While film festivals are a well-established way for independent films to get noticed by audiences and members of the industry, the idea of a similar structure for indie TV projects to be shown to networks is a relatively new one. The New York Television Festival, which was launched in 2005 and kicks off its 2012 iteration on October 22nd, has worked to provide a path for indie artists to get both exposure and development deals at networks, showcasing talent and program ideas and offering a way for channels to request the type of projects that suit their needs via individual pilot competitions.
Indiewire caught up with NYTVF founder and executive director Terence Gray to talk about how the festival works, why networks have partnered to set up year-round competitions with it, and how IFC's game show parody "Bunk" (which has, unfortunately, since been canceled) and SPEED's "Hard Parts: South Bronx" became the first pilots from the festival to be greenlit to series.
So tell me a bit about the festival and how it began. It's obviously grown a lot and now involves the participation of quite a few networks — what were your aims when you started the festival?
The original aim was to set up a development platform in the way that many film festivals have been avenues for directors and filmmakers. We wanted a system for television in the same vein. When the festival first started, it really took the model of a film festival where we started an independent pilot competition — our main competition in the festival. We accepted independent pilots, meaning independently financed, of any genre of TV.
That worked really well — we got a couple hundred pilots at the outset. We put the top pilots in the festival and had some success. In the early years, pilots got deals with NBC, with A&E — so it was very exciting that we had approved a concept. Around 2008, one of our leading board members, Kevin Reilly, who is the president of entertainment at Fox… we constructed a new development initiative for comedy scripts that were specifically for Fox. As part of that deal, Fox guaranteed a blind network script deal, which I don’t think had ever been done before, certainly in a festival setting.
That was really a game changer for us because it separated the TV development festival from the film festival. Ater the first deal with Fox, we added IFC and MTV giving us creative briefs in our pilot competition, saying "We are going to guarantee a deal at the network and here’s what we’re looking for." In 2010, we had about four guaranteed deals.
By 2011, we had 15 guaranteed deals, bringing on a tremendous amount of network partners. And in 2012, we’ve announced 26 guaranteed development deals with 18 different partners. We’ve found that if we’re more specific with our production community, it’s better for them and better for our industry partners in terms of getting the types of pilots that they’re looking for. It’s been very helpful on both ends.
So the pilot pitching process has seemed something of a closed world to industry newcomers and outside voices before. How did you go about convincing networks to open up in this way, to consider so many creators who came from off their usual radar?
I think it was a confluence of a lot of different things — but certainly at the head of that is the willingness of the TV industry to welcome in and view new talent that is coming through our pipeline. The development process has changed so much — first, with the advent of reality television and how that started to dominate cable, certainly on the broadcast level as well. And over the years the process of pitching from script to show has really evolved. You have to have tape — producers have an expectation, whether it’s casting or sizzle, that when they are going into the pitch room they are bringing tape with them.
Secondarily, the technology that has emerged with bringing down the cost of production has been incredible for a generation of producers. If you tie that ability to use digital cameras, edit online, all of that with what’s happened with YouTube and the ability to self-distribute, you have all of these producers making episodic content for the first time. The festival was lucky where it launched that all of these things were taking place so that identifying talent became a different game, so that it became a little bit easier.
For the first time, you could bring a scripted comedy or drama in front of a development executive — where 15 or 20 years ago, those things were not being made on spec because of the financing around them. Everyone assumed you were going to be in a studio, it’s going to be a three-camera shoot. They were very expensive.
This new technology coupled with the idea that if you put in the hard work and money and all that, that even if you didn’t get it, you could self-distribute on YouTube. Those are very powerful engines that I think has changed the dynamic of the development process and certainly has been a great thing for the festival and allowed us to elevate tremendous artists.
“Bunk” on IFC was the first show to come through the festival to get greenlit to series?
The first comedy, yes. It was very exciting for us. IFC has been a terrific partner for many years, since the beginning of the festival. We’ve loved the creators. They’ve been involved with the festival a long time — so that was great.
