How Independent TV Festivals Are Helping Fresh Talent Break Into Hollywood

Posters advertising the presentations of Catalyst. ITV Fest

Any established writer, director or producer will tell you that there is no one set path to success in Hollywood, especially when it comes to the world of television. But taking their cue from the independent film world, a growing number of artists have made their own independent TV pilots to prove their storytelling talents. And, inspired by Sundance and the like, festivals devoted to showcasing these pilots are on the rise.

This year, SeriesFest (June 18-24), the North Fork TV Festival (Oct. 4-5) and the Catalyst Content Festival (Oct. 9-13) devoted themselves to celebrating the best of these independent proofs-of-concept, original half-hour or hour-long episodes that aim to reach the attention of networks, studios or investors who might be able to help them continue telling these stories. The quality of these pilots has never been better, and the men and women running these festivals are determined to help launch their creators into greater success.

Why Is Indie TV Breaking Out Now?

Festivals devoted to independent TV have been around for over 10 years, including the original iteration of Catalyst (known originally as ITVfest, founded in 2006 by AJ and Jenny Tesler). But it’s been just the last four or five years that the realm has expanded, with film festivals like Sundance and Tribeca adding independent line-ups to their programming, while fests devoted to indie pilots have flourished.

What is it about this particular period of time that has enabled these stories? There are plenty of factors to consider. Catalyst executive director Phil Gilpin pointed out how the advent of the streaming wars has contributed to this shift, noting we’re now in an age “where networks have to fill an infinite amount of time, as opposed to just filling a few hours of prime time each week. All these streaming platforms launching, that’s the first component to it—just the sheer volume of content that the industry needs.”

And as North Fork co-founder Noah Doyle pointed out, five or six years ago even the concept of an independent TV pilot wasn’t something the industry was aware of, beyond one-off outliers like the original pilot for It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, or shows like Broad City and High Maintenance, which established an audience on the web before making the transition to television.

“The first thing that people in the industry said was that ‘I’ve never actually heard of a TV pilot being independently produced,'” he said. “Because that’s just not how it’s done in the industry, or at least it hadn’t been done five, six years ago. Times have changed.”

Doyle noted that in North Fork’s first year, they had to work hard to find a line-up of high-quality independent pilots to showcase, but “this year, people paid to submit, and we had dozens of phenomenal pilots,” he said.

The Value of Being a Destination Festival

One advantage these festivals have found is in bringing attendees to a unique location, as opposed to taking place in Los Angeles and New York City. Before this year, Catalyst (under its previous name, ITVfest) spent six years in Vermont, because, according to Gilpin, it enabled them to “escape the busy L.A. environment and take a bunch of creators and industry people to a retreat-like place where they could relax, get to know each other, and hang out for a few days. With TV being so relationship-based an industry, we wanted a location where people could get to know each other.”

Doyle shared similar sentiments. “We’re trying to create a community for a weekend,” he said. “And it seems that you can only do in places where, when the talent and the buyers and the creators come there, then they’re truly there just for the festival.”

Co-founder Lauren Doyle added that for North Fork, “Greenport is obviously the home for us…. There’s the food, the wine, the culture, just burgeoning there. It’s just a growing scene and a beautiful picturesque area.”

“I really feel like there’s something about going to Park City to Sundance, going to Austin for South by Southwest, where people leave their offices and they become fully immersed in our world. So I think creating a destination festival, while we knew it’s easier to get people to come to New York or L.A., we thought the long-term opportunities were stronger,” SeriesFest CEO Randi Kleiner said. “Denver obviously is just a great fit because it’s really easy from L.A., it’s pretty easy from New York. And it’s beautiful.”

In search of greater support from its location, this year Catalyst moved to Duluth after a search to find a town that would be fully engaged with the festival’s potential and offer no shortage of infrastructure upgrades, including a local airport and support from the state of Minnesota’s filming incentives program. “We have found the best of all worlds here,” Gilpin said.

North Fork TV Festival. North Fork TV Festival.

Providing a Pipeline

The biggest challenge for all of these festivals is what comes afterwards for the creators—specifically, how the fest can help them move forward with their projects. North Fork has an innovative approach: each of its selections this year was picked by a specific established showrunner. They included Smash creator Theresa Rebeck, Buffy the Vampire Slayer executive producer David Greenwalt and Farscape creator Rockne S. O’Bannon, and will also provide mentorship opportunities down the line.

“The hope is that, because it aligns with [the showrunners’] taste, that there will be a commercial relationship post-festival between the creators and the showrunners,” Noah Doyle said. “It’s still a festival, it’s still an open competition. But we’re really trying to use our resources for a different way of connecting the industry and the creators. Like everything else in entertainment, it’s still very hard, but we hope to make it just a little bit easier for these artists.”

For this year’s festival, Catalyst partnered with Abrams Artists Agency to offer up a path for its creators towards agency representation, because as Gilpin noted, “the age-old game used to be that you had to have an agent, but you couldn’t get an agent, until you sold your show. But you can’t sell your show until you get an agent.”

So, as part of this year’s festival, Abrams has committed to signing at least three of the creators screening there for future representation. “We’ve now created these relationships where executives and producers and agents are trusting that we’re going out and doing a good job, curating the content and curating the creators,” Gilpin said.

