ATX TV Festival emerges as a prominent marketing tool for networks

ATX TV Festival, a 4-day event in Austin, Texas, caters to loyal fans of TV and those working in the industry

There's a place where "Gilmore Girls" alums and "Empire" bosses roam free, where "The Leftovers" and "Lost" creator Damon Lindelof is on the same ticket as Disney Channel royalty "Girl Meets World."

It's called the ATX Television Festival.

In the midst of television's new golden age that has kindled a torrent of online TV recaps and postmortem showrunner Q&As, it aims to be a one-stop shop for TV fandoms, many of which might not get the time of day at mega pop culture festivals such as Comic-Con or SXSW. Founded by thirtysomething former Fox studio assistants Caitlin McFarland and Emily Gipson, the annual four-day affair takes place in Austin, Texas, and caters to loyal fans of TV and people who work in the industry. It includes screenings, premieres, industry panels and cast and crew Q&A sessions of shows of the past, present and future.

"We wanted it to feel like TV camp for grown-ups," McFarland said. "A place where you could go and live in this world where the people on shows you admired were sort of like camp counselors, there to share their wisdom and keep you entertained."

It's not the only TV fete. The New York TV Festival is an industry-driven networking event with an emphasis on independent television; PaleyFest, held by the Paley Center for Media, holds only one event a night over the course of two weeks and is less festival in nature. And, in just its fourth year, it's by no means the most comprehensive.

These events are emblematic of the growing prominence of television in the media landscape — and the need to celebrate it in a more substantial way. There were more than 352 scripted original shows last year on broadcast, basic and premium cable, and streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon — a number that will probably grow. Advertisers will spend more than $70 billion on TV advertising this year, according to ad tracking firm EMarketer.

And as networks look for new ways to stand out and build buzz, ATX TV Festival is emerging as a worthwhile sliver to the marketing pie.

FX, Fox, USA Network, Starz, HBO and Adult Swim are among those listed as sponsors. But other networks and studios participate by giving permission to screen episodes.

"All these festivals are just part of the bigger picture," said Dominic Pagone, senior vice president of communications at FX Networks. "There aren't many events that focus solely on television. It's become part of the major promotional machine to get that buzz and word of mouth going, and the press presence has increased over the years."

FX's stable of shows featured this year will include new comedy "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" and returning comedies "Married" and "You're the Worst."

USA Network, which partnered with the festival in its first year at the urging of "Royal Pains" executive producer Michael Rouch, will kick off this year's festival with the premiere of the new drama series "Complications" on opening night.

"A festival that is committed singularly on this medium and celebrating its past, present and future, I think is needed in the marketplace," said Alexandra Shapiro, the network's executive vice president of marketing and digital. "I think when you see the players that are participating this year, versus Year One, it clearly feels like it's growing into a destination for TV lovers."

ATX sold 1,700 tickets for this year's event that starts June 4, sharply higher than the roughly 700 people who attended the first one in 2012. It sold out in large part to its "Gilmore Girls" reunion panel that will include 19 members of the cast and production team, including the show's creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, and stars Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel.

It's quite the fast forward from when the festival used fringe connections to pin known names to its advisory board and was originally funded through Kickstarter contributions.

McFarland, 31, and Gipson, 33, secured the likes of Bill Lawrence ("Scrubs," "Cougar Town"), Julie Plec ("The Vampire Diaries," "The Originals"), David Hudgins ("Friday Night Lights," "Parenthood") and Richard Linklater ("Boyhood") on its advisory board.

"There's all these great movie festivals, but there's no showcase and no forum for great television on an intimate level like this," Plec said. "And, I mean, if you like 'Gilmore Girls' and queso, there's really nowhere else you should be."

The event's first year, which McFarland and Gipson fittingly refer to as "season," cost about $85,000. McFarland and Gipson raised about $37,000 with two Kickstarter campaigns, and the rest came from ticket sales and a handful of small sponsor support from networks such as HBO and USA Network, as well as the Texas Assn. of Film Commissions.

"We made no money, we lost no money," Gipson said.

McFarland had been working at Anthropologie in the lead up to the first festival, and Gipson was working at TLC. The festival and its side offerings are now their full-time job. They have a crew of three, including two interns — and add contract-based workers and volunteers in the months leading up to the festival. In January, they traded working out of an extra room in McFarland's apartment in favor of actual office space.

The budget for this year's festival has tripled.

Its stable of offerings in its short run have included programming as varied as reunions of "Roswell" and "Will & Grace" cast members, a panel on the semantics of Nielsen ratings in a shifting TV landscape and TV pitch competitions. And it's been a springboard for shows such as Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black" and FX series "Fargo" and "The Strain."

The size of the crowds that networks are relying on to help spur buzz are relatively small. There is no more than 500 people in a room — "Gilmore Girls" will be the exception this year, with its panel taking place in a 1,200-seat theater. But that's the point, Gipson and McFarland say.

"We wanted it to feel like a Ted talks conversation," Gipson said. "People's guards are down in a different way. It's almost a one-on-one experience. And we want to keep it that way. Sure, it'd be great to add more panels to our lineup and expand that way, but we don't want to ever lose the intimacy. Our goal is not quantity in that way."

Or as Hudgins, the "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood" producer, put it: "It's the kind of festival where you can be walking through the lobby of a hotel and a fan can ask you a question about the show and you can talk like peers."

The ATX TV Festival brand has expanded in other ways, branching out into production and year-round programming with various events such as a "House of Cards" half-marathon bingefest that included a video Q&A with creator Beau Willimon.

"There is so much TV out there," McFarland said. "And TV is more community-based than any other art form. What we're doing seems like a no-brainer."

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
55°