The question of how to define independent television these days is a complicated one, but it used to be a little simpler. Today marks the kick-off of the New York Television Festival, a week-long celebration of original independent series that’s been running since 2005. Success stories include the 2013 pilot "Animals," which found its way to HBO, as well as plenty of additional exposure and opportunities for the creators who attend. This year, 50 pilots will be screened alongside network fare like WGN’s "Manhattan."
Last week, founder Terence Grey and festival director Erin Day got on the phone with Indiewire to discuss the festival lineup, the changes they’ve seen over the last 11 years and, oh yeah….
How do you guys at this point define independent television?
GREY: Well, for us it started off at TV that was not financed by a network or a studio. And obviously those lines are being redrawn as to the different platforms and the size of some production companies. Everything seems to be fluctuating a little bit, but we still hold fast to the rules we set at the beginning of the festival which is that we are looking not to have things that are financed by the traditional system of a studio or a network.
You guys have been around for so long, how have you seen that concept shift in the last several years?
DAY: One thing I think we’re starting to see: You look at the financing model that has been really well-established in the independent film sphere, and one thing we think is going to happen is that — whether it’s crowdfunding or through more traditional independent financing models — you’re going to start to see that grow. Independent limited series we believe, and are hopeful, is something that’s going to enter the market in a big way.
GREY: As Erin said, traditionally TV or episodic was a fairly walled garden. It was difficult to break into, and I think one of the most interesting things is how the financing of episodic series is taking a massive new turn. Whether they’re being financed by digital platforms that for the first time are getting into original content, whether it’s the continued expansion in cable, whether it’s over the top digital platforms that are beginning to take take shape, what it’s setting up are different financial levels, a variety of budget levels in episodic that never existed before. And because of that I think it’s an incredible time for independent producers because the super-established producers are used to budgets that are pretty massive at the broadcast and cable level. And so when there’s this real hunger for new content at different economic levels, it’s a real opening for new production companies to establish themselves and deliver those great new series at a different economic level.
And just to echo what Erin was saying, when we started 11 years ago, the idea of independent television was still very foreign in the sense that most television was being produced in a system, and certainly that was the way, traditionally, it was financed because it was going to a very finite number of distributors. Now with the advent of all these new endgames and distribution points in digital, we firmly believe that there is going to start to be a movement of limited independent series being financed separately — just like an independent film — and brought to market.
Looking at the slate for the upcoming festival, are there projects that exemplify what you mean by that?
DAY: First of all, we’re really excited about our slate of competition projects. There are 50 projects this year and across the board we felt like there was a real uptick, universally, in both the artistry and the craftsmanship behind each project, so in sort of a blanket statement I would say I think it’s shaping up to be a really good week. The meeting requests from our industry partners are rolling in and we’re seeing a really engaged audience from the buyers that are coming to the festival.
GREY: Over the past couple of years the festival has, I think, differentiated itself in the sense that we have guaranteed deals. So whether it’s Comedy Central, Lionsgate, Samsung, whoever it is– Last year we had a distributor called The Orchard come in and offer a deal that was for several episodes to again be independently produced, and it was an extension of the festival. We have a production arm. Now that worked with The Orchard, we created four 22-minute episodes that we are bringing to market. There’s been a number of stories like that over the course of the last year, some with pretty well-known stars that are starting to independently put together series that they’re looking to sell.
I think given the consumption rate and the behavior on platforms like Netflix and Amazon, where people are continuing to binge-watch and continuing to spend a great deal of time watching episodic series, to us means that some of the financial backing, that maybe traditionally has gone into independent film, is slowly going to migrate in the same way that artists, directors, writers, producers have migrated out of independent film into television. We believe the money is going to follow and what it’s going to yield is some tremendous independent series that, because we have these digital platforms and cable networks, we are going to bring those great new stories to an audience that wants them.
Our role is to put a spotlight on all the projects for the industry partners, for the media, and for the artists themselves. Across the board, the reaction from the industry has been overwhelmingly positive this year. It’s really been nice to see how much they’re engaged with the pilots [and] what they feel about the quality of the pilots. And again, having done this for a decade-plus, I really think that it’s a testament to those producers and those creators having the equipment in their hand for several years and really getting to play around with it and experiment with it. I think the quality of what’s coming into the festival increases every year, but I think this year made a big leap.
It took a couple years to set the standard of what a TV development festival is, but we work so closely with these partners and they not only offer deals and development opportunities but they give creative guidelines to our producers, our writers, our directors. Part of the message [for creators] is to follow their own voice. There are so many different brands in television that I think it’s been droned into the mind and the spirit of our creators to say, "Don’t be afraid to tell your individual story, don’t feel like you have to tell this broad comedy or broad drama, give us something you’re really passionate about that has a unique point of view." And when you message on that and it gets through I think what you get back is something that is special. It gives people the freedom to tell that great story, and I think that’s reflected in the quality of the work we’re showing this year.
