TV Invades the Sundance Film Festival

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·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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Heading into its 2016 edition on Jan. 21, the Sundance Film Festival remains the leading American name in independent film, having recently debuted such acclaimed features as Brooklyn, What Happened, Miss Simone and The Hunting Ground, all of which are now official Oscar contenders. But Sundance’s highest-profile premiere this year is coming to a streaming TV service — rather than a theater — near you. On Jan. 28, Hulu will unveil the feature-length pilot episode of its highly-anticipated miniseries, 11.22.63, the festival’s home base of Park City, Utah.

Starring frequent Sundance guest James Franco, the time travel-themed drama is adapted from a wildly successful Stephen King novel and overseen by uber-producer J.J. Abrams. General audiences can binge on the entire nine-chapter run when it goes live on Hulu on Feb. 15, but only Sundancers will be able to start with Episode 2. Festival Director John Cooper tells YahooTV that he expects to be among them. “I haven’t seen anything past the pilot, but it made me want to see more,” he teases. “The series has a metaphysical twist to it that’s really interesting. I think it’ll satisfy Stephen King fans, and Lost fans as well.”

11.22.63 is the centerpiece of a banner year for television at Sundance. Eight episodic series will be launching in Park City over the course of the festival’s 10-day run as part of the “Special Events” program. And the shows run the gamut from prestige cable dramas (Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience) and docu-series (CNN’s United Shades of America and Netflix’s Chelsea Does) to an anthology magazine show (Amazon’s The New Yorker Presents) and a Kickstarter-backed web series (Jessie Kahnweiler’s The Skinny). “We opened our eyes to allow more television this year,” Cooper says. “It’s been growing very organically. The creators lead and we try to provide the best platform we can.”

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Netflix’s Chelsea Does

Cooper traces the rise in Sundance’s episodic TV offerings back to 2013, when Jane Campion’s seven-hour miniseries, Top of the Lake, screened in its entirety — a bold choice considering the expansive amount of cinematic programming competing for festivalgoers’ often limited time. “I was afraid that no one was going to sit down in the theater,” he admits. “The question was, ‘Do you show two episodes? Do you show the whole thing?’ I went brave on that one and decided to do the whole thing. And to this day, I still hear that it was a lot of peoples’ favorite moment at the festival.” (Top of the Lake went on to enjoy a successful run on Sundance Channel — now SundanceTV — two months later, and is expected to return for its second season later this year.)

The fact that Top of the Lake held a captive audience spellbound for seven hours emboldened Cooper to program another marathon event this year: ESPN’s upcoming 30 for 30 documentary, O.J.: Made in America. Scheduled to air in June, director Ezra Edelman’s expansive 463-minute portrait of the former football star turned notorious murder suspect will be shown in two parts on Jan. 22. That may sound like a major commitment, but Cooper promises that the time will fly by. “It’s one of those shows where you just have to watch the next episode.” The Skinny will also screen its entire six-episode run, but since each installment is only ten minutes, it’s a less taxing proposition. Elsewhere, the docu-series Chelsea Does, United Shades of America and American Epic are previewing one episode apiece, while The New Yorker Presents will debut two and Starz is screening four half-hour episodes of The Girlfriend Experience, adapted from Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 feature that also premiered at Sundance. “The Girlfriend Experience is another one I can’t stop watching. I’ve seen more of the series than we’re showing and I feel very smug about that!”

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Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience

Because all of these shows are arriving at Sundance with a network or alternate viewing platform already in place, they won’t compete for buyers’ attention like the feature films do. But there is precedent for a TV series scoring a splashy Park City sale. Last year, multi-hyphenate film and television makers, Mark and Jay Duplass, premiered two episodes of their independently made animated series Animals, and HBO struck a deal to turn that into a two-season run. In the past, Sundance’s documentary fare has often found homes on television following their festival debuts, but Animals was one of the first instances where an episodic series sold to a major network at a major festival. “That was a big story,” Cooper says, and one he hopes to see repeated in the future.

One potential vehicle for additional TV sales would be the recently-launched Episodic Storytelling Lab, a program run by the Sundance Institute that’s specifically devoted to giving aspiring writers and directors the chance to develop and hone ideas for longform series. “We’re going into our third year, and it’s been very successful,” Cooper says, adding that he hopes some of those projects will find their way into the festival line-up the same way such Lab-workshopped features as Fruitvale Station and Beasts of the Southern Wild have in the past. “That would make my life easier! It’s a great department, and they have an exciting eye for talent, so I expect we’ll one day be showing projects that come out of the Episodic Lab.”

