Play It Again, Sam
ATX TV Fest founders are back for round two
By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 7, 2013
TV festivals are like TV shows. Anyone can make a pilot, but the challenge comes with episode two. As the ATX Television Festival enters its second season, even the people behind it are pleasantly surprised that they're back. Festival co-creator Emily Gipson said: "I don't know if we ever decided we were going to do it. It just sort of happened."
She and co-founder Caitlin McFarland both have professional experience in TV, plus McFarland had worked on the Tribeca Film Festival in its early days. But that's a long way from setting up your own four-day festival. Gipson said, "It started with us saying, 'What would that even look like?' and throwing ideas around." After that, she said, "We went to colleagues and old bosses and asked, 'Hey ... would you like to be on our advisory board?' So many of them said yes that, all of a sudden, we were putting together a festival."
Yet, as McFarland pointed out, that's only half the organizational battle. The other half is event planning. "What really helped was that Austin is such a festival town," she said. They had one of Austin's most undervalued talent pools to draw upon – its experienced cadre of festival volunteers. Plus, when it came to setting up logistics, she said, "Every venue we worked with, our hotels, our theatres, everyone we worked with, told us, 'Well, when Austin Film Festival does it, this is where they line people up, and this is how they get people in.'"
Of course, every festival goes through its growing pains. Last year, Scrubs and Cougar Town creator Bill Lawrence bought a round of drinks for just about everyone in the cozy Stateside Theatre. How can ATX add more viewers and channels this year without losing that kind of charm? Gipson said, "The community that was created last year, because it was small and intimate, made it that much better for everyone." This year, rather than just getting bigger shows in bigger auditoriums, the festival is adding more content but keeping to the smaller rooms – just like TV should be. Gipson said, "When you're in the room with the people, you're not in a room with the thousands that Comic Con has. You're in the room with between 75 and 150 other people, and that still helps build that community."
One good sign for the festival is how many guests from the freshman year are back for the sophomore season. Lawrence returns, as does veteran sci-fi and fantasy producer Jane Espenson (see "Untangling the Web") and the cast of Adult Swim's cop procedural spoof NTSF: SD:SUV::. McFarland said, "I think the kind of people who came last year are the kind of people who love TV, love the idea of being in Austin for a weekend, didn't know what they were getting into but had a great time. They contacted us pretty soon after the festival and said, 'OK, next year, are you interested in fill-in-the-blank?'"
ATX 2012 led directly to one of ATX 2013's big reunions. Credit Scott Wolf, who came last year and is back with a few friends: Paula Devicq, Lacey Chabert, and Wilson Cruz, his co-stars from seminal Nineties drama Party of Five. McFarland said: "Scott Wolf is going to be at every festival. We just need to find reasons for him to come back." Chabert, who played Wolf's younger sister on the show, will actually be pulling double duty. As one of the voice talents for Transformers: Rescue Bots, she'll be hosting Hasbro's Saturday morning pancakes-and-pajama cartoon-watching party at the Stephen F. Austin Intercontinental Hotel – one of the festival's many free events. Last year, Wolf hosted the party, and McFarland half-joked that this could be the way to get the rest of the show's cast in town. She said, "Next year we're going to find a cartoon that Neve Campbell or Matthew Fox is in."
It's not just about the people. It's also about the shows. Last year, ABC, Fox, TNT, and the CW were among the first networks to provide content. They're all back, adding HBO to the schedule with the premiere of its new Monroe documentary, Love, Marilyn. But the biggest addition, and the one that's got McFarland most excited, is AMC. The cable leviathan is bringing a special cast-and-crew screening of steam-powered Western expansion drama Hell on Wheels. "We've been chasing them for a year and a half," said McFarland. It all came down to one final email from the festival founders to their final contact at AMC. She said, "We looked at each other and said, 'This is the last person that exists that we have not emailed, and if they don't respond, then we don't get to do it.'" Instead of a final rebuff, AMC offered them a second show: the U.S. debut of their new thriller Low Winter Sun. Adapted from the highly regarded British series and starring Mark Strong (Zero Dark Thirty, Kick-Ass), the gritty cop show will premiere Aug. 11, paired with the final season of AMC's incomparable Breaking Bad. McFarland explained, "They said that they really wanted to get this pilot out there and get people talking about it, and we were more than happy."
The festival comes at a pivotal time for TV in Central Texas. On the production side, the CW's The Lying Game is a permanent resident at Austin Studios, while NBC is relocating from North Carolina to shoot its sci-fi series Revolution here. More broadly, there is the transition from the era of the domination of the broadcast networks, to the growth of cable, PPV, and VOD. That's a change the ATX pair are trying to reflect in their programming. (See "Pilot Light.") McFarland said, "Our favorite thing is when someone says to us, 'Well, I don't watch TV, but I just watched the entire series of The Sopranos on Netflix.' They don't quite understand that is watching TV. Just because you can watch it in so many ways, you're still watching TV, even if it's not the traditional 'it's Monday night at 7pm and I'm turning on Fox.'"
The ATX Television Festival runs June 6-9 at various locations Downtown. Visit www.atxfestival.com for information on tickets and programming.