Not Just for Features Anymore
The Sundance Festival is screening more TV — and offering would-be creators another way into Hollywood.
Perhaps there’s no better sign of television’s cultural ascendancy than a quick glance at the annual Sundance lineup.
For the past four years, the epicenter of independent film increasingly has become a showplace for smaller-screen fare. In 2013, the festival raised eyebrows when it launched Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s series Top of the Lake with a single seven-hour showing. Just like that, it ushered in a new era of binge watching at the most venerable American film venue.
“It was an experiment for us: how is this going to feel at a film festival, watching it all in a theater?” says Trevor Groth, the festival’s director of programming. “People loved it. We got such great feedback from Jane Campion and then the audience. That really opened our eyes, and we said, ‘Hey, this is interesting.’”
As disruptive as that may seem to cinema purists, it also makes sense. Since Robert Redford launched the Utah-set festival in 1978, Sundance has been dedicated to compelling storytelling. It had already expanded its scope by creating a theater lab two decades ago. Television became a natural extension and a signal of the blurring lines of mediums.
Over the past four years, the slate began to reflect the evolution, with such content debuting as Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience and Ezra Edelman’s five-part miniseries O.J.: Made in America, which went on to win two Emmys and an Oscar.
Less than a year after Top of the Lake unspooled in Park City at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains, Sundance bolstered its TV commitment by launching an episodic lab, giving fellows an opportunity to develop series and pilot scripts with guidance from Hollywood producers and executives.
In so doing, it created a path for the next Soderbergh or Jill Soloway to bypass the traditional TV creator route and instead mimic the prototypical film auteur who uses Sundance to eschew the studio system.
"What I’ve seen in our lab is a really focused artist who doesn’t necessarily want to be staff on someone else’s show and build up their career over five years on the chance that they someday make their own show,” says Jennifer Goyne Blake, Sundance’s senior manager of the episodic program.
In a final indicator of TV’s inroads, Sundance soon thereafter opened its doors to selling series. In 2014, indie darling Mark Duplass approached Groth about premiering the animated series Animals and selling it at the 2015 festival alongside such movies as John Crowley’s Brooklyn and Sean Baker’s Tangerine.
That diverged from Top of the Lake, The Jinx, Girlfriend Experience and O.J., all of which already had distribution in place via SundanceTV, HBO, Starz and ESPN, respectively. If successful, it would mean a Sundance marketplace was open for TV business. Duplass wrangled buyers in the Egyptian Theatre on Main Street, and a frenzy followed.
“I was there in the room,” Groth recalls. “I wanted to see how it played and what the buyer’s response was, and it was huge. They sold it to HBO right after that. Ever since then we’ve had the notion of, ‘There might be an emerging marketplace for independent episodic work, and we can help play a part in creating a marketplace like we did for film in the late ’80s–early ’90s.’”
Given the incursion, is Sundance — next open for business January 18– 28, 2018 — due for a rebrand? Sundance Screen Festival, anyone?
“I wish I had a crystal ball so I could answer what the festival will look like five years from now,” Groth says. “I love movies and I love watching movies in a theater. So as long as I am working at Sundance, there will always be a huge film presence at the festival. But we’re going to respond to the artist. If there’s interesting work being done in whatever form, Sundance will support it.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2017