There was another show that also premiered out of last year, called “Hard Parts: South Bronx." That was a show that wasn’t picked up through one of the network deals at the festival, but a production company came in — several companies are around the festival and looking at the material throughout the week — and packaged it together and brought it to the SPEED Network, which is a division of Fox Sports.
How have the submissions changed over the years that you’ve been running the festival? I’m sure just the idea that it seems much more possible that you can get a show on TV by shooting a pilot yourself and going this route is very exciting for a lot of creators out there.
It’s the idea of being able to have some level of distribution, which is something that drives a tremendous amount of content. Because of the technology and the distribution, there is a tidal wave of new content out there — and it’s very difficult to get through all of that. What we do is try to serve up the best of that content to our industry partners. And we curate the best of that content. But in general, in terms of the pilots over the years since the festival’s been in existence, two things really come to mind. The first is the production values get better and better every year. They’re getting to a point where they’re fantastic, and it makes sense — a lot of this equipment was in artists’ hands for the first time, and they were learning the ins and outs of using different cameras and editing software.
As we’ve progressed further along in the years, they learn how to use this equipment, learn better techniques. And they learn by obviously watching things that have been successful on TV. And the result is that what we’re getting has a much higher production value. Secondly, as there has been a migration from things like independent film and other areas, the structure of putting together a television pilot or an episodic web series is getting much better, much cleaner. And as a result, the pilots that we’re getting are in a more mature state and that much better to get into business with the networks.
Can you walk me through the festival itself? I know there are different rolling deadlines and standalone competitions throughout the year, but what happens at the event itself? What kind of things can people look for there?
We’ve always had a number of red carpet premieres that we’ve done with broadcast or cable networks. But there are almost two festivals that have emerged in the last couple of years. One side of the festival is 100% business and is not open to the general public. It’s called NYTVF Connect. For the pilot competition or if you’re a finalist in one of the standalones, all of our industry partners, the networks, studios and top agencies will get all the pilots about six weeks prior to the festival.
Then they have the opportunity in a private screening room to call back the festival and say, “Based on what you’ve sent us, we want to meet with this many producers.” We will set up in advance, these one-on-one meetings with the executives and the producers whose projects are in the festival. Additionally, we have something called development chats where I will sit down with the head of development from all of the different networks and studios or different agencies and we’ll discuss how they like to be pitched or how they don’t want to be pitched and what is currently trending for them.
There’s one other very successful program that we have that’s different than other festivals or conferences. We have a program called NYTVF Pitch. That program is only open to the artists who have already been accepted into the festival. It started last year with three partners, and this year it’s ballooned up to six partners, including the Sundance Channel, LOGO, Hasbro Studios, two international partners in Red Arrow and SevenOne International and Channel 4 out of the UK. Essentially these industry development partners will give us a creative brief. We take the creative brief of the type of program that they are looking to develop and give it only to those artists who are ready. So it’s a very high-level, limited field. Those artists give us a two-page treatment based on the creative brief from the industry partner — and then one of those artists will walk away with a deal from each one of those partners. An artist that could be in the festival for a comedy pilot might be able to walk away with a non-scripted reality deal from Sundance.
The public side is all of the screenings of the independent pilots. It’s free to the general public, so we get crowds. And we have entire days that are dedicated to digital, entire days that are dedicated to the art and craft of television. We’ll have great people come in and give keynote addresses. In the last couple of years we’ve had Ron Moore from “Battlestar Galactica.” Last year we had Damon Lindelof, creator of “Lost.” The year before that we had Mitch Hurwitz from “Arrested Development.” So we’ve been very lucky in the great talent we’ve had come and speak to the audience.
I’m sure you’re not supposed to pick favorites, but are there any pilots over the years that have been especially memorable to you or that have particularly appealed to you personally?
Well, I love them all. [laughs] There are always standouts. I don’t know if I can put my finger on one, and I wouldn’t want to do that, because I do think as I said overall the quality is getting so much better and because of the diversity of the buyers that are at the festival, that sort of ecosystem is growing as well. We’ll have somewhere between 65 to 80 buyers at the festival this year. Whether it’s non-scripted or animated, whether it’s comedy, whether it’s drama, there’s such good quality, it’s just hard to pick one and single it out.