TV Hijacks Film Fests for High-Profile Bows

As rival top-tier film festivals across the globe began to program episodic television, Cannes’ artistic director Thierry Fremaux remained a notable holdout — until recently.

Earlier this year, he relented and invited David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” TV reboot and Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake 2: China Girl” to the Croisette for special screenings, the former with full red-carpet treatment. In April, Fremaux explained to Variety that while he is “not a big fan of series,” he justified the inclusion of Campion and Lynch as auteurs who are experimenting with “new narrative means.”

“Cinema remains a singular art, and we want to emphasize this while keeping our eyes open on the world that surrounds it,” Fremaux says. “And this world is more and more about TV series and virtual reality.”

Fremaux’s desire to keep the “film” in “film festival” was admirable, but possibly futile. Sundance, Toronto, Tribeca, South by Southwest, Berlin and Venice have all implemented programs dedicated to the art of episodic television, widely considered in a golden era. Even smaller festivals have included TV series in their programming.

TV’s major fest insurgence began seven years ago at, surprisingly, Cannes. Television reared its head at the festival by way of Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos,” an $18 million three-part miniseries that aired on Canal Plus and SundanceTV. That was followed by premieres for a slew of longform television projects at various film festivals including: Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic, “Behind the Candelabra,” at Cannes in 2013; Campion’s “Top of the Lake” at Sundance in 2013; followed by Lisa Cholodenko’s “Olive Kitteridge” at Venice in 2014.

But SXSW really shook things up in 2012 when the first three episodes of HBO’s “Girls” screened at the Austin, Texas, festival. That unprecedented series premiere was followed in 2013 by a screening of the “Bates Motel” pilot. Finally in 2014, SXSW programmers created Episodic, a program dedicated to digital and television series. Six shows destined for the small screen, including Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk Till Dawn,” Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” and HBO’s “Silicon Valley” were among those to debut.

Toronto and Tribeca quickly jumped on the TV bandwagon by creating programs devoted to episodic series called Primetime and Tribeca TV respectively. The first three episodes of “Transparent” season three and the U.K. anthology series “Black Mirror” premiered at TIFF, while HBO’s “The Night Of” and most recently Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” unveiled at Tribeca.

Twin Peaks” was joined by the small screen debut of “Top of the Lake 2” at Cannes.

“To say that we are only going to show work that is theatrically distributed is way too narrow a template,” says Tribeca Enterprises executive vice president Paula Weinstein. “The world has changed and in a time of great adventure, why would you stay home when you could go out and explore everything?”

No, she’s not being ironic.

The “changes” Weinstein points out are real and include budgets for independent films. A decade ago, buyers at Cannes were presented with multiple $100 million projects. Last year, only three or four projects exceeded $40 million. This year, $25 million may be the new $40 million, as Variety noted last month. The opportunity to create such game-changing content as “Reservoir Dogs” or “Beasts of the Southern Wild” for the big screen has become increasingly difficult.

Meanwhile opportunities on the small screen know no bounds.

“Television allows artists the time to tell the story,” Weinstein says. “The opportunity to take a novel and really explore it. Or the chance to really inhabit and tell a period piece or a futuristic piece. With features you don’t have that [opportunity] in the $30 million to $40 million range anymore.”

The shift has made many filmmakers including the Coen brothers, David O. Russell and Campion flock to TV.

“I migrate to the biggest, freest playground for storytelling and that happened to be limited-series television,” Campion says. “[“Top of the Lake”] was made with all the same equipment and method as film, maybe a bit quicker, and my practice was also almost exactly the same.”

The Palme d’Or winner also credits a “difficult” film distribution market and theatergoers for her decision to venture into the television landscape.

“Audiences are more conservative about what they will go out to see,” Campion says. “While the audience in their homes are pretty fantastic and bold as are some of the commissioning channels.”

As co-founder of New York indie production company Borderline Films, Antonio Campos has garnered plenty of festival success, having directed indie hits “Simon Killer” and “Christine” and produced 2011 fest breakout hit, “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” But last year Campos decided to give television a shot and directed his first pilot: USA’s “The Sinner,” which premiered in April at Tribeca.

“It’s hard to get people to go to the theater unless you are one of X amount of films per year that a distributor is going to put marketing money into for a campaign,” says Campos. “There is something nice about making something and knowing it’s got a home and it’s going to get seen.”

How many people will watch “The Sinner” when it premieres in August is anyone’s guess, but Alexandra Shapiro, NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment executive vice president of marketing and digital, entertainment networks, is confident that a Tribeca debut will only help increase those numbers.

She should know. In 2015 NBCUniversal screened the pilot of USA’s “Mr. Robot” at SXSW, more than three months before its June linear premiere. It wound up taking the fest’s audience award for TV. From there “Mr. Robot” generated the kind of heat that money can’t buy. The show made every best TV of the summer list and garnered shout-outs from famous fans including “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner, “Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul and even NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden.

“To win the audience award at SXSW, that was a stamp of approval and it created intrigue and interest,” Shapiro says. “Those seals of approval are incredible marketing tools for expanding your reach and appeal and getting people to lean in.”

Since it premiered, “Mr. Robot” has received six Emmy nominations, five Golden Globe nods and has won two statues at both kudofests.

“We would have gotten there, but I don’t think that the speed at which ‘Mr. Robot’ caught on and literally hacked pop culture would have happened as rapidly without SXSW,” Shapiro adds.

Showtime programming president Gary Levine is also a fan of the film festival premiere strategy. Recently the pay cabler took parts of the final season of “Episodes” to Tribeca and “Twin Peaks” to Cannes.

“It’s opportunistic,” says Levine. “First and foremost we want to get our shows sampled on any number of different platforms. Film festivals are a particularly attractive platform.”

TV is also an opportunity for film festivals. It’s a chance to be part of the golden age of television by curating what is relevant in the cultural zeitgeist.

“Right now there is so much, for lack of a better term, cinematic television being made,” says Michael Lerman, Palm Springs artistic director and TIFF Primetime programmer. “Is [bringing that work to TIFF] following not just a trend but where the good work is and a desire to showcase good work because that is by definition what we do for a living? Yes.”

While Lerman concedes that TV helps to draw large audiences to fest, he does not think that the Toronto Intl. Film Festival is going to turn into the Toronto Intl. Television Festival.

“Television is relevant, so we show it just like we show the most important films,” he says.

Both Campion and Campos want to make more of those important films. Both helmers were reminded by working in the television landscape just how much they appreciated where they came from — film.

“I don’t want to do any more odyssey filmmaking as in six hours,” Campion says. “It is very ambitious and exhausting especially when you are writing as well. My recent absence from the feature film length has made me appreciate its advantages like a great short story and that’s what I’m currently thinking about.”

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