Sundance Welcomes Influx of TV Programming
Courtesy of Netflix/Starz!/Amazon Studios

If this year’s unprecedented influx of TV series and the direction of the entertainment marketplace is any indication, the Sundance Film Festival may end up having to change its name.

After a few years of dabbling in episodic programming, following in the footsteps of fests like SXSW, Sundance is offering a record number of Special Events section series from the biggest names and networks in the business — including Hulu and Warner Bros. Television’s Stephen King miniseries “11.22.63” from exec producers J.J. Abrams and Bridget Carpenter, Netflix’s Chelsea Handler doc series “Chelsea Does,” CNN’s W. Kamau Bell travel series “United Shades of America” and Starz’s drama “The Girlfriend Experience” from exec producer Steven Soderbergh.

For some, like Starz CEO Chris Albrecht, the fest’s timing and his project’s pedigree (“Girlfriend” springs from Soderbergh’s 2009 Sundance-preemed feature of the same name) proved an irresistible match. “When you’ve got football and mid-season shows launching, the one-two punch of TCA and Sundance gives us a little wind in our sails before the show (debuts),” he says.

For others, like Netflix VP of original documentary and comedy programming Lisa Nishimura, Sundance is the key to a new distribution model. “In most cases with festivals, the frustration people experience is hearing about — and having online conversations about — projects they don’t have access to, ones that have to go through the theatrical window and all the downward streams of distribution on a staggered basis,” she says. “We’re uniquely positioned to premiere ‘Chelsea Does’ (at Sundance) on Friday and go live Saturday to our subscribers around the world.”

She cites their similar rollout of the feature documentary “Mitt,” acquired just before the 2014 festival, and notes that Handler will be adding to the buzz with a live-streamed TimesTalks panel Jan. 23.

Sundance word-of-mouth could be crucial for a relatively new service like Amazon (“The New Yorker Presents”), which has only nabbed a small fraction of the awards recognition and media traction garnered by other outlets. Cable channels such as ESPN (which, unlike the other networks that will premiere one or a few episodes, will show all 7½ hours of its docuseries “O.J.: Made in America”) get to be associated with the prestige of one of the world’s top doc fests — and online networks like Refinery29 and (“The Skinny”) gain a bump in prestige, as well.

Why has the episodic lineup expanded? “We’ve been talking to people for a while saying, ‘Here’s a place for a certain kind of episodic work,’” says Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper. “(Some producers) came to us, and there are a lot of filmmakers swapping back and forth between film and television.”

“When you’ve got football and mid-season shows launching, the one-two punch of the TCAs and Sundance gives us a little wind in our sails two months before the show (debuts).”
Chris Albrecht, Starz CEO

A few were tracked through Sundance Institute’s Episodic Story Lab, fest programming director Trevor Groth adds, “and as the opportunities for independent storytellers expands, it just raises the bar in both realms.”

Cooper points out that the TV projects are in the Special Events section, “which (is designated for) one-offs — you don’t repeat any of them — and what we do very closely at the festival is track audience appeal: ‘Are they drawn to this kind of work?’”

The freeform length, Groth adds, also presents new opportunities. “To be able to present that 7½-hour piece ‘O.J.: Made in America’ in one day is going to be one of the most exciting things we’ve ever done, for people that can actually take the time to do that,” he says. “It’s one of the best documentaries in a long time.”

Whether or not Sundance should take attendees’ time to showcase so many projects with network distribution — while so many films with distribution struggle to reach even small audiences — is another question that deserves to be tracked. But the move does open windows for onscreen talent like comedian Bell, host of the acclaimed FX and FXX series “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell.”

“I’m working on scripted ideas that are about me, and who better to play me than me?” Bell says with a laugh. “Sundance is an opportunity to put my 6’4”, 250-pound face in front of new and interesting artists who haven’t seen me before.”

Even some of Bell’s TV fans aren’t as familiar with his standup, which he’ll showcase at a private CNN Films Lounge show Jan. 22. “And already, because I’m at CNN, Morgan Spurlock and I became friendlier, and he directed my first comedy special, which is coming out soon,” he adds.

Transferring to another medium is also key for “Girlfriend” writer-directors Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan. They hope the fest helps forge a bigger path for independent film helmers in TV, and stronger support for projects created by auteurs with less network interference. “The traditional television model is still writer-driven, as opposed to director-driven,” Kerrigan says. “When the filmmakers write and direct the entire show, you will have a unity of vision that isn’t found in other models.”

