Todd: As I've come to the end of the New York Television Festival and as I've seen the films that won the big prizes (recounted below), I've been wondering more and more about my opening essay: Is the world of independent TV possible? And if it is, is something like the New York Television Festival the way to get to that world? The answer to the first question, I'd say, is yes. The answer to the second is a very qualified maybe.
I know the answer to the first question is yes because I saw enough pilots at the NYTVF that were, frankly, better than the pilots that got on the air for the major networks this year. Gentrification was better than any comedy pilot this fall, and it had the bonus of actually feeling like a real TV show. Other shows, like The Stalkers, Pointless, and Jack In A Box, felt less like TV shows but certainly could become TV shows with the right sets of notes and network support. I'm less concerned that the independent-TV model will come to fruition because the content is there. Someone will figure out a way to make money from it and exploit it. There's still the problem of the fact that one can produce a pretty great pilot for $10,000, but one can't produce a great series (at least a traditional one) for that little, but I do think the idea of a festival where networks go to try to find material to pick up is a workable one and probably the best way to build an independent-TV movement.
So is the NYTVF that festival? It's certainly the most prominent TV festival out there, but the most prominent TV festival is still going to be pretty small potatoes compared to even a mid-level film festival. Despite the fact that all of the pilot screenings were completely free to the public, not a single one filled up completely, and a few of them (like the Nonscripted one) had only a few people attending them in addition to the show creators. A bunch of TV creators from Brazil flew in for the "this is what TV is like in Brazil" session, and the theater they were in (the smaller of the two) had only about a dozen people in it in addition to the Brazilians.
I was unable to attend any panels (and unable to get into the Channel 101 event on Friday), but my understanding is that they were better attended. This is likely why the festival is shifting to more of a panel focus and away from a focus on the pilots. Again, for a struggling festival, this makes sense. I haven't been to previous festivals, but those who had assured me that previous ones were in larger venues. The festival is probably trying to find a comfortable size that won't make it go out of business before it can become the Sundance of TV. But I think the pilots are where the festival is at. And I think that all it's going to take is one pilot being picked up by a major network for media outlets to start to take note. If ABC grabs Gentrification and gussies it up, the festival immediately becomes a must-cover, particularly if that show becomes a hit. But it's not quite ready to be that event yet, which is why I offer these six ideas for how the festival can be better.
1.) Don't schedule the event during premiere week. This is when TV journalists tend to be focused on, y'know, the upcoming premieres. In fact, the week before premiere week—when a lot of new show reviews get written—and the week after—when we're all ready to fall asleep—are probably bad, too. Aim for late August or early September. In fact, the week that starts in Labor Day would almost always be a good week to have the festival. It looks like you've tried these earlier dates before, festival organizers, so give it a shot again. As you'll notice, your news releases (and our pieces on your stuff) got absolutely buried by premiere-week coverage, not enhanced by it. Perhaps having this during premiere week gives you greater access to new show pilots and such, but that doesn't seem like what you should be focusing on.
2.) Focus on the pilots. You screened your 42 pilots over just three days. If a person wanted to see all 42, he could, but only just. What's more, those pilots only aired from about 5 p.m. until 11 p.m. Renting out the theater for longer probably cost more, but I think it may be a necessary expense. Running the pilot screenings from Monday through Thursday and from 12 p.m. until 12 a.m. will allow you more options. You could allow pilots longer than a half hour. You could air pilots independently, instead of just in blocks. You could build buzz for pilots if they aired more than twice. The current attempt to shuffle the pilots off to a smaller theater until the awards are handed out sort of defeats the purpose of the festival.
3.) Don't accept pilots that are obviously just reheated Web material. In a festival like this, you're obviously going to get pilots that are simple Web series re-edited to form longer storylines. But there's a good way to do this—as The Stalkers did—and there's a bad way to do it—as the_source did. This rule would disqualify one of my favorites, Jack In A Box, but the pilot has to work as an episode of television.
4.) Make the minimum length 11 minutes and the maximum length 60. This would cut out a lot of material, too, but there needs to be some sense that this is a TELEVISION festival and not a Web series festival. The shortest length of program currently airing on TV is 11 minutes (Adult Swim's shows). The longest is the hourlong pay-cable drama, which can run to 60 minutes. This may cause a temporary decrease in submissions, but most savvy Web producers will figure out a way to re-edit their material to make it at least 11 minutes long. The super-short entries that play more like comedy sketches or demo reels need to go.
5.) Offer press screenings or screeners for anyone who's willing to come to New York. The festival doesn't get press. So far as I can tell, The A.V. Club was the only professional outlet covering the pilot screenings. Giving the press access to material ahead of time can often backfire, but I can't really think of a way to raise the festival's profile outside of putting the pilots in the hands of influential people who write about TV. Let an Alan Sepinwall or a Maureen Ryan see some of these shows. That will build interest to bring more festival pass purchasers and so on.
6.) Move to Los Angeles. I do love New York. I think it's a great city for the festival. But, really, the heart of the TV world is in L.A. If you want to get network purchasers looking at these shows, L.A. has to be the festival's home. (I'm actually only really half suggesting this one, since I'm sure if NYTVF takes off, L.A. will immediately copy it. But this would be a way to head that off at the pass.)
Anyway, I had fun at my first New York Television Festival. Was it worth the expense? Probably not this year. But my hope is that with continued coverage, it will become worth the expense in the years to come. These things need time to build. Steve, what are your thoughts? And did you think the awards went to some terrible pilots, like I did?
People's Choice Award: Illuminati Brothers
Best Comedy Pilot: Illuminati Brothers
Best Drama Pilot: Pioneer One
AETN’s Best Nonscripted or Alternative Pilot: Til Death Do Us Parts
MTV Animation Award: 9 AM Meeting
Best Web Series Pilot: Jack In A Box
Best Actor: Ryan Judd for Sugar Babies
Best Actress: Kate Manning for Gelber And Manning In Pictures
Best Nonscripted Host: Kurt Braunohler for Pointless
Best Writing: Nipper Knapp, Matthew Letscher, Andrew Newberg for Gentrification
Best Directing: Justin Dec for Rolling
USA’s Characters Welcome Award: David Atkins as played by French Stewart for The Horrible, Terrible Misadventures Of David Atkins
IFC’s Out of the Box Award: Greg And Donny
Fox-NYTVF Comedy Script Contest: Austen Earl and Luke Cunningham for Red Delicious
Todd's top five:
1.) The Stalkers
2.) Jack In A Box
5.) Gelber And Manning In Pictures
Steve's top five:
1) I Confess
2) My Mans
3) The Bear, The Cloud, And God
4) Illuminati Brothers
5) Patrick & Molly And All The Small Things…
Steve's only addition to what Todd wrote: Todd nailed it, but I do have one thing to bicker about…moving the fest to L.A. Isn't the L.A. TV Fest, like, every single day of the year?