“That’s a pass for me,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus said during a SXSW panel celebrating HBO’s “Veep,” when asked by an audience member whether she thought there should be festivals specifically for television. “I don’t think we need a television festival. Isn’t that what this is?”
Well, yes and no. There are already several television festivals happening around the country, from mainstream TV celebrations like ATXfest to the New York Independent, and they pack in fans devoted to the format; television is also a huge component of conventions like Comic-Con.
But while “Veep” co-star Matt Walsh added that “it shows up everywhere — we’re at everyone else’s festivals,” TV has yet to be fully integrated into the circuit. Everyone acknowledges that television has become as vibrant and exciting a medium for storytelling as we’ve ever seen. But despite some attempts to acknowledge as much, the festival world remains uncertain about giving TV equal footing with the movies.
In his opening remarks at this year’s Sundance, Robert Redford acknowledged the creative revolution of today’s television, but this year’s festival line-up contained exactly two television projects — the Mark Duplass-produced “Animals,” and Andrew Jarecki’s “The Jinx.” Both are interesting shows, but two out of 184 premieres isn’t exactly a great ratio.
Meanwhile, SXSW, for the second year in a row, incorporated the medium with its Episodics line-up, bringing five shows — four cable series, one broadcast — to Austin for their world premieres. (In addition, the festival hosted a number of panels featuring the creators of “American Crime,” “Good Wife,” “Downton Abbey,” “Last Man on Earth” and “Community.”)
The premieres of FX’s “The Comedians,” TBS’s “Angie Tribeca,” Lifetime’s “UnREAL,” The CW’s “iZombie” and USA’s “Mr. Robot” flew relatively under the radar at the fest, though the actual screenings were very well-received. “The Comedians” was even met with multiple standing ovations, though that might be due to the dependable wit of Billy Crystal, who appeared with co-star Josh Gad and the show’s creative team to support the series.
While none of these shows are in danger of going unseen — each has a network home and will receive appropriate promotional push during their respective launches later this year — getting the additional exposure wasn’t just a boon for them. Including an entire track of programming devoted to television is a great way of bringing out the best in today’s convergence of film, television and digital.
Why It’s Good For the Shows
Beyond the benefit of the prestige, getting the spotlight of a festival premiere is an important opportunity for series to prove their ability to stand on their own as accomplished cinematic stories.
For right now, many cable and broadcast entities face a complicated dilemma: Spurred by the fantastic examples set by HBO, Showtime, AMC and FX, networks that have always skewed relatively broad — USA, Lifetime, Bravo — are attempting to break into the premium drama and comedy game. Unfortunately, these networks have to contend with the burden of their previous branding — which is not, historically, Emmy-worthy television.
“UnREAL,” which chronicles the behind-the-scenes action of a reality dating show, might not ever permeate the awards race. But thanks to creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, it’s genuinely compelling television that goes beyond guilty pleasure to become a real examination of what shows like “The Bachelor” say about our culture. More importantly, it’s much, much better than the network’s more notorious original films and reality series. And that’s where the problem sets in.
During an interview with Indiewire during SXSW, “UnREAL” star Constance Zimmer mentioned that she’d told a friend of hers — “a very smart, intelligent TV snob,” in her words — to come check out the screening. “He walked up to me afterwards and very seriously said ‘Thank you,'” Zimmer said. “He’s a 50-year-old male, and he said, ‘I would never have watched this. I would never have gone to Lifetime and watched this show willingly, but because you told me to come and I saw this…I’ve never seen television like this before.'”
A festival premiere is a great opportunity to get these sorts of shows some buzz that’s uncoupled from the network launching them, because any sort of marketing strategy built around the idea of “it’s a great show… for Lifetime” is a backhanded compliment to both the show and the network, not to mention a great way of alienating the core Lifetime audience. Plus, “it’s a great show… for Lifetime” isn’t even much of a selling point for non-Lifetime audiences.
Here’s the predictable conclusion to that chain of events: The networks attempt to try something new and special, the shows fail — and then the networks never try to do that again. Sure, that’s why they call it show business, but if these efforts to aim for better than before don’t succeed, the one guaranteed outcome is less great television — and that’s flat-out bad for the continued evolution of this promising medium.
Will one screening at one festival change anything? Maybe not. But it’s another way for great television to get discovered in the vast sea of infinite shows.
Why It’s Good for Festivals
Festivals, of course, occupy an important role in the life cycle of independent film — a festival premiere is often make-or-break for smaller titles seeking distribution. But these festivals are also meant to be celebrations of great achievements in storytelling that might otherwise go overlooked.
That said, there’s no reason they can’t become markets for television as well. As the methods through which projects gain financing grows more fluid and adaptable over the years, it has created a new phenomenon: the independently-produced TV show. Just one example: the recently announced Keanu Reeves series “Rain,” which has financing and a full creative team in place, but has yet to announce where people might be watching it.
Actually, the New York Television Festival has been doing this for a while; its competition lineup has been developed with networks like Fox and Comedy Central to function almost as an incubator for new independently-created series. One of its success stories, in fact, was the original version of “Animals” — prior to creators Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano joining forces with the Duplass brothers, who shared the show with buyers at Sundance.
Beyond the additional opportunities for festivals to grow into new markets, it’s also an opportunity for them to recognize the convergence of media that’s become a defining characteristic of this decade. (Especially as the majority of film acquisition deals made these days are VOD, meaning that their eventual destination is… television.)
The Episodics track presented by SXSW proved the power of a festival environment in introducing new television to new audiences — a model that could be spread well beyond this particular festival environment. And hopefully in years to come, SXSW will explore the opportunity to incorporate more independently-produced television, creating another market for great shows to find a home.
By committing to television programming, festivals stand a chance at evolving alongside contemporary viewing habits, while enabling quality shows to receive the attention they deserve — at least at festivals savvy enough to program them.
Plus, festival-goers get exposed to the amazing explosion of this medium. And any opportunity to discover yet more great storytelling is always a win.