Following the Sundance model

N.Y. Television Festival aims to sell pilots, connect artists with exex

When James Murray took the stage at the launch party for the second annual New York Television Festival in the Bowery in March, he was honored as something of a conquering hero by a room full of TV biz aspirants.

His comedic pilot, “Criss Cross” didn’t win the inaugural fest’s top prize in September, but six months later, it represented the event’s first commercial success when fest founder Terence Gray announced the A&E Network had bought the concept and commissioned a pilot. “Last year, I was thinking of moving to L.A. and closing up shop in New York,” says Murray, who had quit his casting job to come up with a show concept. “It catapulted my career 12 steps ahead.”

Since the first NYTVF was held, at least three other pilots have been sold or found distribution, including London Square Prods. animated comedy “The Back Brace,” which will be distributed by Premium Films in Europe.

With pilots selling, the festival is functioning as a market within the TV production ecosystem, bringing no small gratification to Gray, who has worked eight years to get the idea off the ground. He conceived of the festival as a platform to pump new blood into the TV biz, not unlike what Sundance did for film. “Our first goal is to sell pilots into series, but like any festival it’s about connecting artists with executives,” he says.

“Sometimes it’s hard for TV execs to see what an idea is on camera when they’re looking at a piece of paper,” says Jon Rosen, director of East Coast TV for William Morris, and a sponsor of the fest.

Thanks to Sundance, and the hundreds of indie film festivals that followed it, there’s a fat pipe for first-time writers and directors to get their work in front of industry decision-makers. But because of its penchant for established names like Bochco, Kelley, Bruckheimer and Wolf, as well as proven formats, the TV biz is harder to break in to, even with the explosion of markets for skeins. “Networks don’t look beyond the talent pool that has a proven track record of a successful show on the air,” says Jennifer Konawal, a Gersh agent who represents Morgan Spurlock.

“It’s very easy to go to the same well when you’re looking for programming, but to find that different way of approaching comedy or approaching reality, you need to find voices that haven’t been heard in the creative community,” adds Nancy Dubuc, A&E Network senior VP for nonfiction and alternative programming.

The NYTVF is attempting to position itself as a filter in this regard. Last year the fest fielded 235 submissions and chose 25 pilots for the competition, with few claiming representation. Each selection hewed to the basic conventions of the TV form as far as length, plot, story arc and characters. Most were made for $5000 or less; Murray made “Criss Cross” for $400.

Despite working furiously to get a series order for his half-hour skein, in which comics improvise conversations caught on video, Murray plans to enter the festival again this year, and pitch two new pilots, as well as a novel.

To think, at this time last year Murray was teaching to make ends meet. He had no pilot and fuzzy prospects. “It was a big gamble, but it paid off,” Murray says. “I had to ask myself, ‘Do you want to be someone who dreams of doing something or do you want to just do it?’ “