How do we build a better television festival?

How do we build a better television festival?

Todd VanDerWerff: Like you, Ryan, I just spent the weekend at the second annual Austin TV Festival, and like you (I assume, because I just project my own thoughts onto everybody around me), I found myself impressed by quite a bit of the festival while also wondering how it could be improved. A lot of that was just the usual “we are a festival in our second year” growing pains, and to the fest’s credit, it had those kinks mostly ironed out by day two. (The first day, I went to a My So-Called Life screening that ended with a supposedly 45-minute Q&A that only ran 10 minutes, perhaps because the panelists—including a third of the show’s cast and its creator, Winnie Holzman—had nowhere to sit. On day two, at similar screenings, out came the folding chairs and the official timers, who made sure the Q&As ran exactly the right length.) But some of my other questions led me to thinking more generally about what a TV festival should even be.

I have attended three TV festivals now, and I hope to attend ITVFest later in the summer. Yet the three I’ve attended have vastly different goals. Los Angeles’ Paley Festival aims, at least in its mission statement, to celebrate the depth and breadth of TV’s history, bestowing a sort of historical significance on the programs it offers panels for. (Much of this has worn off in recent years, as Paley has shifted almost entirely to covering programs of current or very recent vintage, particularly ones with easily monetizable fan bases, which is why Community has been there four years running, but I digress.) Paley is the most heavily curated of the festivals, offering one event per night over 10 to 14 days and using the Paley Center For Media’s considerable clout to create something more like a high-toned discussion series.

The other two fests are more convention-like. The New York Television Festival (like ITV) celebrates primarily independent TV, showing screenings of web series and independently produced pilots and trying to sell them to networks that might be in need of additional programming. So far, neither festival has had a show from its ranks really break out, but this seems to me only a matter of time. The Austin TV Festival (which we’re going to abbreviate as ATX from here on out, because that’s how the festival would like us to refer to it) aims for something more like a Comic-Con vibe, but it also adds in screenings to go with its panels. It’s like a greatly condensed Paley Fest, but because it comes in June, it offers little in the way of new content. Few shows are filming new episodes, and most actors and writers are on hiatus, making it hard to attract full casts or crews.

Now, this is all just on the calendar. There’s really no other place for ATX to be. Too much earlier, and it runs into Paley (not to mention all of the work that goes into the end of the TV season). Too much later, and it runs into Comic-Con. And to the festival’s credit, it runs a couple of programming slates that are really interesting, celebrating shows of the past (okay, shows of the ’90s) and shows that were canceled too soon. It’s also really female-friendly, a nice contrast to the more guy-centric Comic-Con, and a great reminder that there’s a lot more going on in TV than just the dude-heavy prestige dramas we all know and love—too often the template for what we assume equals “good TV” is guys pursuing their guy lives and having dark, violent adventures. This is not to say that ATX wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to have a Breaking Bad panel. It would have been insane not to. But Breaking Bad has Comic-Con, so it doesn’t need ATX yet. Therefore, ATX has found an underserved audience and is targeting that demographic as best it can, a move that seems to be working really well. In terms of gender, the crowds I saw at ATX were much closer to a 50/50 split or more heavily tilted toward women than any convention I’ve been to in the past, a welcome development, and two of the fest’s bigger draws were the female-friendly dramas Parenthood and Scandal, neither of which is going to pop up at Comic-Con any time soon.

At all times, ATX’s guiding principle seems to be “fun.” It ferries stars (and critics) from L.A. to Austin on board a “party plane,” featuring live musical performances and Mae Whitman tearing down the plane’s aisle like a child sprung free from her parents’ arms. It banks heavily on the appeal of watching TV in the dark with a bunch of other people who’ve already seen and liked that episode but will get something out of the communal experience. (At times, this works beautifully—as during a screening of the first season finale of Friday Night Lights held outdoors. At other times, it works… less well.) And it hopes that if it turns enough TV fans loose on downtown Austin, they’ll find something to talk about.

