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The Indie TV Dream: Here Are the Ambitions and Realities Facing Sundance’s First Full TV Section

Sundance offers independent filmmakers their dream: a direct path to Hollywood. But can it create the same connection for indie TV?

Mr. Inbetween Sundance Episodic 2018

“Mr. Inbetween”

Mark Rogers

Before Sundance fully embraced television, it was already making small screen dreams come true.

“Last year, our wildest dream coming into the Episodic Short Form program was to sell our web series to television, and that’s exactly what happened,” Josh Feldman and Shoshannah Stern said to IndieWire.

Feldman and Stern created a series called “The Chances” that premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It’s returning to Sundance in 2018, but this time as a fully-fledged TV show with distribution, a full first season in the can, and an official release date — February 14, 2018.

“That web series was picked up from Sundance last year by Sundance Now, developed out from its short-form to a long-form of 22-minute episodes […] and they’ve already shot the first season,” Sundance programmer Charlie Sextro said in an interview with IndieWire. “So we’re showing that in our independent series, because it’s Sundance Now, but it’s also kind of showing you the potential of what can happen here.”

But is that a reasonable expectation for this year’s crop of TV creators? As Sundance prepares to embark on its first full Episodic Section in festival history, questions abound as to how it will play out: Will the quality of submissions match that on the film side? Will audiences show up for the screenings, which don’t take place until after the heavily attended first weekend? Will industry power players — agents, executives, and distributors — show up as well?

The big question, though, is whether the film festival can do for indie television what it’s done for indie film. Most of the projects included in the Episodic section don’t have distribution yet, and some of the creators are arriving in Park City without so much as an agent. What happens during the five days of screenings could change people’s lives: It could be the beginning of a TV series — or the end. Here’s what the festival, the creators, and the industry are expecting to happen.

"Top of the Lake"

The Past Sets a High Bar for the Future

“It all started with ‘Top of the Lake.'”

Jane Campion’s miniseries screened at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in its entirety, running for seven hours with one intermission, and after that proved successful, Sextro said the festival started to experiment with other forms of episodic content.

“The Jinx,” “O.J. Made in America,” “The Girlfriend Experience,” and more TV series all played at Sundance in the past, but they had distribution coming in — HBO, ESPN, and Starz, respectively, are all major networks.

That changed in 2015 when Mark Duplass contacted festival representatives about a new series he’d just signed up with. “Animals,” an animated comedy for adults, had screened at the New York Television Festival and Duplass (an executive producer on the project) was trying to figure out what to do next.

“He was just talking to his TV agents, and they were trying to figure out how they wanted to kind of hook the facts together and get it out there to the industry and develop the series and get it somewhere on a channel,” Sextro said. “They were just talking about like how all the TV execs are already at Sundance. They were there to just scout talent, to kind of meet new people — do meetings and stuff like that — but they’re already there, and they’re very jealous of the fact that they don’t have any say really that the other agents [in] the film industry get.”

So Duplass pitched the idea of screening “Animals” at Sundance, as part of the festival.

“He was like, ‘Honestly, we think that they would all show up and they’re all looking for something like this,'” Sextro said. “The big thing was that there’s not really — and there still isn’t — this kind of clear pathway to series for an independent episodic project. […] So he kind of wanted to explore that. We liked the series; we were behind the series; we showed it and then it sold to HBO. That was the big kind of inspiration for us.”

The following year Sundance screened a web series called “The Skinny,” and while it wasn’t picked up by the likes of HBO, Sextro was encouraged by how excited industry attendees were about creator Jessie Kahnweiler. Since the festival, Kahnweiler has gone on to write a series for ABC and is currently adapting “The Viagra Diaries” for The CW.

Halfway There Sundance Blythe Danner

What Sundance Expects to Happen

All that led to this: a full section dedicated to episodic programming at the 2018 festival. But with more programs means a shift in expectations: Not every pilot can get picked up by a network or land its creator a gig in Hollywood… right?

