As radically as the TV landscape has changed over the last two decades, the way you get a show to air has largely remained quite traditional: you pitch and write a pilot. Slowly over time — starting with FX giving the “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” team a show after watching their $200 pilot and now, more recently, with HBO picking up the the web series “High Maintenance” — a new DIY path to television has started to emerge. According to SeriesFest CEO Randi Kleiner, the indie pilot has become an effective proof of concept, especially for creators who are not established as TV writers.
“A pilot gives so much more detail in 20 minutes than you would get by pitching an idea in 20 minutes,” Kleiner told Indiewire in a recent interview. “What it allows that, say, writing spec scripts or doing a traditional pitch doesn’t, is for the network to become immersed in the world of the characters, to see if it’s something they like and to see the talent and voice of the creators.”
“‘Broad City’ is an interesting example,” added SeriesFest CCO Kaily Smith Westbrook about the hit Comedy Central show, which started off as a web series. “I always wonder if the girls [co-creators and stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer] hadn’t first made videos, developed an audience and showcased their talent, if they would have been able to sell their show.”
Watching these trends develop, Kleiner and Westbrook started to see that independent pilots needed a showcase and marketplace similar to what independent films have at major festivals like Sundance. And hence SeriesFest was born, a yearly festival in Denver that showcases independently produced pilots.
“We launched last year and pulled SeriesFest together in about five and a half months,” said Westbrook. “Last year was more of a proof of concept. People were looking at us, but I think they were skeptical and wondering if something this non-traditional was going to work.”
The first year of the festival far exceeded the co-founder’s expectations, with most screenings of the indie pilots selling out. There were even a couple of success stories, especially “Witnesses,” which won the Best Pilot Award at the festival and was optioned by Off the Grid Entertainment. Kleiner believes, based on her conversations with TV executives and the significant increase in pilot submissions, that the second edition of the festival will have a much larger industry presence.
“There are a ton of brands, platforms and networks that are hungry for diverse new content,” reported Kleiner, who is hopeful the festival environment can help drive a robust market. “The biggest discovery is there is a real energy to watching TV in a theater with other people. In the same way at a film festival watching a film with an audience is your initial litmus test, you have all the buyers in the room and what we are hoping is that the crowd’s energy can help fuel bidding wars.”
And while the big networks and producers will be looking for pilots like “Witness,” that can be picked up to re-develop and reshoot, it’s the increasing number of new digital platforms and brands looking to get into the content game that could help usher in an expanded market for indie TV. Based on their conversations with a number of brands looking for new ways to reach a younger audience in the age of ad-blocking software and DVRs, both co-founders speculated that new markets would develop for indie TV content in 2016.
“I could envision the brand becoming the studio,” said Kleiner, pointing to the growth of Red Bull TV. “Pepsi or someone could say, here are the things we are trying to push, so let’s help produce this six-part series. Brands don’t know where to go or how to develop content, that’s not their space. We are hearing from them, ‘Could we get involved in optioning and producing something?’ They are starting to see that they can possibly invest less marketing dollars and produce a quality product they own.”
This is one of the main reasons Kleiner and Westbrook are actively looking to step beyond their role as curators and do a better job in year two of connecting creators with all the various entities looking for content. To this end, they spent a great deal of time over the last few months having conversations with producers, networks, platforms and brands, while also reaching out to creators to get a fuller understanding of their aspirations and helping them prepare to step into the marketplace.
“It’s having interesting, well-developed characters,” explained Westbrook. “I think the biggest mistake people make is they have an idea of something they think would be funny, but that’s not well developed. The stories that break through don’t always have the best production value, but have characters that are well developed, who you don’t want to turn off. That’s what we are looking for.”
This is why SeriesFest asks creators for a series bible as part of the pilot submission process. While the pilot itself is the proof of concept, Kleiner and Westbrook emphasize that knowing the vision of the series and having characters and stories that can sustain an audience over tens of hours is crucial to their selection process and the market viability of their pilots.
Yet while some of the traditional rules of what makes for good television haven’t changed, SeriesFest’s message to content creators is that an indie spirit is largely becoming the greatest asset. “The industry is changing, so just go make the pilot and do it the way you see it and don’t be worried about ‘Would this be a NBC show?'” said Westbrook. “You are a content creator, you now have the power in your hands to go make your show the way you see it and now more ever is the time to do it.”
Below, the trailer for the independently produced comedy “The Jamz”…