Like many film fests, Sundance has recently acknowledged that the best of television is also worthy of honoring. But as other fests dip their toes in TV — and focus mostly on major productions already picked up and financed by major networks and studios — Sundance is going back to its independent roots, launching its first-ever Indie Episodics lineup.
As Sundance programmer Charlie Sextro told IndieWire, 2018 was the perfect time to take a major step forward and offer a diverse line-up of independently-produced television.
“It has been a very careful but steady thing that we’ve been slowly growing and kind of exploring over the years, ever since we first premiered ‘Top of the Lake’ [in 2013],” Sextro said. “That was the first episodic we did. We played the entire thing straight through in the Egyptian and we just loved being able to do that. That started to grow our idea of how we can expand the program, how we can respond to the ways artists are looking to tell stories now.”
Sextro said Sundance decided to emphasize independently produced series because “it’s what people are looking for” from the fest. “This new discovery of artists and this is what our audience wants out of us and what we’re excited about the most,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing this year.”
Sextro pinpointed the 2015 debut of Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano’s “Animals” as a key turning point for Sundance’s relationship with television. The animated series, which won Best Comedy at the New York Television Festival, was brought to the Sundance programmers by Mark Duplass.
“[Duplass] pitched this idea: ‘All of the TV execs are at Sundance just scouting talent in general. The industry is going there to find new people.’ He was like, ‘I wonder if there could be a space where we could bring in independent series and try and do exactly what we did with “Puffy Chair” and try and sell it at a festival,'” Sextro said.
In the case of “Animals,” Duplass’s idea worked, and the show was picked up by HBO out of the festival for two seasons. (A third season is now currently in the works.) Since then, more TV has found its way to Park City. Last year’s special events track included ABC’s “Downward Dog,” Amazon’s “I Love Dick,” Fox’s “Shots Fired” and Spike’s “Time: The Kalief Browder Story.”
2017 was the first year that Sundance opened up the submission process to episodic entries — everything prior came from the festival’s relationships with alumni like Jill Soloway and Duplass.
“We didn’t commit to the section last year, we just watched episodic programming and then at the end, we were like, ‘What makes sense here? What are we excited about and what would be an interesting way to showcase this work?'” Sextro said. “We’ve been waiting to see instead of just fully committing. We wanted to figure out where could we have the biggest impact and really do something exciting with this space.”
The Indie Episodics launch might be inspired a bit by the Sundance Institute’s Episodic Program, which it conducts in the fall. The line-up also sets Sundance apart from the other major film festivals that have aimed to include TV programming, because the majority of the 17 series do not have pre-established distribution. That means that coming to the festival means the opportunity to find a network home, a budget for more episodes, or additional opportunities. In comparison, the new Canneseries festival, which launches next April, will require that pilots be already picked up and produced for multiple episodes.
Sundance’s Indie Episodics line-up is scheduled to kick off Monday, January 22, with the entire program screening first on Tuesday, January 23 and repeating Wednesday, January 24. The placement puts the line-up early in the fest but right after the opening weekend, when many of the major premieres happen.
“We figure it’s a very, very busy first weekend of the festival, and there’s already this long legacy of the features and the competitions playing that we can start to carve out maybe a new space within the calendar,” Sextro said of the timing.
There’s a comparison to be made between programming a block of short films and a block of TV pilots, though Sextro noted that Sundance’s approach differed between the two.
“The programming plan of a shorts program — certainly how they design it here at Sundance — is to actually be a range of experiences. They don’t want whatever follows a short film to really feel like the last one,” he said. “We’re kind of doing the opposite of that. We’re putting the similar like-minded things together because in our heads, in that 90 minutes, that’s what makes sense.”
A few of the shows in the Indie Episodics line-up do have some distribution in place, including the Marlee Matlin-starring “This Close,” which has a straight-to-series order from Sundance Now. But most are looking for some sort of distribution, domestically or internationally.
“Honestly, we’re just trying to reflect what’s going on out there,” Sextro said. “There’s a lot of discussions about what is the actual path to distribution and to becoming a series of an independent project. That is something that is not a clearly established or understood thing. It is still a massive question mark. We’re trying to see what discussions we can make happen and what’s in that space.”
Sextro admitted that there’s no easy answer to the question of how independent TV might function in the future, but what matters isn’t necessarily getting these shows distribution. “We’re still programming it just like curation, and what we find interesting in the space. With some projects, there’s also a voice in it. It feels like, ‘Let’s showcase this voice,'” he said.
Which means that while the show they’re screening at Sundance might not be an easy sell, Sextro said that “this could be a stepping stone to [creators] becoming discovered and developing something that’s really their perfect engine.”
And it’s also an opportunity for executives looking for diverse voices to find a whole new subset of creators. “[The Indie Episodics line-up] is full of diversity and full of talent, because it’s people not going through systems to get stuff made or going through the currents or the existing structure to getting stuff made. They’re just going and making stuff themselves.”