I’m curious, looking back over the last several years, do you think there was one year that represents a real tipping point for the quality of these pilots?
DAY: 2012 and 2013 yielded some projects that have had sustained success. It’s been pretty widely written about that "Animals" which won best comedy at the festival in 2013…
GREY: "Animals" actually submitted twice that year, right?
DAY: They submitted one episode to the Comedy Central initiative we had that year, and the second episode was an official selection in the Independent Pilot competition, and now it has a two season greenlight on HBO, produced by the Duplass brothers. And you know we had Ted Tremper who in 2012 made the best comedy project called "Shrink," he went on to pilot that project at Pivot. Then Damien Lannigan, who was an IFC deal winner in 2012, brought back his second project to the festival in 2013 called "Sharing" which was piloted by Jimmy Fallon and NBC.
GREY: Even though it didn’t get on the schedule, I think it shows the kind of quality that’s coming through the festival right now. Right around 2012, 2013 I think we hit a different gear, and unlike film obviously there’s a longer period of turnaround and development, obviously seasons of development that go into it, so sometimes it takes a year or a year and a half for that to fully bake and be ready to go for a network or for a platform. But I think right around our seventh or eighth year, which is analogous to some of the other festivals that started to have success around that point, I think we really started seeing sustained great projects coming in.
DAY: It’s not a one-to-one proposition in TV. I think so much of what we’re trying to do — in addition to shining a light on the projects that we think are really fantastic — it’s shining a spotlight on the creators. You don’t walk into a TV festival necessarily with a ready-to-go series. In most cases, it’s the first chapter of a much longer story, and so does that mean that show is going to move on to a future life, is that creator going to move on to a future life? So in addition to those specific examples I think we also saw sort of a tide change in terms of industry engagements, people walking out of the festival with agents and jobs and things like that.
GREY: And also I’d go back to our partners. We have this incredible partnership for many years with A&E Networks [including the History Channel]. The finalists really interact with the History Channel executives, who take them through the network brand, and let them re-pitch new ideas that are a little bit more on brand. They get educated, they get network notes back, and it’s really not only a collaboration between the finalists and the network executives, but along the way you have this experience that’s difficult to get as a network producer. You have multiple interactions with these executives and you’re learning how to creatively go back and forth with them. It’s very valuable and something I think in terms of the whole ecosystem we’re very grateful for.
Over the course of the festival, how many meetings would you guesstimate will take place?
DAY: Last year we coordinated 343.
GREY: That’s just us.
DAY: That’s the ones that come through our system where the industry participants are requesting a meeting. We anticipate that number will be requested again this year. We are as of today pushing 200 requests and we have a week to go before the marketplace really takes off, which is really fantastic. And that’s not including the 25 development chats that are hosted by us with our network, studio, and platform partners.
GREY: And even as that has matured, the development chats, it’s interesting for me to see that because it’s such a small percentage of producers that get into the festival, and it’s such an intimate setting where no one else can buy a pass or can get into those development chats. Very often the executives will hang out after their chat, and they will take six or seven quick meetings and give out their card or their email. And that’s great, it’s really community building. They know these producers are qualified, they’re generous with their time, and I think it really pays dividends for everybody.
I want to wrap things up with a question about the name. For some reason, in my head, I’ve always mentally imagined that the name "independent" is in the festival, and then I realize it’s not, it’s NYTVF, there’s no I. Was the choice to never define what type of television it was deliberate?
DAY: Our tagline — especially at the beginning when the idea of independent TV wasn’t around — it was "New York Television Festival, the festival for independent TV." The focus and the central motivation of what we do has always been about independent artists and providing a platform for them to be a part of it. So I would say in the same way that the Sundance Film Festival doesn’t include "independent" in their moniker, but it’s clearly baked into their DNA, hopefully that comes across for us as well.
GREY: Yeah, everything that Erin said is right. When it was first started I didn’t really think of that because I thought that we would sort of earn our way in, and people would understand that it was about new voices without maybe leaving some room for fan events and for other things to participate in the festival. And I think for us as we’ve emerged over the years, what I’ve become very fond of us saying even as people try to take on the word "television" and they say, "Oh, it’s episodic, it’s a digital series" — to me, television is an art form. So we say it’s not the platform, it’s the art form that we’re celebrating. And whether that’s new voices or whether that’s our favorite new shows or returning shows or personalities that are on TV, I think that’s important because television is a story told over time with recurring characters. I don’t care what platform that’s on.
DAY: Whether it’s four minutes or 30 seconds an episode.
GREY: If it is divided by episodes and a story told over time, to us that’s television. And we love to celebrate all of it.