Kleiner likes to say that SeriesFest serves as “a bridge” between creators and the industry. “What was exciting to me was by showcasing these pilots, it allows these networks to really see the talent in a way that maybe just a 20-minute pitch, or even a script wouldn’t show,” she said. “We’ve had several cases where we’ve had series get picked up out of SeriesFest, and some of the networks said to me, ‘if these two young guys walked into our room, there’s no way that we would have given them a second look, but actually being able to see their pilot totally changed our perspective.'”

Why Exclusivity Isn’t Vital (Yet)

One thing that these festivals have in common is the occasional overlap between pilots they’ve programmed: As just one example, this year both SeriesFest and North Fork featured Rainbow Ruthie, created by Ruth Marantz, which features a former public access TV star who takes her on-camera skills to the YouTube world.

“We definitely take premiere status into account,” Kleiner said, “but we don’t not show things if they’re  shown somewhere else. The way that we look at it is, we don’t want an entire festival of stuff that’s been shown elsewhere—we like at least 60 to 70 percent, if not more, of our lineup to be premieres.”

But it’s not necessarily possible at this point for a festival to feature 100 percent exclusive premieres, Gilpin noted, “because TV is so different from film in terms of the economic model of it. When you make a film, you’re going to a film festival to sell a finished product. You make a TV pilot, you’re beginning a relationship that could last years with new executives and buyers. And we all know how long the development process can take on something—years. So a show that has screened at two or three other festivals in prior years is still brand new to most executives when they come to Catalyst to see it, and we judge it based on whether the executives attending the festival have seen it before. If the answer is no, then it’s still an opportunity for everybody.”

How Famous Faces Can Help

While these festivals are focused on indie creators, they do have one thing in common: finding ways to bring in established creators and stars for special events. This year, North Fork will be honoring Constance Wu and Kelsey Grammer with separate honors, which Noah Doyle said served a number of purposes attracting the attention of the press, and also encouraging general attendance, as “people want to be around people who are successful.”

This helps with a larger issue: Getting industry representatives to engage with the festival. “We haven’t figured out the full solution,” Noah Doyle said. “We’re only a third or halfway there. But if I look at the number of people that come out from Los Angeles and are talking about the festival or are joining one of our volunteer board, it’s more than doubling and tripling every year. And so we think we’re on the right path, but we have a lot more to do.”

Lauren Doyle noted, “one thing about bringing the actors and actresses and showrunners out to the festival is that a lot of times they also bring their managers and agents. And so some writers who were not known to the market have gotten representation as a result.”

For the first time, Gilpin’s festival will be honoring a lauded figure for her accomplishments—The Simpsons star Nancy Cartwright will receive the Catalyst, a lifetime achievement award. “The reason we hadn’t done it in the past was very simply that we didn’t want it to seem like it was just a celebrity or press ploy. Instead, the organization had grown to the point that we could honor one person a year, where it’s about their entire body of work and the inspiration that they can give to creators,” he said

SeriesFest has brought in established industry players from the beginning with special screenings of network and cable programming, in addition to its indie offerings. “It’s just another touchpoint for our creators to meet established executives and creators. I mean, having Sam Esmail of Mr. Robot out for our first year and getting all those creators to get to meet them, that’s a pretty cool opportunity,” Kleiner said.

She continued, “our main core mission is to support the independent community. But I think by having the network premieres, it’s really helped elevate SeriesFest as a brand, and it’s been a great launching pad for those networks’ shows.”

Unconventional Triumphs

While the path to success isn’t a speedy one for most, all of these festivals have success stories to brag about. Creator Sonja O’Hara, whose indie series Doomsday won multiple awards at ITVFest 2016, is now a WME client, making her feature directorial debut with the video game adaptation Root Letter. Dr. Illegal, a German pilot that made its premiere at SeriesFest, got picked up by Gina Rodriguez and CBS for an American adaptation. And Up North, a gritty tale of false imprisonment by the New York prison system, screened at both SeriesFest (where it won the award for Best Drama) and North Fork, and was just acquired by Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios for an eight-episode first season. Not only that, Kleiner noted, the lead cast of Up North also picked up agency representation within months of the pilot screening at SeriesFest.

These are just a few of the notable wins for creators who have been featured at these festivals, showing that there’s no one set path forward in this industry, but there is no path at all without being able to get Hollywood’s attention. “We’ve seen a lot of different ways in which things have been picked up and formatted. And I think we will continue to see variation on that, you know, as this idea of a TV marketplace continues to grow,” Kleiner said.

Said Gilpin, “Now there exists a pipeline where talented people can rise to the top through a vetted industry process that the industry trusts and can move forward. That’s the whole purpose right there, to be able to elevate those voices that otherwise wouldn’t be heard.”

Noah Doyle put their goal for North Fork like this: to ensure that every pilot they feature gets a chance to move forward. “That is the DNA of our festival,” he said. “The creators do not want accolades. They want distribution, and they want money, so they can tell the rest of their story. And we want to hear how their season one ends.”

How Independent TV Festivals Are Helping Fresh Talent Break Into Hollywood