But even if it’s an exciting attempt, I don’t know if it quite works yet. Don’t get me wrong: It’s better than the increasingly ossified Paley lineups (which disappoint me more and more with every year), but it also never really suggests a compelling reason for its own existence, beyond, “Wouldn’t this be fun?” In a way, it keeps coming back to that question of what a TV festival even should be. I have my answer already—and it’s drawn from one of the last ATX screenings I attended—but I want to see if you arrived at it independently, so I’ll kick things over to you.

Ryan McGee: What I want a television festival to be and what ATX wants its festival to be are two different things, but that certainly doesn’t make theirs any less of a festival. But the primary programming focus stressed things people already like vs. exposing them to things outside of their particular comfort zones. This is a problem of many festivals, to be sure: In order to draw attendees, you have to offer them something they want to see. Often, what they want to see is something they already know they enjoy.

And I’m fine with that. Boy Meets World wasn’t the reason I flew down to Texas to attend this event. But I know plenty of people that went bonkers over the idea of sharing the same oxygen as Ben Savage. ATX didn’t so much use nostalgia and love for current programs as a Trojan horse to introduce television fans to other programs that might not be as familiar with. Instead, the festival primarily reinforced existing love rather than open up new opportunities for people to experience new elements about the medium. Now, this is only the second year of the festival, so it’s far easier to build up the event based on pre-existing passions. But with more than a thousand people in attendance (according to approximate figures provided to me by the co-founders), the time felt ripe to not only celebrate television but also probe its current place in the pop-culture landscape, which this festival managed to do a few times throughout the weekend. The “Pitch… Pilot… Pick-up” panel had a prickly nature that bypassed the weekend’s overall uncritical approach to television and saw its panelists actively argue about why certain shows make it to air in the first place. “Shifting Roles And Changing Perceptions” tantalizing teased out why the Louis C.K. DIY model may be the future of non-traditional production, even if it never quite elucidated why those onstage were equipped to help encourage that revolution. On the screening front, having Fox’s Enlisted as one of just two 2013-2014 pilots to air yielded a huge crowd and a raucous panel, exposing the audience to a show months in advance of anyone else.

That’s what excited me personally about this weekend, although I know plenty for whom simply being in the room with the (partial) casts of shows such as American Dreams and My So-Called Life rendered the weekend a success. There’s nothing wrong with that attitude, but a primary focus on that yields a festival that doesn’t so much engage with the content so much as blindly lavish praise upon it. The idea of deconstructing Friday Night Lights in a room full of 500 people is insane. But there are dozens of interesting topics above and beyond how great it was for everyone to work together on the show. To engage with a show beyond its surface doesn’t hurt a festival like this. In fact, it elevates it, especially if the panelists and the moderators are on their game.

I’m not calling for one approach over the other. But a hybrid of both? That’s something that feels simultaneously more substantial and meatier on the whole. Even in its second year, the ATX schedule was deep enough to allow a “Choose Your Own Adventure” quality to your personal experience. I doubt any two people had the exact same experience, so there’s already depth in place to accommodate different types of panels, screenings, and events that appeal to a broader scope of television fans. I love that ATX celebrates television with such passion and fervor. But critically analyzing television is complimentary, not contrary, to celebrating it.

Does that sound pretentious, Todd? You’ve been to more festivals than I have. I’d love to know what you think about my proposed dual approach.

TV: I was told going in to ATX that it was going to be a little more fannish than it was critically minded, and that’s fine, as these things go. At its best, only Paley can really walk the line between fannish excitement and critical introspection, and that’s because it has such a storied history that it can attract some big names. Yet this, too, is changing, as Paley moves to bigger and bigger venues it needs to fill. When I first moved to L.A., there would be theme nights that didn’t celebrate any one particular show. Now, it’s all shows on the air right now, and it’s usually better to have ones with intense fans, all the better to pack the movie theaters that stream some of the panels as well.

