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Sundance 2015: Can an animated animal show change the way TV is made?

'Animals' by Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano takes a surreal look at the neglected urban creatures of New York

The golden age of television has brought with it many soul-satisfying creations, catering to a range of tastes that would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago.

What hasn’t changed is the path by which television goes from the mind of its creators to the screens in our homes. The TV development process—with its longstanding emphasis on pilots and script sales—unfolds today pretty much as it has for decades, with only an occasional tweak or variation.

But a pair of first-time writers, along with a veteran duo of producing brothers, think that should change. And at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, they will put their hypothesis to the test—with the help of some frank-talking, hand-drawn rodents.

The show that the writers, Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano, have come up with is called “Animals.” They  envision it as a 10-episode season that follows an anthropomorphized set of neglected urban creatures as they go about their lives—rats looking for love at a party, a chat between a Central Park carriage horse and a police horse about friends who’ve moved on to parade work.

For all the whimsy of its premise, “Animals” -- which is executive produced by the hyphenates Mark and Jay Duplass — feels like an animated pitch that might get batted around the offices of Adult Swim or Comedy Central on any weekday.

Except for one difference. The show — all 10 episodes — have already been written. They have already been animated, produced, voiced and edited. They are finished and all ready to go, waiting only for someone to come along and give it a home. Just like, well, a lovable animal.

The model “Animals” is seeking to create might be called independent TV, and it basically seeks to do for the small screen what indie films long ago did for cinema — forge a culture in which non-corporate sources of financing enables content to be made well outside the system, landing inside it only after it’s fully formed and ready to be distributed.

It seeks, in other words, to find the television equivalent of “The Blair Witch Project,” "Precious” or "Napoleon Dynamite,” all of which came into the world in just this way.

“There was a moment in film where people said 'Hmm, I can grab a camera and make something relevant,’” said Mark Duplass. “That was mostly [John] Cassavetes, and after he did it a business cropped up around it.”

As with independent film,  indie TV bets on a creative idea as much as a business one — that there’s a smarter alternative to the traditional method of studio notes, long gestation periods and creators who spend as much time fighting for their vision as executing it.

So with the 10 episodes in hand, the “Animals” crew has landed at Sundance, where on Monday they will debut the first two episodes to television buyers in one of the confab’s storied venues for indie film. If the buyers like what they see, producers have the other eight episodes at the ready—and the ability, essentially, to demonstrate to TV honchos with rare specificity exactly how a season will play out. Options on future seasons, which the pair have already begun to map out, are also on offer.

Sundance has become a more popular stalking ground for TV types, who look for filmmakers they might hire on their shows. It also is heavily  attended by the likes of Netflix and other hybrid TV-film entities.

What the executives will see when they attend the "Animals" screening will have its selling points.

The show, which offers both self-contained and open-ended stories, has forgotten critters of New York taking on human and surreal qualities---rats “make babies,” a euphemism for having sex that becomes less euphemistic when babies materialize instantly, in one instance ending up back at the same party where they were conceived. In the first episode, a socially awkward rat also makes a choice that is understandable and tragic.

“We like the idea of real emotions swirling, and how that can mix with a more immediate sense of comedy,” said Matarese, 25. “What can be fun and brassy about the in-your-face style of Adult Swim combines with the dichotomy of them being animals, which allows us to pull back and see how naive they are about things.”

Added Luciano, 27: “The rats are us in our late teens and early twenties. And the pigeons are us in our [future] late thirties.” (You can watch a sample here.)

Despite the novelty of the premise, there is something poignant and identifiable about the enterprise—“the fun and raunch of Trey Parker and Matt Stone with the existential musings of [Richard] Linklater,” Duplass put it.

Matarese (who does all the drawing) and Luciano (who handles much of the recording and editing) were working at an ad agency just a few years ago when, on a break one day, they noticed two pigeons sitting on a ledge. They began imagining the birds’ lives and conversations, and before long were drawing and voicing shorts about them.

Mark Duplass met the pair through a mutual Hollywood contact. The duo had attracted some notice after putting those shorts online, and also gained some exposure at an event called the New York Television Festival. They were close to making a standard network pilot deal when Duplass, who had been through some painful TV development experiences himself, painted a set of undesirable scenarios.

“I told them, ‘Look, one of two things is going to happen with this show,” he recounted. “A network is either going to buy it, beat the… out of you for a year and a half, and you’ll end up with a pilot you’re not happy with. Or a network is going to buy it, beat the… out of you for a year and a half, you’ll fight and get a pilot you’re happy with and then they won’t greenlight it to series because it’s not what they wanted.”

Duplass offered them a better way. The filmmaker — who helped usher in a contemporary market for humanist indies at Sundan ce with his 2005 romantic dramedy “The Puffy Chair” and currently has gone the pay-cable route himself with the HBO series “Togetherness” -- could set the pair up with the production company he runs with Jay Duplass. (The latter, as a star of Amazon's "Transparent," is himself no stranger to new models.)

The Duplasses could offer Matarese and Luciano some money from a development fund, as well as some creative guidance along the way—the kind of informal, take-what-you-will suggestions big Hollywood entities are not exactly known for. The Duplasses couldn’t pay them much, but they would ensure that Matarese and Luciano owned half the show, giving them plenty of upside if it sold.

Thanks in part to the Duplass' connections, the show also would also be able to land some notable voices, including the likes of Aziz Ansari (much of the dialogue is improvised). Matarese and Luciano were convinced.

Of course, as it is the indie world, that meant the money was going to the project, not them, and they had to spend months still working at the ad agency. “We would leave our desks and go to a storage closet, lock ourselves in there and have these calls with Mark and Jay,” Luciano said.

There have been some exceptions to the traditional model of networks greenlighting pilots or series—the pilot for “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia” was produced independently and then shopped to networks, and Amazon has sought to create a more user-generated pilot system—but for the most part companies continue to make TV as they always have. They want to see a script before they commit to a pilot, and they want to see a pilot before they commit to more episodes.

In some ways this would seem like an inopportune moment for something like indie TV. After all, there are more television platforms than ever—Amazon and Netflix continue to show a ravenous appetite for original programming, and many premium and basic cable networks are going strong.

But Duplass says that the emergence of high-quality television across a large number of platforms has, paradoxically, made it harder for independent creators. With the likes of Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher banging down their doors, TV executives have less of a need to turn to first-timers.

Or, put another way, as high-quality TV continues to increase, the need for indie TV rises with it.

Still, the road ahead won’t be smooth. For one thing, 10 or 12 episodes of television is expensive, even for a half-hour series, essentially adding up to two or three movies. Financing an independent film is hard enough; financing it as well as a couple sequels is that much harder.

Maybe more fundamentally, TV executives like to leave their imprint on a show, especially over the course of a season. Indie film comes with a tradition of executives who buy movies ready-made and instead pour their efforts into marketing and distribution. The TV apparatus is set up with an expectation that those buying in will have some say in how it unfolds, even when networks are relying on outside studios.

Duplass says he knows this is all new ground, and isn’t sure what to expect.

“My high hope is that this will find a premium home and also launch their careers,” he said. “What I’m willing to accept is that we’re coming up with something that’s a little aggressive and maybe a little ahead of the game, so if we can make our money back and the press loves the show, that’s OK too.”

Matarese has a different bar for success, and he said it’s already been reached. “We got a chance," he said, "to make 10 episodes of the show exactly as we wanted to make them," he said.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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