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.'"