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Sundance Gets Serious About Series

Topper Sarah Barnett drives cabler into AMC territory with "Rectify"

Can lightning strike twice at AMC Networks? Sundance Channel is looking to get on the AMC track this year with its aggressive push into original scripted series, starting April 22 with the premiere of “Rectify.”

(From the pages of the April 16 issue of Variety.)

The channel’s makeover is in the hands of an energetic Brit who cut her professional teeth producing radio and TV programs for the BBC before heading Stateside. Sarah Barnett (pictured above, right, with ‘Top of the Lake’ star Elisabeth Moss), who was upped to Sundance Channel prexy in February, brings a producer’s eye to the tricky task of steering the cabler into new territory. Although Sundance has steadily added original series during the past decade, most viewers know the cable net as a haven for esoteric (and then some) indie films.

“I felt we needed to create more urgency around coming to the network,” Barnett said. “With the way technology is changing, people come to linear TV for film content, but they can go to digital platforms too. I was very aware of the great brand equity of Sundance Channel. My emphasis had to be on original series that have real must-see quality.”

Sundance has dabbled with narrative miniseries in the past (“Carlos,” “Appropriate Adult”) and earned strong reviews last month for Jane Campion-helmed murder mystery “Top of the Lake,” toplined by Elisabeth Moss. But it’s recurring series that will make or break the channel’s effort to grow its advertising base and affiliate fees.

Rectify,” created and exec produced by Ray McKinnon, centers on a man’s struggle to reintegrate into his Southern hometown after nearly 20 years on death row. Although rape and murder charges against him are dropped, the locals still are still wary. Produced by Mark Johnson, the project was initially developed as a script for AMC before migrating to its sibling net.

“Great storytelling is where the roots are in indie film,” Barnett said. “That’s where we’re going with scripted. “Rectify” has an emphasis on layered, character-based story.”

The show aims to tap into the intensity and character nuances of “Breaking Bad” and other edgy cable dramas. The search for the show’s leading man was not an easy one. The final decision to cast thesp Aden Young came down a week before production was set to begin in Georgia.

“’Rectify’ allows the characters to breathe,” Barnett said. “We needed an actor who could be subtle, yet also capable of those intense moments. You need to project this idea of innocence and danger, and the actor has to be able to communicate these contradictory things.”

Barnett, known around AMC Networks for her sartorial flair, has been a key driver of the Sundance vision since joining the channel from BBC America in 2005 as a marketing exec — just in time to watch how AMC blossomed with the launch of “Mad Men” in 2007.

Barnett was tapped to oversee Sundance’s programming and marketing as exec VP and g.m. in 2009. She steered the expansion of its unscripted series slate with such projects as “Push Girls,” “All on the Line,” “The Mortified Sessions” and “Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys.”

Now that parent company AMC Networks is investing big in scripted content, Barnett is eagerly leveraging the Sundance brand to develop projects with notable creative partners including Steve Buscemi, Robert Redford and Ira Glass. Last month Barnett ordered Sundance’s second original series, “The Descendants,” about a small-town sheriff caught up in a war between the locals and the Native American community.

Word of mouth will be crucial to generating buzz for “Rectify,” which will spare no opportunity to emphasize its connection to “Breaking Bad” via producer Johnson. Sundance has picked up rerun rights to “Breaking Bad,” and will pair those encores with “Rectify” on Monday nights.

The first three episodes of “Rectify” will be made available on cable VOD a week before the premiere. And repeats will air after “Mad Men” episodes on AMC on Sunday nights.

“The ‘Mad Men’ audience is a great audience for ‘Rectify,’” noted Barnett, who hopes the cross-promotion will drive AMC viewers to discover her channel.

It takes a village to launch great shows,” Barnett said.

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