A 20-year college reunion took place last weekend inside the historic Paramount Theatre here. Unlike most occasions of this sort, this reunion happened in front of a mob of adoring fans.
The cast of “Felicity,” the self-aware young adult drama that tracked the coming-of-age adventures of college student Felicity Porter (Keri Russell) and her group of friends, came together for the first time since the show went off the air in 2002, setting off a surge of electric excitement among the rabid fans packing the venue.
The event was one of the highlights of the annual ATX Television Festival, a smorgasbord of panels, screenings and parties that celebrates TV past, present and future.
The “Felicity” reunion also provided a common-ground celebration for those who watched the show during its original four-season run and those who have discovered it on Hulu.
Longtime “Felicity” fans Mary Ferguson and two fortysomething friends reminisced about their own college days at Texas A&M, when their lives mirrored the ones they watched each week on the show.
“We were obsessed, we watched it all the time. We always said ‘hey’ to each other,” Ferguson said.
At a time when there are more shows — past and present — available to consume than ever before, the ATX Television Festival has emerged as a beloved destination for both industry insiders and TV devotees. The annual four-day affair — a mix of screenings, topical panels and cast and crew Q&As — takes place inside a number of air conditioned venues and aims to offer a more intimate, accessible vibe than loyal fans might experience at blockbuster pop culture festivals like Comic-Con International: San Diego or the South by Southwest Festival in Austin.
“Amazing” is how Russell described what it was like, all these years removed from “Felicity,” to be in a room with hundreds of admirers.
“There is such a sweetness, such a coming-of-age glue that sticks us all together,” Russell told The Times, “that it felt really nice.” The series was the start of a successful career for the actress, which has included her much-acclaimed role in the just-completed FX drama “The Americans.”
Providing a sanctuary for the celebration of hit shows is what former Fox studio assistants Emily Gipson, 36, and Caitlin McFarland, 34, set out to accomplish when they founded the festival in 2012.
The duo’s concept of a small function that talked about the basics of television — the casting process, how to pitch a show — has evolved into a full-fledged festival that networks have embraced as a valuable marketing platform to build buzz for new shows or give back to fans of established ones.
Networks such as FX and HBO, streaming services such as Hulu and newer providers such as AT&T’s Audience Network were among the festival sponsors this year. Other networks and studios participated by giving permission to screen episodes.
“If this is a festival for the TV fan, then we belong here,” said Lisa Holme, Hulu's vice president of content acquisition.
In addition to the “Felicity” gathering, the festival included HBO’s world premiere screening and panel for the Amy Adams-led limited series “Sharp Objects”; a Q&A with the cast and creatives of FX’s “The Americans,” which had its series finale late last month; and a panel for Freeform’s “The Bold Type,” about women who work at a New York magazine.
The festival also recently launched the Syndication Project, a foundation focused on advocacy through storytelling, and featured a number of panels where writers and actors discussed the craft of telling stories with an impact.
“Breaking Down the Binary” looked at the spectrum of visibility for the LGBTQIA community, “Her Body, Her Choice: TVs Abortion Dilemma” explored the ways in which shows have tackled women’s reproductive health and “Stories Without Walls,” examined immigration plot lines.
“I think the thing that really means the most to us is how the conversations have evolved,” Gibson said. “Year 1, it was just a novelty for television. People in one room, just talking about TV. Now, there are deep, important conversations between TV maker and TV viewer.
The size of the crowds networks are courting is still relatively small. Most events draw anywhere from a few dozen to a couple hundred people — with the exception of big-draw panels such as the “Felicity” reunion or the “Sharp Objects” premiere screening, which took place in a 1,200-seat theater.
Even as the festival grows, Gibson and McFarland want to maintain an intimacy. About 3,000 attendees swarmed this year’s event, a considerable increase from the roughly 700 who showed up in the festival’s inaugural year, but still just a fraction of the 130,000-plus fans that cycle through Comic-Con.
“We didn't want people waiting in really long lines, and we wanted people to be able to go to as many things as possible and really experience it,” McFarland said.
Gibson said there has been discussion of having the same size rooms, but with more programming taking place at the various venues, or going longer into Sunday. To help maintain the intimacy while also extending the festival’s digital reach, panels are video-recorded for those not in attendance; a podcast called “The TV Campfire” was also recently launched.
“It's like, 500 people or 5,000 people isn't actually an audience that will save a show, but those 500 people, if they have an extremely intimate and unique one-on-one experience, they're going to take that with them and share it in a way that I don't think 5,000 people can,” she said.
Showrunners and producers say the festival offers fan interaction and feedback they rarely get in Hollywood.
“From what I can tell, it’s really a great space for fans to interact with the creators and stars of their favorite TV shows,” Shawn Ryan (“S.W.A.T.” “The Shield”) said after an encounter with fans who’d stopped him on the sidewalk.
“It’s an opportunity for us, as showrunners, to talk in a deeper way about our shows. Selfishly, for us in the industry, it’s a way for us to all see each other. And it’s really nice to get out of Hollywood. When you’re working in television, you’re working in offices, isolated a lot.”
Added Gloria Calderon Kellett, a showrunner on Netflix’s “One Day at a Time”: “The fans that come to this festival are so warm and loving and smart, and the questions are so thoughtful and full of gratitude and curiosity. It’s really one of my favorite places to come. I love it.”
She’s not the only creative force who sees the value in the festival’s existence. ATX counts the likes of Noah Hawley (“Legion,” “Fargo”), Glen Mazzara (“The Walking Dead,” “Damien”), Julie Plec ("The Vampire Diaries," "The Originals") and Richard Linklater ("Boyhood") as members of its advisory board.
So, what do McFarland and Gibson envision for the festival five or 10 years from now?
“We talk about it kind of in theory, but we really do kind of take it a year at a time at this point,” Gibson said.
As the weekend ended, the two were pleased with the response. But they knew it wouldn’t be long before they would have to get serious again. The next ATX gathering is just a year away, and they have to start making plans.