How many film festivals are there? One-hundred? Two-hundred? More? Am I lowballing this figure? A quick Google search reveals over a thousand festivals worldwide, specializing in any niche genre you can possibly think of. In film school, a professor of mine would opine that the only criterion for getting into a film festival wasn’t quality but runtime.
What is the purpose of a film festival? Not from the festival’s perspective, but from the filmmaker’s themselves, the artists who have poured their life savings down the drain on a passion project of choice. Sure, there’s the social interaction these fests allow filmmakers to have with fellow contemporaries, fans, media, and most importantly the festival programmers themselves. Networking, though, is a means of looking ahead, establishing relationships that could pay dividends down the line. It’s about the future. But what of the present?
The ‘Holy Grail’ for any fledging filmmaker at any festival can be summed up in one word: ‘selling’. It’s why Sundance is the most prestigious film festival out there – because the chances of selling your movie, getting it released & distributed, increase from one in a million to one in a hundred or so.
SeriesFest, which had its inaugural run last week, is in many ways the first of its kind. How many Independent TV Pilot Festivals are there? Ten? Five? Am I highballing this figure? A quick Google search reveals only one other competitor – the well-regarded New York Television Festival… but other than that? Nada.
The LA Times in February proclaimed that Seriesfest “aimed to give television its own Sundance” – and you could certainly feel that vibe in the air, as over twenty-five different independent pilot/series creators made the trek down to Denver to hawk their wares. There was a Q&A after each pilot screening – and each one served as its own pitch session. The pilot would screen and then the creator would come up on stage, talk briefly about the “making of” before moving onto the direction of the series itself. Would it be episodic or serialized? What are the next two, three episodes? What’s the tone going forward? How long do you see it running? When are you planning on releasing it? Where are you planning on releasing it?
And therein lies the catch – a film is a finished piece of work with a beginning, a middle and end. A pilot, though, by its very nature is unfinished. It’s a set-up, an intro to a world and characters, the first chapter to a yet unwritten novel. And that gave SeriesFest a vibe different than any other festival I’ve yet been to — a sense of longing, an urgency to fulfill some unfinished bit of business. This wasn’t the last stop on a tour as so many film-festivals often feel like; but a launching pad for something, anything more.
The television landscape is in flux – there are an inordinate number of channels, all attempting to release their own original content specializing to increasingly fragmented and niche audiences. Nowadays there are shows about anything and everything, catering to any miniscule demographic imaginable. Shows set in the 1800s, 1900s, present, future, on foreign territory, in an office, at the White House, under a dome … anything and everything. Advertising is no longer about hitting the biggest audience possible but targeting particular subsets. The four-quadrant-skewing-broad hits are an antiquated species. Yes – shows like Big Bang Theory still exist – but they’re a far cry from the heyday of I Love Lucy or even Friends in terms of audience reach. It’s because of this fragmented audience that shows like Mad Men or The Good Wife or Inside Amy Schumer can exist and thrive. The smaller piece of the pie has become just as important as the larger piece. The result: now over three hundred and fifty original shows air per year.
Into this changing marketplace, enters SeriesFest – the culmination of this increase in original content and releasable outlets. It comes to figure that if more television shows are being made, indie filmmakers will look more to the burgeoning TV sphere than to the shrinking & overcrowded film market. This is what SeriesFest is betting on – that the talented struggling artists of today will forgo spending all their money and weekends on the next big film; instead creating the next big series. SeriesFest, under such a paradigm, would be the outlet to which these creators could screen and more importantly sell their work.
So what’s stopping this from happening? To be blunt: funding an entire ten-to-thirteen episode series out of your own own pocket is a mighty tall order. The cost for producing a ten-episode series would far exceed your typical ninety-minute indie; not to mention the amount of time it would take. Typically indie films are shot in under a month, if not two weeks. It’s why they’re often able to attach actors that would seemingly be far out of their reach. You can *maybe* get a ‘Ryan Gosling’ to do your small indie if it’ll take under fifteen days; but over a month or two or three – the length it takes to shoot an average TV show, there’s just no way. And therein lies the problem with the indie TV model: given the length of time to shoot and the limited budget, how do you attract quality top-tier talent? And why shoot just a pilot without the promise of finishing the story/series? This puts indie television in an existential quagmire. It’s too costly and time consuming to finish in entirety; but shooting just a pilot feels incomplete.
This would be where an indie pilot festival, like SeriesFest, could conceivably come in handy – making indie pilots into produced series. In the ideal scenario, distributers/buyers from different outlets & markets (the Hulus and Netflixes and Yahoos and maybe an NBC or two) would come down and snap up the most promising of the pilots, funding an entire series out of them. It would be the Sex Lies & Videotape or the Reservoir Dogs moment of the Independent Television world; and yet it hasn’t happened yet. No narrative indie pilot has ever been picked up from a festival and turned into a series*.
Of the twenty-six independent pilots screened this weekend at SeriesFest, I watched eighteen. The best of the bunch, David Eisenberg & Jon Higgin’s Witnesses ended up (deservingly) winning ‘Best Pilot’ of the festival. It’s a quirky ‘Fargo’-esque black comedy about two con artists posing as Jehovah’s Witnesses. The pilot (which will screen in the Denver area via Comcast) was the most polished, well-acted and nicely photographed; but it ended up feeling more like a very good ‘first act’ than it did a pilot of a series. Watch the trailer for Witnesses below:
Matt Soson’s admittedly rough-around-the-edges Monster Girls was the most successful ‘pilot’ — in the sense that it set up a number of intriguing characters whilst dangling hints at a larger mythology. A feminist slant on Being Human, Monster Girls focuses on three women, secretly monsters, who move in together and subsequently must fend off a lecherous male burglar. Of all the pilots, Soson’s would be the one I’m most keen to see a second episode of. Watch the Monster Girls trailer here:
Although I would love to see what kind of madness Exquisite Corpse’s Wrong Place could turn to in subsequent episodes. The show defies any sort of summarization or synopsis but suffice-to-say it’s a surreal mix of ‘David Lynch’ dream-logic with ‘Monty Python’ irreverence. It’s equally ludicrous, inspired, self indulgent, brilliant & slightly terrible. I almost loved it. These three pilots were SeriesFest at its best – and in a just world, there would be an upcoming series of each to tease. Watch the Wrong Place trailer below:
No pilot though was bought at SeriesFest: Season One. The dream remains just that. But this doesn’t feel like a defeat. SeriesFest may just be a little ahead of its time – waiting on the talent and distributers to catch up to this new end goal. At this point: it’s an inevitability that an indie pilot will sell at festival. It’s just a question of ‘who’.
Who will make it? And who will buy it? Season Two perhaps?
SeriesFest: Season One ran from June 18th to June 21st.
*The only indie pilots picked up to series are all unscripted: a) Bunk, a comedy-game-show b) Hard Parts: South Bronx, a reality show about an auto team c) Off the Hook, a fishing adventure show. All were bought during the NY TV Festival; all have been subsequently cancelled.