ATX Television Festival Is ‘TV Camp for Grownups’

ATX Television Festival
Matt Sayles

The ATX Television Festival kicks off its sixth annual fest on Thursday in Austin, Texas.

The four-day event has become known for bringing together just as many fans as TV executives and showrunners, making TV reunions happen (hello, “Gilmore Girls”) and, of course, queso and margaritas.

“It sounds really corny, but we truly are a celebration of television,” says Caitlin McFarland, who co-founded ATX with Emily Gipson.

Unlike press events such as Television Critics Association or fan blowouts like Comic-Con, ATX sets itself apart as a “blending of the two — the industry and the fan,” according to McFarland, who says, “Every year, I’m blown away by how much the people who make TV love TV.”

When ATX started back in 2012, the first festival attracted around 700 people. This year, 2,500 people are expected. While the sheer number of attendees has grown, the co-founders say the growth is really highlighted by the type of people with whom the festival collaborates.

“The first year of the festival was anyone that we knew or we knew someone that knew them,” admits Gipson with a laugh. Now, ATX works hand-in-hand with networks and studios that want to bring their talent to promote their programming. Plus, with ATX known as the starting point for the “Gilmore Girls” reunion, which then resulted in Netflix’s four-part revival series, the event has become a hub for TV reunions. “We’ll have people that will suggest reunions and say, ‘Next year, I’d love to come back with this other show that I did,” Gipson says of showrunners and writers.

Last year, ATX staged a reunion for “The O.C.” and “Ugly Betty.” This year will bring together the teams behind “Alias,” “Northern Exposure,” “October Road” and “The Comeback.”

“The show I’m most excited for is the ‘Sweet/Vicious’ screening,” says McFarland of the MTV series, which was cancelled by MTV after one season. “I don’t know what kind of power we have, but in today’s landscape, it would be awesome if it could find another home and if we could bring some more attention to it.”

Aside from reunion panels, ATX’s 2017 programming includes screenings and panels for hit series like NBC’s “This Is Us,” Fox’s “The Mick,” CMT’s “Nashville,” AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead,” Freeform’s “Pretty Little Liars” and “Famous In Love,” TV Land’s “Younger,” and HBO’s “The Leftovers,” which will be moderated by Variety TV critic, Maureen Ryan, and FX’s “The Americans,” moderated by Variety‘s executive editor of TV, Debra Birnbaum. The fest also serves as a launching pad for upcoming series like Freeform’s “The Bold Type,” Netflix’s “GLOW” and Fox’s “Ghosted.”

However, according to McFarland and Gipson, what really differentiates ATX from all other events of its type are the deeper conversations that go beyond the typical fest fare of producers and cast members chatting about their show, such as last year’s GLAAD panel that highlighted the “Bury Your Gays” trope.

“The other way we’ve grown is in the evolution of the conversations,” says McFarland. “We’ve kept the screenings and the panel conversations, and now five years into it, we can get into very specific pieces of the industry and the relationships.” Gipson adds, “Over the past five years, we’ve really taken on the voice of TV and the impact of storytelling and how it can influence culture and society … we’re really trying to use that megaphone of a voice and have those conversations start at the festival so then they can reach more people.”

Among those important conversations this year is a panel called “Complex, Not Complicated: A Look at a Woman’s Character,” plus another about socially-conscious sitcoms with panelists from topical comedies today like NBC’s “The Carmichael Show” and Netflix’s “Dear White People.”

Though ATX is “99.9% a television festival,” laughs Gipson, this year will see the first-ever film at the fest with Will Ferrell’s TV movie “A Deadly Adoption.” The event will also incorporate more late-night programing for festival-goers who want to take part in activities past 6 p.m., which has typically been when the festival shuts down in the past. Another big change this year? “It’s our first year without ‘Friday Night Lights,'” McFarland points out, noting the homegrown Texas show.

Speaking days before the ATX kickoff, McFarland raved, “Every year, we feel like this is kind of a party, which we fiercely protect. This community has become TV camp for grownups.”

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