'$5 Cover': MTV's new media and music franchise
If there is one thing that every studio, network and cable channel has in common these days, it's that they are all frantically obsessed with finding the Next Hot New Thing -- i.e. a compelling pop culture concept or phenomenon that will spawn a new hit franchise. (You know, to line up on the runway as the cobwebby old franchises start to wear thin.) Though there are obvious exceptions -- like Universal's "Bourne" series -- most franchises end up feeling like they are far more about commerce than art, whether it's the slimy horror series ("Saw"), the heist series ("Ocean's Eleven" and its sequels) or the comic-book visual effects series ("Fantastic Four"), not to mention all of TV's endless "CSI" and "Law & Order" permutations.
But what would happen if you put the franchise reins in the hands of an indie filmmaker, gave him creative control over its content and launch, anchored it in a city's vibrant underground music scene and turned it into a new media series that would play on multiple platforms, on screens small, smaller and hand-held tiny?
What you'd have would look a lot like "$5 Cover," a new MTV series that captures the funky groove of the local Memphis music scene but with real musicians in virtually all the acting roles, all orchestrated by filmmaker Craig Brewer, writer-director of "Hustle & Flow," the 2005 indie hit set in the colorful gumbo-like environs of Memphis.
The show, which launches Friday night at midnight on MTV's cable channel and on its website, fivedollarcover.com, is a fascinating experiment in new media storytelling, combining the unabashed narcissism of reality TV with the raw, rough edges of indie cinema. Until now, Web series have largely been drawn to comedy and thriller storytelling genres.
"$5 Cover" isn't typed so easily, perhaps because it has so many separate but complementary components. The main Web component of the series offers 15 digital episodes, each six or seven minutes long, only loosely chronological, that follow the romantic entanglements and career ups and downs of a group of Memphis musicians as they haunt bars, clubs and cafes. MTV will air a half-hour packaged version of three episodes each week during a five-week run on the network.
The series is accompanied by music videos from the songs performed by the local artists featured in the series' digital episodes. And in what might be the most unusual twist of all, Brewer teamed up with Memphis Commercial Appeal photographer Alan Spearman to put together an assortment of mini-documentaries about each of the major artists in the series.
The show is so steeped in Memphis people and places that the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau helped create an accompanying series, called "The Flipside of Memphis." It captures the offbeat characters who make up the eclectic city, including, for example, a local roller derby team, a dance academy and Tad Pierson, a self-style road ethnographer who gives guided tours in his coffee-colored 1955 Caddy of obscure Memphis music historical sites.
From MTV's point of view, Memphis will simply be the first stop on a continuing musical and cultural odyssey of different cities, first in America, but eventually in Europe and Latin America as well. It's a franchise but, as you can tell, it has very little in common with the top-down "X Men" and "Harry Potter" and "CSI" studio franchise model. So what is it really?
"For me, local is the new global," says Brewer, who still makes his home in Memphis, even though he visits Hollywood when he's trying to move ahead on various film projects. "There's something incredibly satisfying for an artist to be part of a local community, but where thanks to the Web, people all over the world have a chance to peek in and see what you're doing."
Brewer says that if he'd pitched the idea of an ensemble story about music in Memphis as a feature film, with just a rough outline instead of a script, it would've never been bought, at least not without a studio insisting on prominent actors and musicians in the leading roles. By going to MTV, which had released "Hustle & Flow," he knew he could have more autonomy. The series' spice comes from the colorful characters who inhabit the local music scene, including a bewitching stand-up bassist named Amy LaVere, rap impresario Al Kapone, garage band poster girl Clare Grant and a hip-hop circus ringmaster known as Muck Sticky.
For Brewer, a key to the project was having real local musicians play themselves. "There's a generation of people growing up where do-it-yourself entertainment and amateur acting is commonplace and completely natural," he says. "Everyone knows about reality TV, everyone has a video camera. So you see a lot of films being made now that aren't bound by a script or a schedule. We're just the tip of the iceberg. If you look at films today, you're starting to see that amateur vibe everywhere, especially in films like 'Hump Day' and 'Once,' where you feel you're actually watching something is really authentic."
When Brewer approached David Gale, MTV's executive vice president of new media, he found a willing conspirator. It was Gale, who ran MTV Films for a decade, who'd been the biggest enthusiast behind "Hustle & Flow." With MTV struggling to regain its image as a leading force in the cultural vanguard -- and eager to emphasize its original artist-friendly core connection with music -- "$5 Cover" was a perfect vehicle to help spread the MTV gospel over a variety of media platforms.
"MTV was originally built on people's love of music, but back then, the format was music video, which the network played and people watched," says Gale. "This is a way for a new generation to tap into a world of music and filmmaking. But they can do it in the way people experience media today, through your computer, your cellphone, your iPod or iPhone and your gaming devices."
Gale sees "$5 Cover," which cost roughly $350,000 to produce, as a much more interactive experience. "In the old days, you saw a video and you bought the record," he says. "Now you can watch the series, then see the mini-docs and background pieces, and right at your fingertips, you have a much more deep, immersive experience into the world of Memphis music. I think Craig has found a really innovative way to tell these stories in so many different formats."
Confident that the series will find an audience, either on the Web or on its channel, MTV is already moving ahead with plans to team up with another indie filmmaker who would base the next installment in Seattle. Gale has already had discussions with his international team about choosing cities in Britain, Europe and Latin America. But if you ask Brewer, the real excitement comes from capturing the local flavor of his hometown. It's not hard to see why the Tourist Bureau got involved, since the videos and mini-docs do a better job of selling Memphis than any ad brochure.
"I know everyone thinks they live in an 'American Idol' world, where people want to go to Hollywood and get a record deal so they can be a big success," says Brewer. "But in Memphis, we're not all obsessed with the big time. We'd rather make music in our own backyard where you play for tips in a bucket. That way the music is still all our own. And the great thing about this whole series is that it gives people so many different ways to experience the music that makes Memphis so special."
2005 photo of Craig Brewer surrounded by neighborhood children in his hometown of Memphis by Lisa Waddell Buser / For The Times