Sundance isn’t the only film festival to recognize the value in embracing television. In 2014, the South by Southwest Film Festival launched the Episodic category, which has since previewed shows like Silicon Valley and Mr. Robot; the Toronto International Film Festival followed suit last year with Primetime, where NBC’s Heroes Reborn and Hulu’s Casual were among the six initial offerings. Cooper says that he has no current plans to launch a TV-dedicated program at Sundance, instead continuing to group episodic series under the “Special Events” banner. “We only have so much room at this festival, and it can’t grow very much because we’re in a limited space. We have to be very specific, and we’re always making hard decisions.”

But if the audience reaction to this year’s line-up is positive, Cooper foresees making more room in the programming grid for TV series. “I like to get a feel for where the excitement is and what people are up for. If people appreciate what you’ve already done, they’ll go with you [in new directions]. In general, that’s what Sundance does. Audiences go on a lot of journeys with us, through experimental film, midnight movies and virtual reality experiences. In our relationship with them, episodic is just a few years behind, but it’s running neck-and-neck.”

2016 Sundance Film Festival TV Premieres

11.22.63 (Premieres Feb. 15 on Hulu)
Sundance Premiere: Jan. 28 at 5:15 p.m.
A high-school English teacher (James Franco) discovers a gateway back in time to 1958… and with it, a possible path to preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy on that fateful November day, five years later. Sundance will screen the 82-minute pilot episode of the nine-part adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. Although his presence isn’t confirmed, the Maine-based Master of Horror may appear in Park City for a post-screening Q&A.

American Epic (Premieres in 2016 on PBS)
Sundance Premiere: Jan. 28 at 6:30 p.m.
British filmmaker Bernard MacMahon traces the origins of America’s modern musical soundscape back to a recording machine that made its revolutionary debut in the 1920s. Elton John, Taj Mahal and Nas are among the varied singer-songwriters interviewed in the four-part film. One episode will screen, followed by a conversation with executive producers Robert Redford, Jack White and T Bone Burnett, as well as a live performance by special musical guests.

Chelsea Does (Premieres Jan. 23 on Netflix)
Sundance Premiere: Jan. 22 at 4:45 p.m.
The comedian and former E! personality does a deep dive into various subjects — including marriage, Silicon Valley and racism — in her four-part Netflix docu-series. Audiences will be treated to the first episode, “Chelsea Does Marriage,” followed by a Q&A with its star.

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O.J.: Made in America (Premieres in June on ESPN)
Sundance Premiere: Jan. 22 at 11:15 a.m.
Not to be confused with FX’s much buzzed-about American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, ESPN’s long-running 30 for 30 documentary series offers up a super-sized installment spanning Simpson’s sterling football career to his current place of residence inside a Nevada prison. Sundance will screen the entire seven-hour epic in two pars, with a break for lunch and a filmmaker Q&A.

The Girlfriend Experience (Premieres in 2016 on Starz)
Sundance Premiere: Jan. 23 at 5:30 p.m.
Sundance Film Festival alum Steven Soderbergh returns to his Park City stomping grounds with Starz’s adaptation of his 2009 portrait of a high-end call girl (Riley Keough), overseen by filmmakers Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz. The first four episodes (out of 13) will be shown in their entirety, followed by a post-screening discussion.

The New Yorker Presents (Premieres Feb. 16 on Amazon)
Sundance Premiere: Jan. 27 at 5:30 p.m.
Amazon’s New Yorker-curated magazine series features short narrative and documentary films, as well as comedy and animated bits. Two episodes from the show’s first season will be screened, and some of the filmmakers will be in attendance.

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The Skinny (Premieres Jan. 27 on Refinery29)
Sundance Premiere: Jan. 26 at 11:30 a.m.
YouTubber Jessie Kahnweiler turned to Kickstarter to crowdfund her web series about living with bulimia. All six ten-minute episodes will be shown, and Kahnweiler will be joined by her producing team — including Transparent’s Jill Soloway — for a post-screening discussion.

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United Shades of America (Premieres in 2016 on CNN)
Sundance Premiere: Jan. 23 at 2 p.m.
Comedian, commentator and expert podcaster, W. Kamau Bell premieres the first episode of his upcoming CNN series, in which he heads down to the Deep South for a face-to-face encounter with a still-surviving branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Expect the always-outspoken Bell to address what was left on the cutting room floor in the Q&A following the screening.

The Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 21-31 in Park City, Utah.