Why Television is Hitting the Road for Festivals

Television Film Festivals
Owen Davey for Variety

The television business is on the move, as smallscreen festivals become an increasingly important part of the way networks and studios do business. Helping to break through the avalanche of content to bring shows and talent to fans and build social-media buzz, the TV fest circuit amounts to a nonstop promo tour that spans the globe.

Hard on the heels of the fourth annual ATX Television Festival, which wrapped June 7 in Austin, some industryites took off for the Monte Carlo TV Festival, which runs through June 18, while others will hit the first-ever Seriesfest June 18-21 in Denver. Then they’ll gear up to head to San Diego for the increasingly TV-centric Comic-Con from July 9-12.

Alexandra Shapiro, exec VP of marketing and digital for USA Network, says festivals help to distinguish a show early by providing the kind of momentum that normally would require much more marketing money. “In a world where it’s harder and harder to break out, that kind of association and recognition helps,” she says.

Oscar winner Patricia Arquette, who’s promoting CBS series “CSI: Cyber,” was honored June 13 on the opening night of the European seaside Monte Carlo fest, scheduled to hold screenings of “Empire” and “Aquarius,” and welcome “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” actor Terry Crews, “NCIS” star Brian Dietzen and “The Vampire Diaries’ ” Kat Graham and Candice Accola.

“Talent understands how competitive the landscape is,” says Shapiro, who also handles festival planning for USA. “And to be able to showcase your properties and yourself in front of a highly influential audience that’s made up of both consumers and trade (is an) upside that is a lot greater than losing a day or two of your personal life. They realize this is part of how we have to market in this day and age.”

USA has been a major presence across this year’s circuit, headlining ATX with the opening-night premiere and party for upcoming gang-themed drama “Complications,” as well as using the event to promote established series, like caper law drama “Suits,” which hosted a panel. The network’s Christian Slater hacker drama “Mr. Robot” nabbed an audience award at SXSW, also screened at Tribeca, and will make its way to SeriesFest.

Hoping to join ATX, Atlanta’s ATV Fest and the fall New York Television Festival as important stops on the TV fan-promotion train, SeriesFest is luring attendees with an opening-night bash that features singer-songwriter John Legend and comedian Whitney Cummings performing at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

Even with established film festivals like Sundance and SXSW starting to merge their formats and spotlight television, too, ATX co-exec directors and founders Caitlin McFarland and Emily Gipson say they’re getting better at winning the fight for the most important shows on their wish list. “We fight hard for things,” Gipson says.

The Austin fest provided a down-home atmosphere not only for studios to build and maintain buzz for fan-favorite series — but also an intimate setting for showrunners to bond with passionate fans as well as each other. Beau Willimon, Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson, for example, chatted amiably in the green room; Plec even sat in on Damon Lindelof’s “The Leftovers” panel, throwing out one of the first questions during the audience Q&A.

Fans also find a sense of community at festivals dedicated solely to television, like ATX, which the duo explains continues to be the TV-centric fest’s unique flavor.

“There are rabid fans that don’t have a place to go so [we’re] giving them a place to meet and a community — a lot of it is running into a cast member or creative, but it really is more about the community. Television as a medium forms a community so giving them a real life place is a unique experience,” McFarland says. “When we started it, there really wasn’t any place for just television to go to. It speaks to the medium itself and the content being created.”

 

ATX has already sold more than 25% of next year’s passes, and studios, networks and talent understand the benefit of signing up for panels and screenings that play to superfans who influence other fans. “They see that ripple effect,” says Gipson, “and see what an impact that can have.”

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