox.
"The idea for Sistas came to me in 1999 after seeing an episode of Sex and the City in which the only African-American character to be presented on the series at the time was so demeaning and ghettoized in his and his sister's relationship to Samantha"—one of Sex's four protagonists—Andrews continues. "Sistas 'N the City is my animated comic answer" to that show and everything it portrays, she adds.
Enter Michael Jenkinson, a former vice president of feature film production at 20th Century Fox and long-time friend of Andrews. In early 1999, Jenkinson founded (and today serves as president/CEO of) Urban Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based production, exhibition, and distribution company focused on African-American and urban-themed entertainment content across multiple platforms and distribution channels. The Web site is home to short films and 20 animated shows developed by African-American artists ranging from John Singleton (Shaft, Boyz 'N the Hood) to Reggie Hudlin (Boomerang, House Party); it's also where the movie Undercover Brother got its start as an animated series.
Serendipitously, at the same time that Andrews was feeling inspired, a colleague of Jenkinson's was on a similar mission. "Sistas came about soon after we launched our male-targeted series, Pookie Poo, Undercover Brother, and Cisco and Ripple," recalls Nichelle Protho, vice president of programming and production for UrbanEntertainment.com. "I had been responsible for launching our animated division and, therefore, felt responsible for bringing a female perspective to our Web site." After she convinced Jenkinson of how important the female audience was to the company, he called Andrews and asked her to create a new series. "Of course," Protho continues, "she recognized the dearth of stories about women of color and felt compelled to tell their story—her story; thus, Sistas 'N the City was born." Protho notes that Sex and the City "has a huge following among African-Americans" and that "it was time to give them a show that shared their issues and concerns from their point of view."
"This Ain't No Kiddie Cartoon!"
Jenkinson took Protho's advice and offered Andrews a forum in the form of an animated series that would run on UrbanEntertainment.com. Launched in January 2001, Sistas' N the City generated nearly 4,000 hits a day at the height of its popularity, says Protho, and attracts a virtually equal number of mostly African-American male and female viewers. "Every episode of the series was written by Tina Andrews with ideas generated by her own life and the lives of her friends," she explains. "Tina approved the character designs and gave notes on the animation" as each of the 10 episodes produced thus far was developed. (Episodes were launched on the site approximately every three weeks.)
Like Sex, Sistas features four single, independent women looking for love, career success, and happiness in a big city. The African-American Sistas include Tamika, a publicist in love with an attractive "mama's boy"; Mercedes, a sculptor who loves her clothes tight and her men white; Jordan, a law clerk/BAP ("Black American Princess"); and Athena, a lesbian neo-soul singer prone to frequent image changes. (Actress Dawnn Lewis, known for her roles on TV's A Different World and the feature film I'm Gonna Get You Sucka, voices Tamika and Mercedes. Actress Marcy House voices Jordan, and underground rapper Medusa, who sings "One Bad Sista"—the show's theme song—voices Athena.) Each three- to five-minute episode is posted to UrbanEntertainment.com for a limited time for playback on Flash-equipped personal computers. Episodes feature titles ranging from "Oh No She Didn't" to "Toxic Parents" and "A Key Change in the Melody." "
Next to television, the Internet is becoming one of the most powerful disseminators of information and entertainment available," Andrews writes, "and I wanted to be at the forefront of a different look into black female friendship in this exciting, influential new frontier.
"I also wanted to do it in a blatantly sexy and humorous way," she adds, "as that was a key way into the Internet audience, initially."
Taking It to the Street
Following the success of the online series, Urban Entertainment enlisted Lightyear Entertainment, a New York distributor of music and video products through WEA Distribution and Warner Home Video, respectively, to release Sistas on home video and DVD. "I was thrilled when the folks at Urban Entertainment said they wanted to put the entire series on DVD because that opens it up to a whole new audience, including people who sometimes are unable to get the series on the Internet," Andrews enthuses. "I have a friend, for example, working with an older computer who can't get any Flash animation or movement on his screen. This is perfect for him. Also, people can be anywhere and have access to the series—not just from their computer screen."
Protho produced the DVD in conjunction with authoring company Evergreen DVD. "The entire process took about three months," Protho recalls. Once the decision was made to transfer the series to DVD, Protho and Evergreen secured Lightyear as the distributor and planned out the content that the disc would contain, including all 10 episodes and bonus features. "Tina Andrews arranged a wonderful roundtable discussion with her friends. That was important because it further illustrated how much black women have to say and further validates the series," Protho continues. "We also were able to capture Medusa in concert singing "One Bad Sista," which suits the series so well." The roundtable discussion was shot in digital video by editor Frances De Loach, and the interviews with Andrews and Medusa were shot by Ali Vossough, Protho adds. Series animation was provided by Flip Your Lid Animation, a Calabasas, California-based animation studio founded in 1998 by Jay Jacoby and Steve Soffer. (The company launched a division that focuses exclusively on character animation and Web design for the Internet in June 1999.)
Once all of the footage was gathered and edited on Final Cut Pro, Protho and her team conceptualized, designed, and revised the menus featured on the DVD; encoded the final edited content; approved the DVD-R and created a master disc; delivered the master to Lightyear for replication; and commenced a marketing campaign for the DVD's March 25 street release. The 85-minute, unrated DVD is recommended for viewers 17 years of age and older and is available at a list price of $19.95. Distribution outlets include Tower Records, Virgin Stores, and Best Buy.
"We believe the series should encourage the networks to pay more attention to the stories" African-American women have to tell, Protho adds. "UPN's Girlfriends isn't enough, although it's a good start. And when it comes to the big screen, the plight is equally discouraging."
(Flip Your Lid Animation, www.flipyourlid.com; Lightyear Entertainment, www.lightyear.com; Urban Entertainment, www.urbanentertainment.com)