When “Power” began its run on Starz in 2014, Curtis Jackson was better known in the entertainment industry as the pugnacious rapper 50 Cent. Few of those involved with the show expected him to emerge as a force behind the premium cable channel’s most-watched series.
But Jackson, 44, has never had a shortage of ambition. He used his rap-star clout to help bring “Power” to fruition as a co-star and as exec producer alongside creator and showrunner Courtney Kemp. Now, as “Power” winds through its sixth and final season, which bowed Aug. 25, Jackson is busy expanding his horizons as a producer for Starz and other outlets, notably ABC, where he is behind the midseason drama “For Life.”
Jackson added directing to his résumé after helming his first episode of “Power,” the pivotal third installment — called “Forget About Dre” — of the 10-episode season. He also signed a mammoth multi-series production deal with Starz last year. The first of the resulting projects, “Power Book II: Ghost,” is a spinoff of the mothership series. Jackson sees the intricate world of characters built by Kemp as yielding the equivalent of a Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Carmi Zlotnik, Starz’s president of programming, considers Jackson a force. “He’s a person who is driven to success in whatever he does,” he says. “He doesn’t let the small stuff get in his way.”
Jackson demonstrates trademark confidence in assessing the “Power” trajectory and his growth as an actor and a producer. He had nothing but faith in the show at the outset — so much so that he took a pretty big pay cut to commit to the program.
“Power” revolves around the struggles of a former drug kingpin, played by Omari Hardwick, who tries to go straight as a businessman but can’t shake his past. In its fifth season, “Power” averaged more than 10.8 million viewers per episode through multiplatform plays, making it far and away Starz’s most popular series. The Aug. 25 premiere delivered 2.3 million linear viewers, turning it into premium cable’s top series for the year behind only HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
“I absolutely viewed this show as getting to where we are now,” Jackson says. “I didn’t realize how long it would take me to get there. When I started on the first season of ‘Power,’ I was getting $17,000 an episode. I told them I could get paid more for being 50 Cent if I decided to go to a nightclub that night.”
Kemp considers Jackson to have been “the MVP” of “Power” from the beginning. “There’s no version of ‘Power’ working without our partnership,” she says. “He has always been a great producer.”
Being a cast member (Jackson’s character, Kanan, was killed off in season five) gave him great insight into the production process. When Jackson first expressed interest in directing an episode this season, Kemp was enthusiastic. He knows the show so well that they barely needed a tone meeting. Moreover, “Forget About Dre” was a complex hour, complete with big gun battle and a steamy sex scene. “I think he’s going to get more directing gigs,” she says.
Jackson impressed Starz executives early on with his drive and dedication to making the show a hit. He expertly promoted the series among his more than 10 million social media followers. But there was a bit of a learning curve as the Starz team came to realize that 50 Cent was a persona distinct from Curtis Jackson. The two coexist for the benefit of all of Jackson’s business ventures.
“We learned early on to let 50 be 50,” says Zlotnik. “He told me that the biggest job he has to do every day is to get up and be 50 Cent. That’s the thing that drives everything forward.”
The modus operandi of 50 Cent includes engaging in long-running public feuds with fellow rap stars and other figures. People magazine’s website last December even posted a primer, “50 Cent’s Biggest Feuds,” chronicling his years of hurling brickbats at Ja Rule, Kanye West, Sean Combs, Lil Wayne and boxer Floyd Mayweather, among others.
Jackson makes no apologies for 50 Cent’s aggressive posture. It’s clear that he sees it as a tool to keep followers engaged, which increases the value of his social platforms as a marketing machine. “Bad news travels so much faster than good news,” Jackson says. “If you tell them, ‘50 said f–k you,’ [followers] go, ‘Oh, for real.’ And they’ll be engaged and wanting to hear more. They identify with the imperfections that make you a success in hip-hop culture.”
Jeffrey Hirsch, Starz’s chief operating officer, sees Jackson as a savvy operator. “He has full understanding and control of his brand and harnesses that in service of his growing global reach and influence,” Hirsch says.
In addition to “Power Book II,” Jackson’s G-Unit Film and Television banner is working on a project for Starz with the working title Black Mafia Family, about a cocaine trafficking operation. He’s eager to help bring that long-gestating project to the air.
Zlotnik credits Jackson for having a clear and specific vision for his projects and for how he can best work with the network. “He’s very attentive to what is good for Starz,” he says. To which Jackson replies: “Carmi’s drunk the 50 Cent juice.”