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The small screen gets its Sundance

Times Staff Writer

As an aspiring television writer with no industry contacts in the mid-1990s, Terence Gray hit on an unorthodox way to draw attention to two comedy scripts he had co-written: He staged them in Greenwich Village theaters. No networks bit, but Gray did get an agent out of it -- and the germ of an idea that took nearly a decade to bear fruit.

His notion: Why not create a platform for unknowns seeking to break into television, a place that allowed writers, producers and actors without Hollywood lineage to showcase their products for network executives -- a kind of Sundance Festival for the small screen? New York, the birthplace of the television networks and home to a large community of artists, seemed like the perfect place.

After eight years of pitching and persuading, the first New York Television Festival opened Wednesday with the backing of TV Guide, such networks as NBC, Fox, MTV and Comedy Central, and powerhouse agencies like William Morris. Participants are an eclectic lot that includes a former NASCAR racer and a metalworker in Madison, Wis. Most found out about the event online or at one of three launch parties in New York, Los Angeles and London earlier this year.

As the first event of its kind, the television festival represents an initial step toward creating an alternative way to develop programming outside the studio and network system. But it remains to be seen whether the five-day event has the potential to remake the television industry the way Sundance and other film festivals affected the movie industry by jump-starting an independent film movement in the 1990s. Now fixtures in the film world, the events -- including the New York Film Festival currently underway -- have elevated the profile of indie filmmakers and introduced bolder fare that breaks the traditional model.

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While organizers say they’ll be happy if just one of the 25 pilots being screened at this week’s festival gets picked up by a network, they hope the event will eventually wield the kind of influence that film festivals have had.

“The enduring legacy of those festivals may be that they forever changed filmmaking, both from the executive and artistic levels,” said Gray, now 35, who eventually got writing and producing jobs at Comedy Central and ESPN. “They creatively raised the bar on cinema, and that’s what we wanted to do for TV.”

With the ever-expanding universe of cable and the burgeoning field of new media, the competition for original material has grown increasingly fierce -- to the point where network executives are willing to depart from the traditional development process to find it.

“We’re all in the business of ‘What’s next?’ but we’re used to going to the same old places to find out what’s next,” said Nancy Dubuc, senior vice president for programming at A&E; Networks, who plans to attend three days of the festival. “What I hope comes out of this is a different point of view.”

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The television festival is expected to draw about 5,000 people, including a substantial number of curious network executives and agents. There’s no question that the industry has an appetite for new material; the last year provided the broadcast networks with just a few breakout hits while the new fall season features a handful of truly original programs and a plethora of imitations. (For example, nearly every network is offering a supernatural-themed drama aimed at capitalizing on the success of ABC’s “Lost.”)

Still, industry leaders warn that it’s unlikely the New York event will bestow creators of indie TV with the kind of instant buzz that Sundance has given winning filmmakers.

“It’s not entirely analogous, because those movies were ready-made products you could go and acquire,” said Kevin Reilly, president of NBC Entertainment. “With this, at best, there’s probably something that’s going to be a presentation for something that becomes a pilot for something that could eventually become a series.”

Nevertheless, he and other top network executives agree that an independent television festival was long overdue.

“There’s an opportunity to find that special voice before it gets watered down or somebody gets jaded by the process,” said Lou Wallach, senior vice president of development at Comedy Central.

Independent producers and writers say the festival represents a substantial shift in television development.

“This really marks a significant piece of evolution,” said Steve Rosenbaum, whose documentary about Sen. John F. Kerry’s presidential campaign, “Inside the Bubble,” was selected to be screened.

“My experience is executives tend to buy more out of a sense of competition than a sense of vision,” he said. “Individual television executives are no longer going to be the only gatekeepers to audience.”

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More than 230 hopefuls submitted pilots for the festival, a number that astounded organizers, who were anticipating a modest number of entries in their first year. Instead, there were enough for the selection committee (a group of 10 veteran writers and producers) to select finalists for five categories: comedies, dramas, reality shows, documentaries and animation, all of which will be screened as programming blocks throughout the week. To provide a true TV-watching experience, hip galleries in Chelsea are being transformed into intimate living room-like settings, with couches arrayed around televisions. Tickets to the screenings and accompanying panel discussions, many of which are open to the public, range from $15 to $35.

Awards for the best in competition will be handed out in a ceremony Monday. Organizers are still working to determine if cash prizes will be awarded.

The writers and producers whose work was accepted for the festival have a range of television experience (the only entry requirement was that a pilot not be financed by any network or studio or have been broadcast previously on television or over the Internet). And many are novices who nevertheless produced high-quality pilots, organizers said, a sign of how technology is enabling amateurs to do sophisticated production work for relatively little money.

“People were editing these things in their homes, and you would have thought they were edited in a major studio,” said Brent Burnette, the festival’s director of programming.

Take Aaron Yonda, Benson Gardner and Matt Sloan. Their sketch comedy program, “The Splu Urtaf Show,” is an underground hit on a public-access station in Madison. Yonda said he was “very daunted” by the notion of pitching it to networks until he read about the festival on a website for independent producers.

“There’s a huge amount of people doing this kind of stuff, but you don’t have a way to show your stuff to people who have the power to actually make it a television show,” said Yonda, who works in a metal shop by day.

Other entrants are even greener. Daria Finn, a playwright and former NASCAR racer, had never done any television work but wrote and produced “Second Wind,” a drama based on her experience on the circuit track in New Jersey, for $3,000.

Sheryl Matthys, a local television reporter-turned-actress, said her love for her greyhound dog inspired her idea for a reality dating show that matches pet owners and their animals. She cast “Heads or Tails” by posting an ad on the Internet site Craigslist and interviewing candidates on the patio of her Manhattan apartment.

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If her pilot hadn’t been accepted in the festival, “I would just be sending it off blindly,” Matthys said. “But I’ve been told a lot of these networks won’t even open your mail.”

Aaron Hilliard and Luke Del Tredici know what it’s like to try to make it in Hollywood the old-fashioned way. After graduating from Wesleyan University in 2001, they moved to Los Angeles, where they endlessly rewrote spec scripts, hoping to land TV writing jobs. It took three years to get hired.

“For a long time, we’d take these meetings and they’d say, ‘We really like you,’ but nothing ever came of it,” said Del Tredici, who produced a sketch comedy show with Hilliard called “Satellite Nation” that will be screened at the festival. “What you get is a sense that everybody is scared to take a chance on you until someone else takes a chance on you.”

Industry leaders agree that unknown writers, actors or producers face an uphill climb, no matter how talented they are. In order to get a meeting with a network executive in the traditional development process, you typically need an agent, at the very least.

“I think it’s very hard for someone without any credits to get noticed at all,” said Adam Berkowitz, head of television packaging at Creative Artists Agency and a member of the festival’s executive board.

The rigors of putting together a network television show “take a certain amount of experience, and sometimes the more experienced people who get the breaks don’t necessarily have the really original voices,” Reilly said.

As a result, an industry that depends on imagination may be stymieing some of its best sources, some said.

“I think there is a real creative vacuum out there,” said Cara Stein, who runs William Morris Agency’s television division on the East Coast. “The development of comedies, particularly, has been very, very frustrating for all the networks, because it’s so hard to hit upon something that touches a chord with people.”

The television festival, many executives hope, will provide a forum for fresh voices.

“What’s important is that it’s going to bring talent to the marketplace and expose great new creative ideas,” said Andrea Wong, ABC’s executive vice president for alternative programming, specials and late night. “Ultimately, that’s great for our industry.”


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