If you can’t beat ’em, as the saying goes, join ’em. And while the Sundance Institute won’t be dropping its efforts to foster the best in independent filmmakers anytime soon, the huge migration of indie film talent to TV series led the org to launch its first Episodic Story Lab.
“We’ve been hearing from our theater, feature film and festival alums that it would be great to have a program to support them making the transition from writing feature scripts to multi-episode storytelling,” says Sundance Institute feature film program founding director Michelle Satter.
The idea developed more than two years ago “as an opportunity for us to offer something that wasn’t necessarily being offered out there, as a training ground for our alums and emerging writers.”
It’s already produced results: all 10 writers who participated in the Sept. 27-Oct. 2 Park City lab now have representation (only half did at the start), one landed a staff writer position, and a network is in negotiations to pick up the pilot of another.
While the first lab boasted top creative advisers, including Howard Gordon (“Homeland”), Felicia D. Henderson (“Soul Food”), Jenny Bicks (“Sex and the City”), Greg Daniels (“Parks and Recreation”) and Warren Leight (“Law & Order: SVU”), the list of industry mentors was equally impressive, including HBO’s Francesca Orsi, Netflix’s Peter Friedlander, Shondaland’s Betsy Beers, A&E Studios’ Tana Nugent Jamieson, Ryan Murphy Television’s Dante Di Loreto, Gran Via Prods.’ Mark Johnson and Sundance Prods.’ Laura Michalchyshyn.
“We learned that there’s an incredible generosity among the working professionals out there in terms of helping the next generation,” says Sundance Institute exec director Keri Putnam.
The strong TV exec presence allowed participants to have a more practical industry education than what the Institute’s well-established directors or screenwriters labs offer.
“Pitching is an important part of the process, and all the writers had the opportunity to pitch their project to showrunners and mentors and get feedback,” says Satter, who notes that the lab allows participants to become “part of a community of showrunners and industry people who could be a support system as they learn how to navigate the business.” Other industry-specific parts of the lab included writers’ rooms for four of the 10 pilots (“It made it real,” Satter says), plus guidance from RT Features’ Rodrigo Teixera (from Brazil) and Sonar Entertainment’s Erica Motley on international distribution and sales.
With early encouragement from Putnam, Satter brought TV producer Jennifer Goyne Blake aboard as the lab’s senior manager after it received founding support from TV legend Norman Lear and his wife Lyn. The initial class was recruited via outreach to Sundance alumni, showrunners and execs, and the resulting pool of more than 900 writers were selected based on their submission of a spec pilot and series overview that would be workshopped in the lab.
Two in the class were Sundance Film festival alumni: Desiree Akhavan, whose pic “Appropriate Behavior” is a first screenplay Indie Spirit Award nominee, developed the bisexual sitcom “Switch Hitter”; and Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”), a short film competition juror, workshopped the limited series hijacking drama “Radical.” One attended Theatre Lab: (Lisa Kron, whose play “Fun Home” is headed to Broadway, developed the elder care dramedy “The Schaeffers”) and another attended a Screenwriters Lab (Katori Hall, whose play “Our Lady of Kibeho” recently played Off Broadway, worked on the black radio DJ drama “The Dial.”)
The fall 2015 lab will pull from a much wider pool of talent — the first open call for submissions is under way through Feb. 11 for the fall lab (applications3.sundance.org). And the Screenwriters and Directors Lab grad Rodrigo Garcia, who’s returning this month as a Screenwriters Lab adviser and the director of a fest feature premiere, “Last Days in the Desert,” couldn’t be happier about it.
“If you’re a young, talented writer, the temptation to work on a series rather than put yourself through the misery of development for a studio that may never make a drama again makes sense,” he says, “and good for Sundance to jump on that.”