As big as TVs might get, as sophisticated as our technology for watching media might be, the fact remains that there’s nothing like the theatrical experience. And one of the biggest perks of my job is that I get tastes of that experience — the lowering of the lights and the hush of a captive audience — while also watching some of the most exciting television currently being made.
And a lot of that comes courtesy of festivals, which more and more are presenting great television with the same respect paid to great film. Since joining Indiewire two years ago, I have traveled to New York, Austin, Atlanta, Denver, Vancouver and Vermont to attend festivals in part or wholly devoted to TV, and every trip has brought with it a rush of excitement over the power of television, a renewed appreciation for the creators and actors who are finding potential in episodic entertainment.
Last week, Robert De Niro made a surprise in-person appearance at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of the OWN original drama “Greenleaf,” where he acknowledged just that: “Our best directors, producers, writers and actors move gracefully between movies and television,” a note he read from a prepared statement.
It’s a completely different world in 2016 than it even was in 2014, but as we look at the current festival approach of acknowledging this sea change, there’s a strong chance that maybe we need to re-examine it.
Right now, we’re witnessing nearly every major film festival adding a substantial television component to its programming. These screenings and panels aren’t part of the competition scene — the one major exception being SXSW, which does pick a winner from the five first-season pilots screened for the Episodic lineup. They also aren’t happening for the sake of creating an acquisition market — the one major exception being the Toronto International Film Festival, which included some independent series with no network distribution in its inaugural line-up this year.
Instead (with the exceptions noted above), the ostensible purpose of these additions is simply to celebrate the newfound glory of the medium. (Accompanied by a more cynical angle: Incorporating TV helps to beef up a fest’s star power, in an age when more and more big names are finding themselves seduced by the possibilities inherent in television.)
Here’s the issue: By and large, it’s usually pilot or premiere episodes which get screened at festivals — half-hour comedies will often include a second episode. There are great TV pilots which have benefitted from festival premieres, such as USA’s “Mr. Robot” (a show which desperately needed to overcome the perceptions associated with its parent network, and in the end turned festival glory and other clever marketing strategies into one of the most impressive launches in recent memory). But even a great pilot is, ultimately, just the beginning of a story.
And the end result is that even the fests that are dedicated entirely to scripted content essentially serve as a sampler platter — a collection of incomplete narratives, rather than an experience which creates the all-encompassing feel that television brings to the table. In some ways, there’s value to this: I’ve enjoyed getting to check in on a variety of different series in a short period of time, and discover new shows in a setting far preferable to a watermarked screener on my computer.
But for festival attendees, it’s hard to say what serves them best within the festival framework. The place where real progress might be made on this stage is with the festivals that are fully dedicated to television, such as Austin’s ATX Television Festival, Atlanta’s aTVfest and Denver’s SeriesFest. All of them feature different approaches and emphases, but the one constant is the incorporation of television that has pre-set distribution, that isn’t on the festival circuit to find a home. Given how much a part of fest culture that quest usually is, TV-specific festivals need to find a way to make up for it.
An anecdote I repeat a lot is the observation that at SeriesFest in 2015, which I attended as a guest, there was an intriguing mix of broadcast and cable programming being featured, including “Mr. Robot,” AMC’s “Humans,” and FX’s “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.” But the festival also featured a competition lineup of independently produced pilots, and perhaps because the festival was partnered with the Denver Film Society, the most packed screenings were for those blocks of programming. The “Mr. Robot” screening did include a Q&A with the cast and creator Sam Esmail but at that point, “Mr. Robot” was days away from premiering on USA. Attendees prioritized watching shows that didn’t necessarily have distribution over the shows that did already have a home.
The Tribeca Film Festival bet big this year on its Tune In programming, which only featured shows with distribution, but did have had some original takes on how to bring TV into the festival experience. I attended several panels and screenings during its latter half, and really appreciated some of the unique angles they incorporated, including the “Six Feet Under” retrospective with creator Alan Ball and a delightful “Catastrophe” panel featuring stars Sharon Horgan, Carrie Fisher and Gary the Dog.
In addition, probably the most striking festival experience I’ve ever been a part of was last weekend, courtesy of ESPN. As someone who writes about television, I’m used to doing a lot of binge-viewing (it might, in fact, be my one real quantifiable job skill). But there’s binge-viewing, and there’s discovering an epic-length documentary like “O.J.: Made in America” in a festival setting.
When I entered the Regal Cinemas in Battery Park on Saturday morning, the gloomy sky splattered down rain — right beforehand, I spoke briefly with director Ezra Edelman (who I’d interviewed back in January), remarking that it was the perfect weather for this experience. “Yeah, if it was like last weekend, we would have been fucked,” he joked.
Nine hours later, the sprinkling had stopped but night had fully descended. But it was worth it to take in the full scope of “Made in America,” which was doing the festival rounds prior to its debut on ESPN in June. The five-part miniseries officially premiered at Sundance, screened for attendees in two massive chunks — for Tribeca, the screening was structured as three parts: Parts 1 and 2 (three hours), with an approximately 30 minute intermission, followed by Parts 3 and 4 (three hours again), another 30 minute intermission and Part 5 (one hour and 45 minutes).
ESPN was quite generous in catering the entire day: Coffee, pastries and juice before things began, sandwiches during the first break, and cookies during the second. We also received coupons for popcorn, water and soda. This was very nice of those involved, but also basically essential, given that the screening became, literally, our entire day. The screening began at 11:04am. I left the theater at 8pm.
It was an intense day, one I’m still sitting with, especially given that I only just said goodbye to “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” a few weeks ago. “Made in America” covers a great deal of the same material that Ryan Murphy’s FX drama is based on, but does so in a documentary format that proves perhaps even more compelling at times, especially given how much time and attention he gives the racial and political climate of the time period. Edelman doesn’t dig into the “forbidden love” (my editorializing) between Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, but he does have the real Mark Fuhrman on camera, confronted by how the O.J. Simpson trial’s exposure of his undeniable racism. It’s fascinating to behold.
Of all the festival experiences I’ve had as a person whose job is to be obsessed with television, “Made in America” might be the most profound and the most impactful. But while I happen to like it a great deal, binge-viewing isn’t always the best way to appreciate a show — and if festivals are going to commit to this programming, it’s worth trying to find ways to not just sample shows, but really embrace them.
As just one idea, I’d love to see a festival experiment with the idea of spreading out a screening series across a week, airing episodes of a show at a set time each day, like a standing dinner date. It’s not just the idea of getting people to watch a bunch of episodes of the same show, but the idea of recreating the appointment television model that defined the medium for decades, while also creating, over the course of these many days, a community of viewership that reflects the sorts of fandoms generated around some of our most beloved shows.
Because in talking with people at festivals about TV, this is the one ongoing undercurrent I’ve noticed: The sampling model is maybe an easy answer, but trying to force episodic storytelling into a model created for film isn’t necessarily capturing what television does best. And that’s a shame, because — to go back to where we began here — it’s rare to have the chance to experience TV’s greatness in a dark room on a big screen, with an engaged audience. It’s an incredible opportunity for the medium. We just need to figure out how to let it be its best.