It’s a familar story: Caleb Jaffe came to Sundance with nothing but a dream. After spending his college tuition money to make a low-budget indie, the 21-year-old filmmaker finished his project, submitted to the festival, and joined the thousands of hopefuls waiting on a phone call that could lead to the career-making experience of a lifetime.
“I didn’t answer the call because I didn’t recognize the number,” Jaffe said. “I let it go to voicemail, but then I looked at the transcription and saw the word ‘Sundance’ and ‘film’ and I sort of had a moment where I thought, ‘Oh God — maybe I got in!’”
Filmmakers converge on the 10-day festival, hoping it will make their dreams come true. However, Jaffe marks a new kind of talent: He made a pilot, not a movie, and he’s part of a 2019 TV class that saw big gains in attention, exposure, and cold, hard deals.
“That’s been incredible,” he said about the connections he’s made at the festival. “For the past four or five days, I’ve just been walking up and down Main Street meeting people. I met Boots Riley, Kamsai Washington, Terence Nance — I’ve been trying to find Jeff Goldblum, but there’s no luck. I’m really trying.”
Though Jaffe’s pilot, “It’s Not About Jimmy Keene” hasn’t been picked up (yet), he’s walking out of Park City with new contacts like Riley, Nance, and fellow Indie Episodic entrant Richie Mehta — as well as expressed interest from Hollywood’s major talent agencies. Other entries in Sundance’s TV lineup have snagged distribution deals from Netflix, FX, Showtime, and more.
“This is now a Netflix show — officially, as of last night,” “Delhi Crime Story” writer-director Richie Mehta announced before his debut screening Tuesday morning. The seven-episode series was shot in its entirety, allowing Netflix to make a quick turnaround between the Sundance premiere and its global release on March 22. But Mehta had a different reaction to his festival admission than Jaffe.
“When we got in, it was like, ‘…that’s different,'” Mehta said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God!’ It was like, ‘What does that [festival] do for this [show]?’ [And the answer is] it makes us stand out above all the other similar types of things.”
Netflix / Ivanhoe Pictures
Mehta said he recognized that a festival berth isn’t as much of a guarantee for success in TV as it is in film. Noting the risk assumed by his producers in terms of scale and budget, he said the priority had to be what happened outside the festival. “If it doesn’t sell to one of the majors or a broadcaster, which there are not so many in the world that will take something like this, then you’re done,” he said. “You’re D.O.A.”
But once “Delhi Crime Story” was announced as part of Sundance, Mehta saw the impact. He said there was “a lot of interest from a lot of people — and a lot of the majors” but, although he’d had conversations with distributors throughout production and editing, all the buzz came after the Sundance acceptance.
“I think for the buyers, it changed everything,” he said. “It’s been curated now. It’s already been pre-screened and pre-approved by the highest creative standard.”
“Quarter Life Poetry” marked another mid-festival pickup, as FX snatched up Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr.’s series of vignettes for an anticipated spring release. This marks the second year in a row FX acquired a TV pilot out of Sundance; in 2018, they picked up “Mr. Inbetween” from their Australian sister company, aired it in the fall, and renewed it for a second season.
Sources say “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared,” from Blink Industries and the now-defunct Super Deluxe, is fielding multiple offers. The U.K. project began as a web series, and the first episode debuted as a short film in the 2012 Sundance lineup. Now, in 2019, the twisted adult puppet show returned as a half-hour pilot with intentions to make full seasons from here on out.
Prior to the festival, the Sundance stamp of approval did its work for the likes of “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” and “Work in Progress.” Sacha Jenkins’ music documentary was picked up by Showtime, while Abby McEnany’s queer comedy pilot was picked up for development by production company Circle of Confusion and “Sense8” co-creator Lilly Wachowski.
Other entries were developed in the way of traditional TV: “State of the Union,” Nick Hornby’s two-hander with Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike playing a troubled married couple, was developed by SundanceTV and is expected to air on the network later this year. “The Dress Up Gang” was developed through TBS and shot the full 10-episode first season before debuting two episodes at Sundance.
That leaves just five of the 12 Indie Episodic entries lacking new deals, and each of these can still take advantage of the Sundance stamp to push their projects and talent forward.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
This year, Sundance took on a stronger curatorial role with its Indie Episodic lineup. Sundance programmer Adam Montgomery said the team saw submissions double in the category, but that didn’t mean more would get in. Fellow programmer Charlie Sextro said they drew inspiration from the shorts team and made harder choices, honing the program to emphasize quality over quantity. The result was fewer pilot programs — screenings made up of multiple shows — and more solo screenings spotlighting the best of indie TV.
All three of those standalone screenings earned their projects distribution deals, while attendance appeared to be up across the board. Though the TV pilot programs aired in a smaller theater — last year they all debuted at The Ray, with over 500 seats to fill, while this year’s lineup premiered to 360 chairs in the Prospector Square Theater — opening-night selection “State of the Union” at The Ray was a near sell-out, and a sold-out crowd for “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” rocked the Library Center Theatre (which has approximately the same capacity).
All of this points to increased awareness for Sundance’s indie TV “experiment,” as programmers originally called it. One of the biggest questions moving forward is how the festival balances screenings for independent pilots in need of distribution, and buzzy network-driven projects that attract extra publicity for the festival. This year, TV premieres like Amazon’s “Lorena,” Starz’s “Now Apocalypse,” and IFC’s “Documentary Now!” were labeled as Special Events, but ran on the same days as Indie Episodic screenings. Meanwhile, some Indie Episodic programs — like “State of the Union” (SundanceTV) and “The Dress-Up Gang” (TBS) — were developed within the industry, yet screened in the same category as indie pilots seeking distribution.
Jaffe, for one, likes the inclusion of projects from both backgrounds in the same section.
“It’s an honor, actually,” he said. “I’m in really good company, and it helps me see myself differently. To be a contender in an established festival with other people who are established makes me feel like I can take my own work more seriously. So that’s actually really inspiring — it’s cool to see a variety of voices featured on an equal playing field more or less.”
What it comes down to is growing the market around indie TV — and making dreams come true. Whatever it takes to do that, Sundance is ready to try it.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 24 – February 3 in Park City, Utah. Check out all of IndieWire’s Sundance coverage right here.