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How Sundance Channel's Indie Film Roots Can Be Felt In Its Original Dramas

By Aaron Dobbs | Indiewire September 12, 2013 at 2:23PM

Check out our interview with Sarah Barnett, the President and General Manager of Sundance Channel.
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'Carlos'
Sundance Channel 'Carlos'

Sundance Channel began as a direct extension of Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival and Sundance Film Institute brand, but that direct relationship ended with the channel's sale to what's now AMC Networks in 2008. The name obviously will always create a link in the minds of audiences, but without that direct connection, how would you describe the channel's current mission and "What's Next, Now" tagline?

I actually think it's very much informed by the purest expression of Sundance's purpose: It's all about the work, finding the next thing and never resting on your laurels. We try to find the talented storytellers and create an environment conducive to telling their stories in the most successful ways possible. Whether scripted or unscripted, that's what we seek to do.

There are so many talented people moving into this medium, it has become a richer and more rewarding journey. Environmentally, it feels like various things have aligned to make television a place that feels a bit like the creative explosion in independent film in the late '80s and '90s. All of the right ingredients are aligning.

Until you began producing limited series like "Carlos" a few years ago and last year with "Rectify," the majority of your original programming focused on non-scripted and documentary series. What qualities do you look for in such reality programming?

'The Writers' Room'
'The Writers' Room'

The unscripted stuff is evolving, and I think unscripted storytelling is an interesting form. We love "The Writers' Room." It has been great on our air. We have a show called "Dream School" with Jamie Oliver which is launching in the fall, and that has a certain idealism at its core which feels like it works with our brand. "Push Girls" won the Critics Choice award [for reality] this year.

I think we continue to diversify in terms of the unscripted stories we're telling, and we think there are stories best told within the unscripted realm. There was such an explosion of reality television, but with our kind of reality, we would not veer towards the more formatted or too sensationalist forms. It just doesn't feel right with this brand, but I think we'll continue to explore other ways of presenting unscripted storytelling.

In the past year you've chosen to utilize public previews to promote your new series. "Top of the Lake" made the festival rounds, and you showed "Rectify" in movie theaters. How do you believe that approach benefited both series, and do you anticipate doing similar promotional pushes going forward?

I think so. Smaller networks constantly have to be resourceful and nimble in terms of the marketing side of things. We did a lot of really innovative stuff with "Rectify." We had an expanded preview opportunity on VOD; we did binge screenings in indie theaters. It was fun, and I certainly think it helped to raise [both series'] profiles. One interesting statistic seems counter-intuitive but I think stands up with more data: far from cannibalizing your linear TV numbers, actually giving content away prior to launching drives a larger audience to your air.

I don't know exactly what the tactics will be for "The Red Road" because the technology is just informing so many new ways of how people sample and view content. Part of what we see as our a major challenge is to stay on top of that and try new things; exploring new ways of connecting with our audiences and remaining flexible in how we do that.

'Push Girls'
'Push Girls'

Do you think your programming sensibilities were influenced by your growing up in the UK, since so much of non-broadcast TV now mimics the shorter seasons that have been the staple of British TV for decades?

I don't know. I don't pretend to be an expert on why the UK evolved that way. I have a hunch that UK TV has for many decades been more auteur-led than a collective creative experience, and for good and bad, frankly.

I think the American system of writers' rooms created a necessary stabilization, just because of the amount of episodes required by the networks. In the UK, it was a little more whimsical, driven by creative geniuses who wanted to tell a story the way they wanted to tell it, and then after a couple of seasons, they had enough.

Right now, TV in America is the vision of the showrunner; the auteur thing is pronounced, and that lends itself to the shorter seasons. There are a lot of conversations in "The Writers' Room" about just how punishing the 26-episode cycle is. Cable, generally, with the shorter seasons, allows for a different kind of storytelling.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, Network Interviews, SundanceTV, Sarah Barnett, Top of the Lake, The Red Road






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