ATX Television Festival Founders on the Lessons They've Learned

In most parts of the world, you don’t have to look very far to find a film festival. But a television festival? That’s a rarer genre. At least, it was before the ATX Television Festival flickered to life in Austin in 2012. The brainchild of TV lovers Emily Gipson and Caitlin McFarland, this four-day celebration of all things televised has quickly grown from its humble freshman year origins to become a major destination for people who might otherwise be loathe to leave the company of their DVR.

Staging reunions for such beloved shows as Friday Night Lights and Gilmore Girls has vaulted ATX into the pop-culture consciousness in a big way, and has shown other festivals the power and popularity of including television in the program. Sundance, Toronto, and Tribeca are just some of the film festivals who have made room for TV premieres in recent years, and in May, the storied Cannes Film Festival screened episodes of Twin Peaks and Top of the Lake: China Girl to great acclaim. We spoke with ATX’s founders about being the Peak TV Festival in the era of Peak TV, and what they’re most excited to present at the sixth edition of the festival, which runs from June 8-11 in Austin.

Before this interview, I stumbled upon the Kickstarter campaign you organized to help launch the first-ever ATX Festival in 2012. It’s an amazing contrast between where you were then and where you are now.

Emily Gipson: Every once in a while I come across that page, too. We had one year with that original logo, and then every other year since has been our current logo. I think of all the people who helped us make that Kickstarter video, some of whom we’ve never met. At the time, nobody knew what they were going to or promoting. It’s kind of amazing.

2012 was just before the Peak TV era. Did you have a sense of where the industry was going, or did you launch the festival purely out of passion for the medium?

Caitlin McFarland: It was a mixture of things. We’ve talked about how part of the reason for creating a TV festival was us wanting to go to one or wanting to go work for one, and not finding it. Emily and I originally became friends when we were out in L.A. working as assistants at Fox. We loved to talk about movies and pop culture, and we just found ourselves talking about television more than film. Even five years ago, we were so much more excited about the things that were on our DVR rather than what was playing in movie theaters.

Then I was unemployed, and went to look for work at a television festival specifically and was really shocked that they didn’t exist when there were thousands of film and music festivals. How could there not be the same community and event environment for television? That was when Emily said, “Write it down. What does it look like? What do you want to go to?” Together we created this thing, and took baby steps towards the Kickstarter page. We launched it in January 2012, the campaign ended in February, and then we had the festival in June! So whenever I feel like I’m behind nowadays, I remember that we practically planned the whole thing in three months the first time and I feel better about life. [Laughs]

Did you both originally go to L.A. with the intention of being part of the industry?

Gipson: We definitely moved out there wanting to create, whether it be film or television. That was our passion when we went to school, knowing that we loved storytelling and really wanted to be part of that process. At the time we moved to L.A. — this was 2004 or 2005 — film was what you went there for. People weren’t really going there to start TV careers. Funny how things change so quickly!

McFarland: Emily and I were on either side of the Fox lot, and oftentimes we’d walk by the sets for Bones, How I Met Your Mother, House, and Arrested Development. There were a lot of Buffy cast members around, too, which is Emily’s favorite show.

Gipson: It would be like, “David Boreanaz is blowing something up on the lot — come on down!” [Laughs] I decided what my role in the creative process was going to be through the process of elimination. I knew I didn’t want to be an actor, I slowly figured out that I liked to write, but probably shouldn’t be a writer. So it landed closer to producer, for me. And producing the festival is kind of like producing a season of television.

McFarland: It really is. We both still have this huge passion for story, and have a production arm that we’ve been in the process of launching for the past year. We have a “Pitch Competition” at the festival and we’re attached as producers for the winner that’s announced every year. So we still have this huge love for [telling stories]. Five years ago, we never dreamed we’d be sitting here about to plan Season 6 of the festival. I don’t think that we even knew how much we were going to love doing this, and love bringing these people out to talk about TV and experience TV together. We’re television fans to our core, but we’re also part of the industry.

Do you point to one particular edition as a turning point?

Gipson: When we did a Friday Night Lights panel [in 2013] and surprised the audience with Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler, I felt us being Tweeted for the first time. You just feel the energy in the room. After that, I would say the Gilmore Girls reunion in 2015. That was something we had been working on for over a year, and the timing lined up with [the original run] being released on Netflix. The build-up and intensity leading into it, you could already feel it was different. We doubled in size that year, and launched to a new level in terms of awareness. And each year’s programming is bringing us a new audience. We’ll get people [this year] who are coming for a Battlestar Galactica reunion or the premiere of Glow and the hope is they’re going to be exposed to something else they didn’t come for and understand that good TV is good TV, and there’s a lot of it to be discovered.

McFarland: One big lesson we learned from the Gilmore Girls reunion is because we knew that people were obviously coming for that show, we couldn’t lose Amy Sherman-Palladino, Lauren Graham, or Alexis Bledel. If we lost one of them, there could have been riots!

Gipson: There was so much pressure on us [that year] that we took the mantra of creating a festival that’s so well-balanced that if any one person drops out, the festival can still stand and be strong. We’re always super sad when someone can’t come, and there were a couple of reunions that had to go away this year. That’s sad, and we’re sad to tell our audience, but at the same time, we feel we’ve got such a great balance that it’s still a strong festival. We keep telling people over and over and over again, “Don’t come for one thing. Come because you love TV.”

The older shows programmed at the festival tend to be rooted in the ’90s and ’00s era — Alias, Battlestar Galactica, and Northern Exposure are all represented this year. There’s also a tribute to Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who created such ’80s favorites as Designing Women. Are you interested in programming more series from earlier decades?