Another key motivation for networks to premiere series at Sundance is the talent, which can turn it into a multifunctional junket for those with various projects. As Warner Bros. Television Group president and CMO Lisa Gregorian points out, their “11.22.63” star Sarah Gadon also stars in the Premiere entry “Indignation,” and the show is helmed in part by Kevin Macdonald, who also directed the fest doc “Sky Ladder.”

“We’re at a point in time at the studio where the rules don’t apply anymore, and things that were traditionally considered as ‘just television’ are no longer just television,” she says.

The crossover also helps add indie cred and cult appeal to a project that might otherwise seem more commercial — something showrunner and exec producer Carpenter (who was also the showrunner on one of the fest’s first episodic premieres, 2014 miniseries “The Red Road”) seems to jokingly acknowledge. “If I can do a little something to help Stephen King’s commercial prospects, I will feel good about it — give this guy a leg up!” she quips.

Yet because Sundance’s acceptance is a stamp of approval for the show’s quality, she adds, “it puts Hulu in the pantheon of premier cable channels. The Sundance Institute also supports theater development, so — I hate to use the word ‘brand,’ because it sounds cynical — as a brand, Sundance is about great stories.”

This year’s flood of series comes on the heels of Sundance’s first TV auction: the animated series “Animals” from exec prods Mark and Jay Duplass, which nabbed a two-season HBO deal within a few weeks of its Sundance premiere last year. “As the industry continues to place greater emphasis on independently financed television and over-the-top services, it’s forward-thinking for Sundance to strike a balance between them and its mainstay, independent film,” says ICM partner Kevin Crotty, who helped orchestrate the deal. “You just have to look at where the television business is going to see that it will keep Sundance playing in this game in a very real way.”

Even with overseas investors now eager to invest in TV series, the risks are far greater without a network onboard to cushion the fall of inevitable failures.

Still, as Mark Duplass points out, the risks can be worth it.

“Making the deals with your talent and crew is much more complex,” he says of “Animals,” which preems Feb. 5. “But, in the end, if you’re willing to be generous with the backend to your entire (team), the upside can be even more lucrative for everyone than a traditional deal.”

If you think that would lead to an influx of TV series hopefuls at Sundance this year, you’d be right — but while Cooper and Groth were approached by producers and sales agents with some 10-15 projects who hoped to have a similar auction to what “Animals” did last year, “they weren’t of the caliber we were looking for,” Cooper says. “Mostly what we saw were Web series, and mostly, the quality wasn’t there.” Groth adds, “I definitely think there’s potential there to create a kind of marketplace around episodic work, but for us, it’s never going to take the place of what we’re doing with film.”

That’s not to say that this year’s crop of projects without distribution won’t yield a TV deal: Senior programmer Mike Plante points to a few shorts that may develop into bigger series, including “Dinner With Family With Brett Gelman and Brett Gelman’s Family” (a sequel to the writer-star’s Adult Swim entries), “Bob Dylan Hates Me” (which helmer Caveh Zahedi “hopes to make (into) more animated shorts like this where he (dramatizes) awkward celebrity encounters,” Plante says) and “Speaking Is Difficult,” directed by A.J. Schnack for his and Laura Poitras’ online documentary series “Field of Vision.”

“It’s about shootings in America, and every time there is another, they’ll be adding more footage to this one short film,” Plante says. “I think that’s definitely the first of its kind, where a film grows over time due to public events.”

And as past years have shown, even full-length Sundance features can become de facto pilots for TV series — from the 2009 live-action blaxploitation film “Black Dynamite” that became an animated Adult Swim series to Soderbergh’s film — and shorts like Funny or Die’s 2010 entry “Drunk History,” which jumped to Comedy Central.

Indeed, several of this year’s players hope that their association with Sundance will help further blur the line between big- and small-screen projects. Nishimura points out that Netflix views the four “Chelsea Does” entries (the first of which will screen at Sundance) as “individual, proper feature films.” And many execs are hoping the distinction disappears entirely.

“Why not make it a film and television festival,” Starz’s Albrecht proposes, “since people are crossing back and forth between those worlds with an ease we’ve never seen before?”

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