I can enjoy a more fan-oriented festival. I had a great deal of fun at the Scandal panel, which was literally just three actors from the show and one of its directors dicking around, while ET Online’s Jarret Wieselman occasionally tossed them questions that they riffed off of. And I, too, had a lot of fun at the Enlisted screening and panel, which just seemed like an opportunity for that show’s creator, Kevin Biegel, to have an end-run around the publicity gods to get the buzz started early for a show that doesn’t even have a specific première date yet. If it works, I expect ATX will move toward showing more and more upcoming pilots, because that room was packed with people ready to love Enlisted. (Fortunately, the pilot delivered.)

As I said, one of the panels convinced me of the direction the festival should head, and I still think there’s room for an enterprising TV festival to pursue it: showing new pilots. Most TV fans want to dig into these anyway, and if Enlisted (and AMC’s Low Winter Sun, which also screened at the festival) gets good buzz, then I expect that networks will be more willing to part with their precious wares. The festival also, intriguingly, showed a couple of pilots that weren’t picked up, as well as a never-before-seen alternate ending to American Dreams that was produced for a DVD that never came out. It’s this kind of “see it here first” material that will give ATX its teeth if it wants to be something more than a chance for fans to hang out with people who star on their favorite shows.

Because, really, that’s all Comic-Con is, and it’s become this huge deal in pop culture. But what it is at its heart is a chance for the cast of Doctor Who to meet its adoring public, or for a Star Wars fan to hope that Disney ships in Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford this summer to stump for a film that won’t even come out for a few years. I’ve never understood fandom all that well—my brain just doesn’t work like that—but I think it’s useful, and there’s a place for this. There’s a huge gap in the market for a festival that celebrates TV in this way, and both Paley and ATX are trying to fill it in very different ways.

But Comic-Con is also about the new and novel, about looking around and finding something that you didn’t know about that you’re ready to experience, even relating to one of your favorite properties. Whether that comes in the form of a major news announcement about a favorite show or some other fan pressing on you a DVD of the never-before-seen original pilot in one of the show floor’s many strange little shops, Comic-Con captures that heady feeling whenever it’s not making you exhausted. ATX hasn’t quite mastered that yet, just as Paley abandoning its mission to reunite the casts of older shows has significantly cut down on what that festival is capable of. Film festivals can take you down all sorts of fascinating paths, guiding you from movies by directors you love to cult classics in the making to new foreign films that may never play anywhere else in North America. The independent TV festivals capture some of this, but they’re also playing to very niche audiences right now. (Though, again, look out: Indie TV is just looking for its Sex, Lies, And Videotape before it breaks out in a huge way.)

Is ATX the festival to fill that particular niche? That, honestly, is something we might not know for a few years, simply because it’s going to take time for the networks to build trust with the organization. I’ll say what I saw felt like a good start, but it needs to be more adventurous and needs to more firmly explain why fans of shows should come beyond the chance to see Bess Armstrong in the flesh (which, I won’t lie, was a treat).

So tell me, Ryan: What’s your ideal festival look like?

RM: We’re in agreement that “new” is key to any type of festival. Fox’s marketing department had a presence at ATX, and I would love to know what type of feedback executives at that network got from Austin. The types of fans that would go to a television festival are those that read websites such as this, but also ones that traffic in behind-the-scenes machinations that were obscured from popular view merely a few years ago. They know which pilots get picked up, they’re aware of the difference between “first” and “second” position when it comes to these shows, and they want to see new content as soon as humanly possible. Providing new things that attendees can only see at the festival, whether that be a one-of-a-kind reunion or a yet-to-be-aired pilot, seems paramount to the success of any television festival.

Your point about Comic-Con drove home something I felt even if I couldn’t quite articulate: Boy Meets World is to ATX as Doctor Who is to Comic-Con. Traveling to both events to see those respective shows makes all the sense in the world to fans of those programs, and seems absolutely bonkers to everyone else. I think you and I both love sci-fi, fantasy, and other “genre” programs. But having a festival that celebrates the types of shows that don’t normally get their own convention feels like a smart way to tap into an underserved market. Any festival I’d hope to attend should keep these types of shows, in addition to tapping into the already established fervor of the genre audience. It’s all too easy to assign a certain type of show as festival-worthy, so broadening the scope out to shows that have appeal beyond the typical shows we cover seems like a smart way to ensure a broad spectrum of fans.

