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Why Independent Television Finally Deserves Independent TV Festivals

Why Independent Television Finally Deserves Independent TV Festivals

The first time I attended ITVFest, it was 2009 and, at that time, as a writer and editor for the tech blog Gigaom, I was totally focused on this evolving concept of the web series. This often meant watching a lot of not-so-great shows about aspiring 20-something actors trying to make it in Hollywood (set in the apartments of aspiring 20-something actors), so I was always more than eager to discover new great media; stuff on par with what my DVR would scoop up from broadcast and cable channels.

READ MORE: 2015 New York Television Festival Announces Competition Winners and Development Deals

At that point, though, the split between many of the series showing at ITVFest and what we would call “professional” content was massive. I’d walk from my West Hollywood apartment, conveniently just four blocks from the theater hosting the screenings, and the walk would be worth my time because there would be gems like the thriller “Urban Wolf” and the sensitive drama “Oz Girl.” But there would also be plenty of other entries which fell flat because the sad truth is that, at that point, it took real monetary investment and talent and some degree of kismet to create independent television on the scale of what was happening in mainstream venues.

And even if you did make something extraordinary, the platforms for successfully distributing it — you know, actually getting your show seen and not going broke — were quite minimal. Netflix’s streaming service was only two years old, as was Hulu, and not only were both services years away from pursuing original series, they weren’t venues open to industry outsiders. Meanwhile, Blip, founded in 2005, was at that point a cornerstone of the web series world, but the company would prove to be non-sustainable in the long term. YouTube was a long way from proving itself as an established home for premium scripted content. Lots of people were making independent television, but not a lot of people were really making money at it.

Cut to 2015 and me attending ITVFest again. Except instead of walking four blocks from my apartment, I flew from Los Angeles to Boston, then met a car that drove myself and two other festival attendees to the town of West Dover, Vermont. I left my house at 6am PST and arrived at the West Dover Inn at approximately 8:30pm EST. It was a long, long day, but upon my arrival I was surrounded by other festival attendees who’d also made the trek; interesting people committed to the cause of creating independent television. And given the way the quality of independent television has escalated in the last several years, that day of travel felt like a worthy use of my time.

West Dover is one of those towns that largely exists along a major road, if you’re coming up to Vermont in the fall for the leaves, there’s a good chance that you’ll travel through it as you drive along State Road 100. It’s a three-hour drive from Boston and a four-hour drive from New York, and this is a major part of the design of the event, according to ITVFest executive director Phil Gilpin. “That’s what this location does. It makes everybody interact on a level that you don’t get at the big festivals in the big cities,” he said when he had a chance to sit down and talk about the festival he’d brought to his hometown.

ITVFest has undergone several changes in ownership. Gilpin first brought ITVFest to Vermont in 2013, after talking with original founder A.J. Tesler. “I called him up in 2012 and asked him what’s going on with the festival. And he said, ‘Ah you know, it’s kind of just out there,'” he told me. “And I said, ‘Well, you know, I live in this small town that’s three-and-a half hours from Manhattan, three hours from Boston. I think if we held the festival here and got 1,000 of the world’s best creative minds, brought them together, and let them play for a weekend in a place where their cell phones probably don’t work, where all they have to do is hang out and chat, I think it could be really special.’ And [Tesler] said, ‘If you can build it, you can do it.'”

When I spoke with Gilpin, we were sitting in a screening tent erected in a field. West Dover does have one movie theater, but similar tents made up the bulk of the screening venues. You’d step outside and be in rural Vermont in September. Which, to be clear, is not a bad thing.

“In an era where content is driven by likes, clicks, views and the Kardashians, the ‘Dover Filter’ — as I call it — weeds out the true artists from the popularity seekers. That’s what makes it fun. You can sit around the fire and know that you’re in a cool, creative place,” Gilpin said.

The concept, if you will, is that ITVFest might become the Sundance of independent television. That doesn’t mean the current celebrity-soaked Sundance, though. Instead, there’s an aim towards recapturing the Sundance of the ’90s; a seething marketplace for new shows, which, years ago, seemed relatively impossible, but now — with the economics of television production adapting to digital platforms and a diversifying array of paths to real distribution — these fests have become a major steppingstone toward new, independently-produced TV shows getting a real shot.

There are other fests looking to play in this ballgame. The long-running New York Television Festival has been celebrating independent pilots for 11 years, with screening series, panels and a competition component guaranteeing creators real deals with major studios like A&E Networks and Comedy Central.

NYTVF takes that last component quite seriously. This year, all 50 projects selected for festival inclusion were made available for executives to watch on a private screening site, which then allowed said executives to set up meetings with the creators during the week of the festival. I got the opportunity to witness a bit of the pitching in action, which took place in a sizeable event space in Chelsea. After five years, the program has become a relatively well-oiled machine, with creators and execs bouncing between round tables and cozy couch set-ups. 

NYTVF executive director Terrence Grey pointed to 2012 as the year where there was a real turning point in the quality of independent television. That was the year of NYTVF’s biggest success story, the best comedy winner “Animals.” Thanks to getting Mark Duplass on board as a producer, creators Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano went from NYTVF to this year’s Sundance Film Festival to a two-season deal with HBO

But the next success story we hear about might be “The Jamz.” After screening at last year’s festival, creators Jim Kozyra and Chris Petlak worked with the production arm of NYTVF as well as The Orchard to produce four full episodes of the series, adding cast members Kathy Najimy and David Pasquesi to a “modestly budgeted” independent production, according to NYTVF.