Gipson: It’s harder to do reunions of much older shows. In our third year, we added our Achievement in Television Excellence Award, which we’ve given to Henry Winkler, James L. Brooks, and Norman Lear. This year, we’re not presenting an award during the festival, but we’re looking to do an event in L.A. in a couple of months. We also hope to start having current creators, producers, and writers talk about the television that inspired them. We’re always looking for ways to get past the ’80s, basically. If we could do an I Love Lucy reunion, we would!

McFarland: Our audience is a little more female, and the age range is 17 to 70. My mom keeps throwing out these shows she watched in the ’60s that were on for 24 episodes and then went away. I say, “I don’t know that we can do that, but we can always use your help.”

In terms of your own TV influences, what are some of your formative shows?

McFarland: My parents were pop-culture junkies, so I really did grow up on I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show. Those shows are still my happy places, and I laugh at all of them. In the ’90s we were WB viewers, so Buffy, Dawson’s Creek, and definitely Felicity. I watched Lois & Clark with my mom, and in college, my mom was mailing me VHS tapes of Gilmore Girls and Friends. With the exception of those shows, I have a black hole of TV viewing during my college years.

Gipson: It’s funny, because my parents were not pop-culture junkies at all. I grew up on old movies, but I didn’t really grow up on a lot of TV shows. The first shows I really remember are Saved by the Bell and Home Improvement — that was the one show my family all watched together. Buffy was the first show that I discovered that was mine. And Buffy was a year older than me in the show, so I grew up in my teen years with her.

So your personal TV tastes are already very diverse and wide-ranging. Early on in the life of ATX, did you have to make a conscious choice whether to prioritize genre shows, which often come with a devoted fanbase, or series that you weren’t necessarily as sure people would turn up for?

Gipson: It’s funny because when Buffy was on, I didn’t even know that it was a genre show. To me it was a high school show that happened to have vampires. It’s been a lesson learning that there are these shows that have these really cult fanbases. But the thing that we realized the first year of the festival was that Firefly fans were just as devoted as Parenthood fans. Those two screenings were up against each other that first year of the festival, and people were super-excited and crying in both of them. So I think that’s what we realized coming out of that first festival; there are these other shows that people love so much and they don’t have a place to go. I think all of the excitement around Gilmore Girls was that was never a show that was going to have a convention or that kind of fan gathering, because people who want to celebrate non-genre shows don’t have the place to do it. Genre shows have a place, and we’d be in heavier competition with Comic-Con or their show-specific conventions.

McFarland: To add on to that, I would say that we do not consider ourselves a convention. So even when we do genre shows, we’re trying to do it differently than others. We are shifting into trying to figure out the best ways to honor them in ways that don’t compete with Comic-Con, which happens the month after us.

Speaking of competition, I’m sure it’s not lost on you that film festivals like Sundance and Cannes have started to screen TV shows. Do you credit yourselves with spurring that on a little bit?

Gipson: They would have gotten there on their own, but I think it’s great. We spent a few years convincing people that television would work in a festival format, and that people would want to watch TV on a big screen together. There’s room for many more television-specific festivals as well as television in traditional film festivals, it’s just about figuring out how they’re going to showcase them. I know that South by Southwest has a pretty hard rule that the TV shows they showcase are mostly first episodes of first seasons. They may do conversations about other shows, but in terms of their screenings, they mainly show first episodes of brand new series.

The Split Screens Festival hosted its inaugural edition in New York earlier this month. Did they reach out to you for advice in organizing a television-specific festival?

McFarland: They did not reach out, but we did hear about it. I think that it’s really interesting. New York is going to be a different audience and, I think, a different showcase. That’s part of it, too, when you’re creating an event: what kind of community are you creating? We talk a lot about how our festival feels like TV camp for grown-ups. It’s a destination, and our goal is to create a physical community of TV. If you meet somebody on the street [at the festival] and you love the same show, you feel like you’ve found your people. So for Split Screen, I am really interested to see how it goes, how many people go, and the flavor and tone going forward. We joke all the time that we actually didn’t know what we were starting. It almost seemed to define itself.

For this year’s program, is there one panel or series that you’re particularly excited to present to people?

Gipson: There’s a couple. I’m excited about a panel called “Complex, Not Complicated,” which is about strong female characters and the people who create them. Kyra Sedgwick and Mary McDonnell, who I’m big fans of, are on that, along with Casual‘s Liz Tigelaar, and Tayor Dearden and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson who did Sweet/Vicious. We sometimes have to go searching for panelists, but that group came together very organically, because they all wanted to talk about this topic, and I think it’s a nice balance between actors and creators. We also created a “Directors & Showrunners” panel, where pairs of directors and showrunners talk about how they work together. If TV is a writers’ medium, but you have recurring directors, how does that work for the vision of a show?

In terms of the show panels, I’m really excited about The Leftovers, because it’s happening four days after the finale aired, and I think that all I want to do is sit in that panel and ask questions. We love that show so much here in the office. We’re also doing a script reading of the Suits pilot with the entire Suits cast to celebrate their 100th episode. Suits was our first-ever Opening Night screening in 2012, so it’s really cool for a number of reasons.

McFarland: The fact that they took that chance on us in our first year, and now the script reading is the second-to-last piece of programming six seasons into the festival is really nice for us. It kind of says, “Look where we’ve come.”

The ATX Television Festival runs from June 8-11 in Austin, TX.