On Sunday, January 20th, “The Piano” director Jane Campion returns to the Sundance Film Festival, where her first feature “Sweetie” screened 23 years ago. This time, however, it’s with a miniseries, not a movie — “Top of the Lake,” which is co-directed by Garth Davis, is the six-hour story of a detective (played by Elisabeth Moss of “Mad Men”) investigating the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old girl in a small community in the mountains of New Zealand. A co-production with BBC, “Top of the Lake” will have its television premiere on March 18th at 9pm on the Sundance Channel, where it will air on Mondays over six weeks. At the festival, the entire saga will screen as a single work, a bulky time commitment at an event at which schedules are jam-packed, but one that will offer a rare opportunity to see the latest work from a great director projected and with a crowd of cinephiles.
The screening of something like “Top of the Lake” at a festival isn’t unprecedented — the full five-and-a-half hour miniseries version of Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” premiered out of competition at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival on the same day that its first installment was broadcast on the French TV channel Canal+. (“Carlos” would later air on the Sundance Channel as the network’s first scripted project, earning a Golden Globe.)
That same year, a restored version of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 “World on a Wire,” originally a two-part miniseries made for German TV, screened at the Berlin Film Festival in its full 205 minute form. But as the fuzziness between TV and film increases, with filmmakers moving more frequently between the two mediums and small screen storytelling beginning to catch up with big screen scope and ambition, will the invasion of TV projects into territory that was previously the domain only of movies become a more common thing?
For networks, there are plenty of advantages — a festival screening is a way to position a TV property as worthy of the same serious consideration as a potential arthouse film while getting it on the radar of high-end audiences who might not otherwise keep up with what’s going on on the small screen, and it makes a communal viewing experience out of something that will otherwise be seen only in homes. While “Top of the Lake” screens officially at Sundance, Sundance Channel is also taking advantage of the festival to hold a private screening of its other upcoming scripted series “Rectify.” The show’s creator Ray McKinnon premiered his featured directorial debut “Chrystal” at the festival in 2004. On the nonfiction side, festivals often serve as the primary places where docs will be projected before heading to TV premieres on HBO, Showtime or PBS.
But on a festival programming side, is the arrival of TV indicative of shifting mediums and a new era or a move away from an original mandate? Given that TV programming isn’t, in general, going to be useful from an acquisitions standpoint, it’s addition to a slate is bound to be more about audiences and creators. Sundance’s John Cooper noted that Campion’s work “is the first long-form scripted television project selected” for the festival.
“Though we have considered other works created for television, ‘Top of the Lake’ stood out to us as an original story from a renowned filmmaker with an independent point of view. We love that our audiences are so willing to participate in long-form event screenings.” He pointed out that Campion will be participating alongside Justin Lin, Richard Linklater and Mike White in a talk at the festival entitled “Power of Story: Independence Unleashed” that will explore how filmmakers have been making forays into TV and web-based serialized works.
Last year at SXSW, the first three episodes of the HBO series “Girls” screened at the Paramount Theatre alongside features from creator and star Lena Dunham’s filmmaking cohorts. “We’d been interested in opening the door to showing adventuresome, quality TV for some time,” said festival producer Janet Pierson. “The lines between indie film and TV have been blurring for years, both in terms of filmmakers finding work and creative possibilities in that medium, but also in terms of where the interesting, intelligent eyeballs are going. When I get together with my peers, I find the conversations quickly turn to the likes of ‘The Wire’ or ‘Breaking Bad.'”
Dunham’s show was a natural fit for SXSW, which had screened both of her previous features, “Creative Nonfiction” and “Tiny Furniture,” but also provided an unusual platform for the people who’d worked on it. “A point that the Judd Apatow reiterated to me one on one was that writers for TV rarely get to hear feedback on their work,” Pierson continued. “Sure they can read about it, and see the numbers, but they don’t get the experience of actually hearing the audience laughing, coughing, on the edge of the seats, or shifting — the way filmmakers often do.” In the future, she said, “Certainly, we’ll be open to incorporating more work for TV, and the web,” noting that the festival created a new stream for online work called Digital Domain last year.
The International Film Festival Rotterdam has section devoted to serialized storytelling on TV and the web this year as well — Changing Channels, which will include screenings of, yes, “Girls,” as well as Japanese domestic drama “Going Home,” Hirokazu Koreeda’s first TV series; Agnieszka Holland’s historical miniseries “Burning Bush”; Andrew Barchilon and Kitao Sakurai’s surreal Adult Swim talk show “The Eric André Show”; and Ry Russo-Young’s Paper Magazine web series “Muscle Top.”
“Since the late ’90s television, particularly cable television, has become a more innovative medium that allows for productions with deep character development and more complex story lines,” explained programmer Inge de Leeuw. “At the same time, the recent development in the major U.S. film studios [is] opposite: there is less and less interest in original scripts and quirky drama.” The increase in filmmakers developing original series “is very interesting for a film festival to show in the cinemas,” she said, noting that this is also true outside the abroad, where pay channels like HBO’s international branches (who funded, for instance, Holland’s series) and Canal+ are boosting the production of original, local programs, even as the resources of public broadcasters dwindle.
De Leeuw pointed out that the strand also reflects shifts in the way TV is made — “The traditional division of labor between writer and director in this series is not applied. Normally the writer has the creative control, but in the Changing Channels’ examples the responsibility for both the idea and the execution lies with the filmmaker. Not only in style but also in terms of production it resembles more a feature film.” She added that she does think we’ll be seeing more projects made for TV at film festivals, and that in turn web is the future of TV.
Of course, in some ways these festivals are just catching up with the writer-centric Austin Film Festival, which has included a focus on TV for years — 2012’s iteration showcased the work of and presented an award to “The X-Files” creator Chris Carter. “When we started programming television creators and showcasing their work, there really was no precedent set by other festivals,” said Executive Director Barbara Morgan. “We experimented with ways to present it.” In the end, Morgan explained, there was no resistance to the showcasing of TV next to film. “Ultimately, we discovered that the audiences responded very favorably to the programming and were just as curious to hear from the show creators as they were from filmmakers. As the lines between the big screen, little screen and computer screen blur, we are seeing a much larger film contingency embracing the world of television. I expect it to become regular programming at festivals internationally.”