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The small screen gets its Sundance

Works of unknowns get a spotlight in New York Television Festival. Networks take notice.

September 30, 2005|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — 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.

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."

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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