But while going wide is nice, any festival worth its salt has to go deep as well. The format of ATX currently allows for a maximum of 60 minutes of discussion, give or take the occasional outlier. I’m not sure I attended a single panel (including one I was fortunate enough to moderate) in which I thought, “Yeah, we’ve definitely covered this topic exhaustively.” There are times in which leaving the audience wanting more is a good thing, but when the discussion cuts off because the room needs to clear for the following session, it can lead to disgruntlement. A 90-minute, or even two-hour, session might be absolutely deadly if those onstage aren’t up to the task. If Paley is moving away from deep critical introspection in favor of more fannish events, then ATX can fill that void by programming in-depth analysis of the medium’s most pressing issues and vital topics.

On top of that, I’d also want an equal focus on those behind the camera as well as in front of it. To be sure, ATX had showrunners, directors, executives, and technical staff in its panels. But the real problem was that there was little in the way of variety in terms of the panels. Each featured a moderator questioning a panel for roughly 75 percent of the time, with audience Q&A taking up the remaining portion. There were no lectures, no multimedia presentations, no debates, or anything that might have given variety to the information and insight deployed onstage. I don’t want to hear someone talk about how a decision in the editing room affecting our enjoyment of a scene. I want to see the editor and director break down each shot on a large screen and help me understand the impact of those decisions.

One last thing: I’d love for this festival to have a relatively large space (or multiple, smaller spaces) in which attendees could meet up, talk, and collaborate when not attending official programming. It’s all fine and good to sit around and watch TV in our living rooms and then write/tweet/comment about them in solitude. But one of the most fun things about ATX was simply getting to meet readers and talk about our favorite shows, characters, and scenes in person. I’m not sure if watching TV in the Alamo Drafthouse represents the ideal way to watch shows. (I mean, did you see Cult?) But I know I had a hell of a lot more fun sharing opinions and theories with people over a drink than over a broadband cable. Any good festival creates spaces not just for panels and screenings, but conversation as well. That can happen between a panelist and an audience member. But it can just as easily happen between two people who have nothing in common except temporary geographical proximity and a love of the medium. Fans can’t count on certain stars to return the following year, but they can almost certainly rely on seeing their new friends in 12 months’ time.

What did I miss? Anything you’d add or subtract from that list? And when can we make this happen? Because now you’ve got me excited. Thanks a bunch, Todd!

TV: At The A.V. Club TV Festival, coming to Shreveport, Louisiana, this November! (Note: Festival may be imaginary.)

I like your idea that conventions are often about providing spaces for attendees to come together. Comic-Con’s show floor does this, but ATX really lacks anything similar right now, outside of people standing in line together. Come to think of it, the other TV festivals I’ve attended lack this as well, perhaps because they still primarily think of themselves as TV versions of film festivals, instead of a gathering place for TV fans.

Because let’s face it: The idea of TV as a communal medium has only really come into its own in the last few years. The best moments I’ve had at any TV festival were when that festival took what’s usually a private moment and expanded it into a public one, be that watching “Once More With Feeling” with a bunch of Whedon acolytes at Paley several years back or enjoying the hell out of the My So-Called Life pilot again at ATX with a bunch of people my age who only slowly started to realize that they now identify almost as much with Angela Chase’s parents. 

The television festival has yet to really define itself as a “thing,” but I’ve had moments as great as anything in my viewing life at Paley, NYTVF, and ATX. My hope is that it’s sooner, rather than later, that somebody figures out a way to blend all of them together into something that emphasizes the fun of talking and watching TV in large groups with some of the more introspective and critical discussions that your stronger conventions (yes, even Comic-Con) provide. Will ATX turn into that? It’s too soon to tell, but there are the makings of something great there. Now, the idea just needs time to marinate.

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