“The Jamz,” in its newly made form, is now being shopped around to prospective buyers on both the digital and cable fronts, a somewhat confusing notion to anyone used to the traditional network model. I asked Kozyra and Petlak what their parents understand about the current state of “The Jamz,” which isn’t much. “It’s the hardest thing to [explain] because you have to explain how television works, which is something that I’m learning for the first time, and then now that you know how television works…this is not how it works,” Kozyra said. “For industry people, it’s sort of the wild west. My mom knows to say a rosary until I tell her to stop.”

Plus, this year witnessed the birth of a newcomer to the indie TV circuit: The first “season” of SeriesFest in Denver, which I was able to attend in June. A mix of broadcast, cable and independent content screened over the four-day festival, including panel discussions with the cast and creators of AMC’s “Humans” and USA’s “Mr. Robot,” and thanks to a partnership with the independent film community in Denver, SeriesFest was able to bring in a large audience excited by new content. I found that SeriesFest’s more-attended screenings over the weekend were not for the “professional” television series, but for the indie TV blocks.

But the independent track is an increasingly viable opportunity for getting your show real distribution, which was understandable in this new era, where shows produced completely outside the studio system can not only echo professional production value, but offer up unique storytelling that wouldn’t necessarily find a home within the traditional venues — perfect for the connoisseur of independent media.

Here’s one of the more exciting elements of this boom in independent content: Much like in the independent film world, where festivals overlap with each other constantly in terms of their selections, there were many projects that I saw at one fest that also played at another, resulting in the crafting of a real sense of community within an industry that’s often felt a bit isolated.

Here’s just a taste of some of the great stuff I’ve seen at these festivals:

“Zero Point”: A moody and serious drama about a woman searching for answers to a mysterious disease, “Zero Point” quite deservedly won an award for Best Actress at SeriesFest, as Lisa King Hawkes owns every minute of her screen time.

“Wrong Place”: Rich with visual imagination, “Wrong Place” creates a strange but beautiful world that’s hard to describe, but proves intoxicating.

“The Wake”: Winner of Best of the Fest at ITVFest, this post-apocalyptic drama made by Jeff Bloom and Noah Kloor was an impressively executed feat on a small budget, and thanks to a dense but intriguing mythology, a pilot that genuinely made you want to see more.

“Cooking for One with the Crying Chef”: I’m honestly not sure if “Cooking for One” is something that needs more than the distribution it currently has. With each episode coming in at a tight five minutes, it’s built perfectly for YouTube. But it’s worth highlighting for a killer concept and great execution. Satirizing cooking shows has been done, but this spin on the idea triggers some beautifully painful laughs.

“Riftworld”: Anyone with a weakness for Canadian science fiction (not that I would know anything about that) or Dungeons and Dragons jokes will find themselves charmed by this fantasy series about a wizard from another world (Tahmoh Penikett, otherwise known as Helo from “Battlestar Galactica”) who finds himself a stranger in a strange land — specifically, our universe. The premise isn’t revolutionary, but not only is there some very solid fish-out-of-water comedy, this was another pilot that had me looking forward to new episodes.

“The Donovan of Civilization”: You’ve never seen anything like this. Creator Gabriel Fleming won a trip to travel around the world, and rather than just see the sights, he brought along his friend Donovan Keith and a camera. But “The Donovan of Civilization,” shot on location in India, Vietnam, Egypt and other exotic locations, isn’t a docuseries. Instead, it’s a semi-improvised conspiracy thriller with a light touch and some solid performances.

: Full disclosure: I’m friends with the filmmakers behind this one, but their story is worth a mention. Starring Brandon Routh, “Committed” was originally an independent feature entitled “Fling,” which did the fest circuit in 2008 and has since found various levels of distribution (you can watch it on YouTube right now, if you want). But because there’s plenty of story to be found in the concept of a young couple grappling with their open relationship, creators John Stewart Muller and Laura Boersma recut their film down to an hour-long pilot and are now actively pitching it as a potential series.

“Transolar Galactica”: Hey, do you like the idea of people being paid to make shows their audience wants to watch? “Transolar Galactica” serves as a perfect case study. After producing its first season on the cheap, the sci-fi comedy Kickstarted funds for its second season and made a metric ton of content for its supporters, including new episodes rich with production design, behind-the-scenes featurettes, bonus episodes partially written by the fans and even a video game. The twist is that it’s all behind a paywall. They don’t have a massive subscriber base, but it was enough to sustain the second season. And what I saw screened at ITVFest was full of imagination. 

“The IP Section”: A TV pilot about a 40-year-old Mormon patent law attorney who secretly aspires to a life in comedy, which happens to be created, financed and written by 40-year-old Mormon patent law attorney Wes Austin, gambling big on his dreams of being in a TV show. To further mesh fiction with reality, Austin’s journey to risking his own money and his reputation by making the pilot for his own TV show was unveiled in the documentary “My Dream’s A Joke,” which played immediately after “The IP Section.” While I’m not sure about what happens next, the pairing of projects was one of the most special things I saw at ITVFest; a story about dreams coming true that has real resonance for anyone who’s ever dreamed of creating.

And that’s only the beginning. The game for independent television has changed so dramatically since those early days with so many new ideas getting a chance to live thanks to the current state of the industry. In 2008, I was willing to walk four blocks. In 2015, I’m willing to cross a continent. Great independent TV is happening now, and it’s happening everywhere — including Vermont.

READ MORE: Film Festivals Need TV (And TV Needs Film Festivals)

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