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The Sundance TV Experiment, One Year Later: What Worked, What Didn’t, and What’s Next

As Park City prepares for its second-ever indie TV showcase, here's how last year's entries fared and what's been done to boost the 2019 lineup.

Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men poster

“Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men”

Showtime

One year ago, the Sundance Film Festival opened its doors to independent television. In the same way Robert Redford’s Park City playground built bridges between Hollywood’s longstanding studio world and the open-air, burgeoning indie film space, so too did the festival want to connect a booming television industry with the creative minds operating outside of it.

“Last year was such an experiment,” Sundance programmer Charlie Sextro told Indiewire. “It was [set up] to see what worked and what made sense.”

Like any first trial, the inaugural Indie Episodic Section had its successes and slip-ups. Sundance operated as it should: connecting fresh talent with eager buyers, but the atmosphere around television was far different from the one for film. Multiple TV projects sold to vaunted distribution platforms (like Starz and FX), while attendance issues created a conflicting in-the-room perception of the screenings’ overall impact.

This year, there are fewer indie TV pilots than before — 12 entries, down from 17 in 2018 — but the scheduling has been tweaked to keep them from competing against each other, they’re screening earlier in the festival to attract bigger crowds, and select projects are getting a showcase all their own. Why the changes? Let’s look at what happened to those brave TV tests from a year ago.

The 2018 Indie Episodic Section got off to a great start thanks to “America to Me,” Steve James’ 10-hour docuseries that screened six episodes at Sundance and sold to Starz before it even premiered. Though sales were slow during the festival, things started moving soon after: “Mr. Inbetween” was picked up for American distribution at FX (and has already been renewed for Season 2); “High and Mighty” is streaming on HBO Latino, HBO NOW, and HBO Go; “Tropical Cop Tales” from Jim Hosking (“The Greasy Strangler”) is set to premiere on Adult Swim Feb. 1; “The Passage” aired on TBS Digital and Filmstruck.

Mr. Inbetween Sundance Episodic 2018

“Mr. Inbetween”

Mark Rogers

Meanwhile, “This Close” (SundanceTV), “The Mortified Guide” (Netflix), and “I’m Poppy” (YouTube) all had distribution lined up prior to the festival and are now in various stages of development for new episodes. Other entries, like “susaneLand,” “Halfway There,” and “Tammy’s Tiny Tea Time,” played the TV festival circuit — including NYTVF, iTVfest, Palm Springs International, and more — following their Sundance debuts, much like many films.

“We reached out to everyone [from the inaugural Indie Episodic lineup] in the summer just to kind of get feedback from them — the experience, what it was like in a first year, the reaction to projects, industry interest,” Sextro said. “We definitely heard great stories about the boost and the kind of exposure the festival provided.”

Still, there were problems. Attendance at festival screenings was sparse. Programmers have always found it challenging to drive visitors toward TV when there are so many films to see. The schedule is tight, and space is limited. Though a small in-house crowd isn’t necessarily a barometer for impact — Sextro is quick to point out the 2016 Oscar- and Emmy-winning docuseries “O.J. Made in America” debuted at Sundance to less than 200 people — empty seats can discourage filmmakers who expect the same sold-out shows as film screenings.

“Last year, I guess we were playing stuff against itself,” Sextro said. “It was this weird, all kind of mashed together [schedule].”

All of last year’s projects were slotted into six episodic programs — groups of episodes from different series screening together — and the goal was to let viewers pick and choose which programs to see first, and then come back to check out the others the next day. In 2019, the schedule has been streamlined so TV enthusiasts can attend all the premieres on Monday and Tuesday, without missing any.

“Now it’s very consistent, one after the other,” Sextro said about the 2019 lineup. “You could see every single one within the Indie Episodic programs.”

Moreover, there are three Indie Episodic premieres that will screen on their own, rather than as part of a program. Nick Hornby’s “State of the Union” and the docuseries “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” premiere on Monday, and “Delhi Crime Story” debuts Tuesday, prior to the two Indie Episodic Programs.

Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike appear in <i>State of the Union</i> by Stephen Frears, an official selection of the Indie Episodic program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Mark Hom.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.

Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike in “State of the Union”

Marc Hom / Courtesy of Sundance Institute

“‘State of the Union’ is exceptional,” Sextro said. “[And] ‘Wu Tang Clan’ is one of my favorite music docs — certainly in this year’s festival.”

Of course, scheduling is easier when there are less screenings. Despite an increase in submissions, Sundance programmers chose to cut back on Episodic programs — there are just two groups of pilots in 2019, as opposed to six in 2018 — and highlight individual series with their own screenings. Sextro compared the mentality to what the festival does with its short film lineup, where they’re very selective so they can better highlight the entries they really love.

“I really like the idea of having us make even harder choices,” Sextro said, noting how they drew inspiration from the short film section’s selective mentality. “Playing two programs to me sounds perfect. It doesn’t sound overwhelming. Each of those [programs] are really rich.”

The Indie Episodic lineup is avoiding direct competition with itself, as well as the busy, film-focused first weekend of Sundance, but it will see competition from other TV entries — entries with distribution and well-known creators. Jordan Peele’s “Lorena” docuseries premieres at the same time as “Delhi Crime Story” on Tuesday, and Gregg Araki’s Starz comedy “Now, Apocalypse” screens against the second Indie Episodic Program. “Documentary Now!” Season 3, which will air on IFC in February, also premieres at the festival, though it’s not slotted against any other TV entries.

“This year just feels like big growth; like a big step forward in what we even just hypothetically thought in our minds — what we thought would be really relevant,” Sextro said. “We’re definitely trying to make some noise in this space and get attention in this space. So, I feel like each year [we’re] definitely hoping to keep making a bigger and bigger impact.”

So far, so good. Showtime picked up “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” before the festival began, while Lilly Wachowski and Circle of Confusion have come on board “Work in Progress,” an Indie Episodic pilot which Wachowski is developing with an eye toward directing. That doubles the number of entries purchased pre-fest from last year and should help build buzz around the screenings this year. But we won’t know how it all works out until it starts, so keep checking IndieWire for updates from the ground.

The 2019 Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 24 – Feb. 3 in Park City, Utah. Check out all of IndieWire’s Sundance coverage right here.

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