Launched in 1996 in the midst of the independent film boom, Sundance Channel was born from a partnership between Robert Redford and Showtime, though these days it’s owned by AMC Networks and is a sister channel to former rival IFC. Both still air movies, but have forged distinct identities, especially regarding their entries into original programming. Sundance Channel’s first scripted limited series was Olivier Assayas’s Golden Globe-winning “Carlos” in 2009. The channel made an even bigger push into original scripted programming earlier this year with Jane Campion’s miniseries “Top of the Lake” and its first continuing scripted series, “Rectify,” both of which earned plaudits from critics.
Coming in 2014 are a second season of “Rectify”; a second original drama, “The Red Road”; and a new limited series starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, “An Honourable Woman.” On Tuesday, Sundance Channel announced it would air “The Returned” — an eight-part French zombie drama — beginning on Halloween.
Sarah Barnett was named President and General Manager of Sundance Channel in February after already leading all programming and day-to-day operations since 2009. A native of the UK, she spent 10 years at the BBC in London before coming to BBC America as the VP of On-Air, where she helped define the then still-fledgling channel. In the second of a regular series of interviews with network heads, Indiewire spoke with Barnett about the channel’s current practice of skipping the pilot process, how the channel’s Sundance roots makes it “congenitally disposed towards” discovering new talent and the importance of remaining flexible in its efforts to reach audiences.
How do you feel the expectations of TV audiences have changed over the past five to twenty years, and how does Sundance Channel’s original programming — especially the more recent move into scripted series like “Top of the Lake” and “Rectify” — fulfill those expectations?
Some really interesting and exciting shifts have happened in the last five to ten years, characterized partly by content, partly by the business and revenue streams shifting and partly by technology. Television has become a more fragmented viewing experience, and some of these technological shifts — the ability to watch on demand or with services like Netflix — have really played into the hand of serialized scripted storytelling.
I think that serialized stories last well over time. “The Wire” is probably the poster child of that [longevity]. Think about how acclaimed it was at the time but how few people watched it. Years later, people are still discovering it through various cable or subscription on demand platforms. So I think that a series of radical changes have happened over the past 10 years and that the pace of change just continues to accelerate. It’s a really exciting time for those of us who are interested in telling scripted serialized stories on television.
How do you see TV and these scripted serialized stories continuing to evolve over the next few years, and what is Sundance Channel’s role in that changing landscape, especially considering the new technological platforms, as you mentioned, such as Netflix?
Anybody who claims to know what will happen is obviously speculating. Our mantra here at Sundance Channel, which we talk about all of the time among the programming, PR and marketing teams, is to look for great stories to tell while being excited and undogmatic about what those stories might be.
As with the best films that came out of the Sundance Film Festival, [these stories] must be rooted in great characters and great psychology. Just as with the explosion of indie film in the ’90s primarily, you can have a “Pulp Fiction” and a “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” They have to be exciting. They have to feel fresh. They have to feel not imitative. The content and the form can vary hugely, and we can go anywhere with them.
Is that how you would describe the characteristics that define a Sundance Channel series?
Yeah. “Rectify” to me is a profound exploration of extremely psychologically grounded characters. Obviously there’s the premise and the narrative. [The main character Daniel Holden] is in prison: Is he innocent? Is he guilty? Did he do it? If not him, who? There are the politics of the town. All of that is a framework for an exploration of this guy’s journey, specifically in relation to the people around him, most notably his family. So to me it’s a real character piece.
We were really gratified about the response we got to “Rectify” and “Top of the Lake.” Critics embraced both of them. They share some characteristics in terms of pace, and in fact there was even an op-ed piece [by Frank Bruni] in the New York Times talking about “Slow TV” in a complimentary sense. It used both of those shows as examples., but we’re not wedded to any one pace in our storytelling.
So long as it feels like a fresh story with grounded characters, then we can go anywhere in terms of pace. Indeed, I think you’ll see with “The Red Road” and “The Honourable Woman” next year, both move pretty quickly. “The Honourable Woman” has almost a restlessness about it at times. But in terms of their DNA, they share those qualities: smart, layered storytelling with rich characters.
It seems that every network has one or two niche competitors pursuing the same demographic audience. Who, if anyone, do you consider Sundance Channel’s main competition? And how does the programming on other channels play into your programming strategy?
It’s such a rich time for TV. There are so many channels whose work I admire. HBO obviously, and we’re super-inspired by our sibling AMC. I think they really wrote the playbook for smart scripted storytelling on basic cable, and now so many others are following in those footsteps. We are, at Sundance Channel. I think BBC America has some really interesting, entertaining and smart storytelling. I have a lot of admiration for FX. So that’s the pool that we want to swim in.
But do you consider FX and AMC competition as much as, for example, BBC America since you both are just ramping up your original scripted development?
BBC America and Sundance certainly share a lot of characteristics in terms of the brands and the sizes of the networks; where we are in the process of our evolution. But I think there are a lot of other networks, bigger networks where the specifics of the scripted work shares some of the qualities that we’re looking for here.
More frequently, we’re seeing people from outside the world of television — filmmakers, playwrights, longform journalists, radio producers — developing series. What is Sundance Channel’s approach to seeking out new voices for your scripted projects?
With our Sundance roots, I think we’re congenitally disposed towards looking to discover talent or to reconfigure the spaces in which people work. Both Ray McKinnon [“Rectify”] and Jane Campion [“Top of the Lake”] are primarily filmmakers. It makes sense that we would be the home for their TV work.
“The Red Road” is written by a really promising young writer name Aaron Guzikowski, who has written film scripts [“Contraband” and “Prisoners”]. But we’ve partnered him with a couple experienced TV people: an amazingly talented TV veteran and [former HBO development] executive Sarah Condon, who was behind shows like “Sex and the City” and “Bored to Death”; and also Bridget Carpenter, who was on “Friday Night Lights.”
What’s exciting in TV at the moment is that you have all this extraordinary raw talent coming from different media, and people from these different backgrounds can merge and create new stuff.
I read in an interview that you gave earlier this year that the Sundance Channel development model was not to produce pilots but rather go straight to six-episode seasons. What benefit do you see in that, and why six episodes?
Six episodes is an interesting competitive edge we have here. A small network is always looking for what it can offer the creative community that puts it at a bit of an advantage because in other ways, there’s a lot of competition for great projects. If you’re not going to do a pilot, six episodes feels sensible to creatively establish what the show is. I think it’s an interesting way to find a show. “The Walking Dead” started with six episodes.
Certainly with “Rectify,” the six episode arc was creatively liberating for Ray McKinnon. He originally conceived of the first season as 13 episodes, and when Sundance came along and said we want to do six and not pilot it, he completely rethought that vision. It allowed him to plug into the pure essence of what he was trying to say as a storyteller: What it’s like to be released from 20 years on death row, whether [Daniel] did it or not is secondary. That’s what those first six episodes became; the first seven days in this character’s freedom.
I don’t know that one size fits all. I think that for some shows, a longer first season order is the way to go. So we’re open to it, but I have to say this six episode straight-to-series thing is definitely an interesting shape creatively, and from the business point of view, it works. We commit to our partners that our subsequent season orders will be longer. [In May, Sundance renewed “Rectify” for a 10-episode second season.]
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 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.
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.