With unfiltered attitude and a sly wink to the status quo, Defiant Digital is living up to its name. The production company’s shows — urban comedy such as Tops, Food Fightz, the raucous Cancel Court, and more (prank shows, talk shows, movie reviews) — are fresh and new, already drawing fans and raised eyebrows on YouTube. Yet this is only the beginning, as they’re expanding into the distribution of short dramatic works, plus other ventures.
It was my pleasure to speak with mogul-in-the-making D’Mario Dudley, co-founder and CEO of Defiant Digital, about development, partnership, production, and running a company. We begin by discussing how he made the first leap: a Michigan native with UCLA film-development training and a BET internship, diving into the business.
“I basically just got to the point where a lot of things that I was pitching, years later, very similar concepts were getting the greenlight, so it gave me the sense that I was on the right track of what should be on TV. My ideas were not far off. That was pretty much the breaking point to say, ‘Hey, I’m not waiting on anyone else. I have to figure out how to get my ideas out.’”
Mr. Dudley cites Sean “P. Diddy” Combs as a major influence.
“Just from the standpoint of creativity, marketing, business, entrepreneurship. I think that me idolizing Sean Combs, as a young kid, really opened up my mind to ownership and business, whether it’s owning your own record label, or running your own media company. He’s the first one that really opened up my eyes, that you can do multiple things. Like you don’t have to put yourself in a box. That influence heavily affected me.”
As Defiant Digital has its own flavor, I ask if he consciously chose to fill a void in pop culture.
“The thing that I looked at most was operating a network with a no fear,” D’Mario reveals. “That’s where the Defiant name comes from. Obviously we’re not going to get into anything with hate speech — we’re not going to go that route. But I just felt like as an artist, whether you’re a comedian, actress, actor, there’s really no place to go today, where you can really do you. Because you’re worried about cancel culture, censorship, all these things. I just felt with my creativity I can operate in that space, without going too far, and produce a defiant style of content, which only means edgy.
“The fans loved that — just the idea of a show like Cancel Court: they’re swearing in a courtroom. And now the fans are saying, ‘You know, this is what people really want to say in court when someone says something that they don’t agree with!’ It’s really walking that line of a defiant style of content, keeping it edgy, being fearless. I felt like that was missing. And I knew that there was an open spot to go, writing and producing that style of content.”
We turn to Mr. Dudley’s production partner at Defiant Digital, Kenny McClendon, and how they launched.
“That was magical, actually,” he notes. “My partner, Kenny McClendon, interned at BET with me. The best decision that we made was I interned on the executive side, and he interned on the post production side. So he was learning from directors, editors, really understanding the editing process. And I’m on the other side in the development department, learning about the scripts and how shows get the greenlight, and the development process, and reading through pitches every day, seeing what type of ideas were coming through the network. Later on that paid off tremendously.
“Fast forward to 2020 — and now you’re seeing a product of our minds combined. And now you have Defiant Digital.”
And what’s an example of what D’Mario learned in development?
“One of the most valuable things that I learned there that was that producers get things done. Good producers bring packages for the network. And then from there, they build their relationships with the network. The network then trusts them, so when they come back with the next idea, you already have that rapport.
“You need to come with a package, because everybody pitches shows. The competition is ridiculous. Everybody, NFL players, NBA players, known actors, actresses, everybody’s pitching shows to the network, so if you come with the right package, you stand out, and they’re more enticed to move forward with it.”
We turn to the development of one hit Defiant Digital series, created by D’Mario Dudley & Kenny McClendon, the aforementioned Cancel Court. Apparently in the midst of downloading footage from a twelve-hour shoot on the equally wild Tops, at 3 a.m., Kenny loved the Cancel Court concept, and three weeks later they were in production.
“We put our minds together, and we creatively bounced ideas of what makes this different. We were thinking like HBO-style, with really no filter. It just came about, and so we put it together. But we knew that the trick was we had to find the right courtroom. We didn’t want to just make it feel like MTV is, where it’s very bright. We wanted a certain tone. So we had that conversation with our director of photography to make sure that it felt right. From there, it was just pretty much what cases do we want to bring to court? And how do we want to pick the lawyers, and cast it making sure that the personalities blend?”
Already Defiant Digital boasts an impressive talent roster — Chris “C.P.” Powell, Tony Towns, Keysha Edwards, Ariel Rogers, the righteous Ron Taylor, many more — so I ask how Messers Dudley & McKlendon assemble them.
“Social media! We looked up tons of comedians — and do the people in our network have access to this or that comedian. We put together a list. We hit on everybody. Everybody we wanted, we hand-picked, and they were available to come do Cancel Court.
“But the one thing we pay attention to heavily is style of comedy. Cancel Court is not for every comedian. We wanted to find comedians that had a style of comedy where they like to talk about deep things, and they like to play off of what’s going on today.”
And in any Defiant Digital shows, have they had to make cuts? For the sacred or the taboo? Or is it completely no-filter?
“Every now and then a line has to be cut out,” D’Mario laughs, also elaborating: “Because it’s improv. They’re just reacting. And then they leave, and then we get to go back and watch it 1,000 times. So we feel like, ‘Oh wow, he said this, but probably meant something else.’ But it comes across very harshly. Like, for instance, there was a Kim Kardashian joke that I felt went too far. If I just isolated that clip, and you watched it, you might think it didn’t go too far. But in context with the stuff he had already said before that, it just looked like he was just going at-her-at-her-at-her! So we had to take a line out.
“The biggest thing that the fans notice, and what makes Cancel Court special, is that they’re also competing: so they’re playing off the jury’s reaction as well. So if the jury is not really reacting, then they’re trying to go into their bag of tricks to get them to laugh, and get them to open their eyes to their point. But when you’re competing, every now and then you take the gloves off. When we go back and edit it, we can look at it and we do it in the fairest way possible.”
In Defiant Digital’s competition shows, D’Mario assures me that the stakes are real, and nothing is manipulated. Authenticity is big with him. And it shows. “We don’t do any redos or reshoots,” he proudly states. “Change the score or anything like that? We don’t do that.”
Defiant Digital is also the source to see Junior: an impressive and hard-hitting short drama.
“A good friend of ours, Marcus Dupree, who’s an actor, a director, a writer, showed us this film before we even created Defiant Digital. It was so powerful and so well done — fast forward to me and my partner, Kenny McClendon, talking about the Defiant Digital platform: we wanted to create a lane to showcase other people’s work that makes sense for our platform. So we always had that in the back of our minds, that at some point, we’re going to give other people opportunities.
“There’s a lot of talented people that have done brilliant short films and documentaries, but they just can’t get enough attention for it. They can’t get any traction. We felt like it was time to show our subscribers that this is another element of Defiant Digital: Artists, directors, actors, we’ll be letting them participate in our platform as well.”
I observe that the online comments are favorable.
“Yeah, yeah, they’re loving it,” enthuses Mr. Dudley. “They’re asking for more.”
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Website: Defiant Digital