Steve James had a helluva 24 hours. On Monday morning, the director’s first-ever docuseries “America To Me” was picked up by Starz. That night, his series kicked off the first-ever Sundance Episodic screening, and the next morning — as the fourth and fifth episodes were about to commence in Park City — James received his first-ever Oscar nomination for “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.”
“This has been a pretty good two days at the Sundance Film Festival,” James said, after being introduced and congratulated by Participant Media’s Diane Weyermann. James wiped his face as the crowd gave him a standing ovation, and then things got started.
After years of experimenting with TV screenings, Sundance unveiled its inaugural lineup of independent TV pilots, short-form series, and premieres on Tuesday. Programmed in groups with two-to-four series per screening, the Episodic Section ran in its entirety in two locations on Tuesday. Attendees could see half the section at The Ray and the other half at the Park Ave location.
Screenings will continue through Friday, but many famous faces were spotted in the audience on Day 1. In addition to James and more participants representing their series — like Matthew Lillard and YouTube personality / singer Poppy (played by Moriah Rose Pereira) — Tessa Thompson (“Sorry to Bother You”), Alia Shawkat (“Search Party”), John Gemberling (“Broad City”), Jon Daly (“I’m Dying Up Here”), and Amy Landecker (“Transparent”) were all in attendance.
Thompson and Shawkat were at the Tuesday evening screening of “susaneLand,” “I’m Poppy,” and “The Passage,” while “Landecker made sure to greet her “Transparent” director and producer Rick Rosenthal following an earlier screening of his pilot, “Halfway There.”
“I thought it screened well,” Rosenthal said to IndieWire. “You put all this time and energy into something you think is precision, but it’s an imprecise art. I’ve had some amazing screening stories […] so this was very smooth.”
Michael Walker, the director of Episodic entry “Paint,” said he enjoyed the screening and was looking to make connections at the festival.
“We planned to shoot it and sell it on our own,” Walker said. “We didn’t have a sales agent or anything.”
On its first day, most of the creators were very enthusiastic about the section and Sundance overall.
“It’s awesome you guys started this section,” Nash Edgerton, the creator of Australian dark comedy “Mr. Inbetween,” said before the screening. “Trying to get the show played in other parts of the world is really important to us.”
“[‘susaneLand’] wasn’t necessarily made for the festival, but I think we’re looking to turn it into a half-hour format,” co-creator Susane Lee said after her short-form series debuted. “As an Asian-American actress in Hollywood, opportunities are not plentiful. We want to make more.”
During the post-screening Q&A, Rosenthal said they “expected to make the rounds” to various Hollywood distributors before submitting to Sundance.
“Then Sundance said, ‘Hey, you might be in the right space at the right time,’ and hopefully we are,” writer Nick Morton said.
Now the team is ready to hit the circuit with the festival brand in their back pocket.
“When you make a TV show, this is just the beginning,” Morton said to IndieWire. “One of the great things about Sundance is that it’s a great showcase.”
As for what’s next, these creators will know more when the festival wraps.
“We’re hoping when Amazon picks us up, we can answer that question,” Morton said.