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Open TV helps web series about queer people of color get HBO deal

Platform founded by Northwestern professor creates space for cultural expression

HBO has purchased rights to the wildly popular web series “Brown Girls,” a show set in Chicago about straight and queer women of color developed as part of Northwestern University professor Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian’s research project, Open TV (beta). 

Filmed in Pilsen over the course of two weeks in 2016, “Brown Girls” is the brainchild of director Sam Bailey and writer Fatimah Asghar. The show features a cast comprised entirely of minorities, whose sexual preferences and gender identities are decidedly intersectional. 

While it does not come with any guarantees, the deal is the first step by HBO to license a full season of the show. 3Arts' and MXN Entertainment will handle production as part of the deal. 

“We were essentially ‘Brown Girls’ first network, assisting in production and exhibition with funding and marketing,” Christian said. “The point of Open TV is to slowly build an audience for intersectional and queer programming to see how that kind of distribution might develop, since networks like HBO don't consistently develop diverse programming.” 

A research project and platform for television by queer, trans and cis-women, and artists of color, Open TV premiered “Brown Girls” in February in Chicago and 15 other cities, including New York, Los Angeles and London. 

Christian, who studies how queer TV develops, founded Open TV in 2014 as an alternative online platform that produces and distributes original indie series by and about artists. 

“TV on the web and on mobile devices is not the TV you grew up with,” he said. “While corporate television is motivated by sameness, the Internet is decentralized, allowing space for all forms of cultural expression.”

Open TV provides some funding for a limited amount of projects through its partner production company. However, none of Open TV's in-house production budgets have exceeded $5,000, and most are less than $3,000.

The projects chosen for production have low budgets, small crews, minimal locations and few special effects. It relies on collaborators for music, art direction, sets and costume design to keep costs down.   

In the case of “Brown Girls,” the creators received a $12,000 grant from the Voqal Fund, a program administered by Chicago Filmmakers, and crowdfunding along with other donations for a total production budget of $20,000.

Thus far, Christian said the Open TV experience has been illuminating. The night of the “Brown Girls” premiere, the official #BrownGirlsTV hashtag trended to number 2 on Twitter, giving Christian a robust sample of GIFs and tweets to analyze over the summer.

Through Open TV, Christian also has managed to bolster a community of artists in Chicago. 

“I didn’t know how important it was to have a family,” said director Sam Bailey of her experience working with Open TV. “It feels like you have a network, a support system. So that has been really cool to me and has influenced the way I work." 

Christian is an assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern and the author of “Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television.” He has juried television and video for the Peabody Awards, Gotham Awards, Streamy Awards and Tribeca Film Festival, among others. 

As a scholar, Christian can speak to the changing dynamics of the television industry, trends in web TV development, independent production, diversity and intersectionality in creative industries and the politics of social media platforms.

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