“I definitely don’t like to focus on the idea that, you know, they’re all going to get picked up by NBC,” Sextro said.

But the TV industry will be well-represented in Park City, including the streaming platforms. Representatives from YouTube Red, Amazon, and even Apple — which is making a big splash in development deals, long before we know what the service will look like — are all set to attend, and each has contacted Sundance to speak specifically about the Episodic section.

Also, according to Sextro, some have already reached out to creators.

“I’ve just been hearing from more people […] who have one foot within the TV industry, reaching out, trying to get a lay of the land to try and understand exactly what we are doing,” Sextro said.

Representatives from Netflix, Showtime, and HBO will be at Sundance as well, but whether or not they pay special attention to the Episodic Section remains to be seen. All three consistently prove to be major players in the documentary field: Just last year, Netflix obtained rights to “Casting JonBenet,” “Chasing Coral,” “Icarus,” “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower,” and “Nobody Speak.” (“Chasing Coral” and “Icarus” are now on the Oscars shortlist for Best Documentary.)

Whether or not they and other industry leaders get a chance to check out the Episodic Section could come down to timing. Sundance programmers made the choice to run the TV pilots and premieres from Monday, January 22 through Friday, January 26 — right after the busiest part of the festival.

“Our idea was, ‘Let’s focus it [then] because we all know the first weekend can be pretty chaotic at Sundance, and there’s so much going on, and so much fighting for attention. People really think about films at that time. [So] let’s move episodic off the chaos of that,'” Sextro said. “Someone could potentially fly in on Monday, see the entire program, and fly back home on Wednesday night.”

Ashli Haynes, Asia’h Epperson and Ashley Blaine Featherson appear in <i>Leimert Park</i> by Mel Jones, an official selection of the Indie Episodic program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Isiah Donté Lee. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

What Creators Hope Will Happen

That’s what creators are counting on. Despite the network names and past successes, the people behind this year’s Episodic programs have varied expectations for their Sundance debut.

Rick Rosenthal, a veteran Hollywood TV director, is making sure to keep his emotions in check.

“With the Indie Episodic section being in its nascent year, I think there are a number of unknowns,” the “Halfway There” helmer said. “It’s hard to anticipate the level of participation from acquisition and programming executives and whether or not they will be ready to acquire content at the festival, so I think the key is to keep expectations in check and enjoy the process of screening ‘Halfway There’ in front of hundreds of people.”

More creators share similar measured expectations.

“I think that presenting television in this way is new for everybody — from the buyers to the sellers to the audiences at Sundance,” Kitao Sakurai, the director and co-writer of “The Passage” said. “And I’m sure it’s also totally different, project to project. I’m just trying to keep a very open mind and enjoy my experience there and be open to new opportunities.”

“It would be great to meet someone at the festival who is interested in nurturing future projects — whether that is a second season of our series or to do something wildly different,” “The Mortified Guide” executive producer David Nadelberg said.

But even those who expressed hesitancy over what they think will happen still know the sky’s the limit. They can dream big, even if there are more realistic goals to go after, as well.

“In a perfect world, the right network buys this show, loves it and wants us to make more in the same way,” “Paint” creator Michael Walker said. “I could also use an agent or a manager.”

Sextro knows that eyes will be on his debut section, and he’s eager to talk to creators, festival-goers, and industry veterans once the screenings start.

“We’re even trying to be really conscious of the industry, and the eyeballs that we can get on this stuff,” Sextro said. “We have space to expand and really carve out something that could grow and become even more within the festival, and kind of take over that time period of the festival. So we’re really trying to be conscious of how best we can take advantage of the audience and get the TV industry in front of these projects.”

As for the “This Close” creators, they’re awaiting their debut on Sundance Now in less than month, but Feldman and Shoshannah have a new dream for the 2018 festival.

“We hope we can serve as a model for other projects, because what Sundance is doing is working,” they said. “Selling your episodic program can and does happen.”

In no time at all, we’ll find out whose dreams will come true this year.

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