Sundance Indie Episodic program is latest evolution for festival
January 21, 2018
For decades, attendees of the Sundance Film Festival have traveled to Park City each January to be dazzled by the work of independent storytellers lighting up the silver screen.
They'll now also come to see Sundance as a place to catch some of the best independent work being done on the small screen.
After Sundance accepted submissions for episodic and television work for the first time in 2017, this year marks the premiere of a full-fledged Indie Episodic program. The inaugural lineup features seven screenings with works ranging from longform documentaries to television pilots and webisodes and represents the latest evolution of a festival that has always strived to be a reflection of its storytellers.
"It wasn't like, 'Hey, artists should do this,'" said Charlie Sextro, a Sundance programmer who spearheaded the Indie Episodic category. "It was like, 'Artists are doing this and this is what is exciting right now.'"
“This will give kids in the middle of Iowa, in the middle of Michigan, somewhere down in Florida this idea that, ‘Oh, instead of a film, I can do a TV show? Sure.’ There are a lot of people out there with a lot of stories.”
— Matthew Lillard, actor
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The program stems from the transformation of television in recent years into a medium where storytelling on par with cinema is possible. The emergence of the small screen, once reserved for sitcoms, campy dramas and procedurals, was obvious as ambitious shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Game of Thrones" became smash hits and has only accelerated with companies such as Netflix and Amazon providing more homes for that kind of work.
And lately, Sextro said, TV has also increasingly become a place for esoteric or subversive material previously reserved for indie cinema.
"That kind of storytelling, that kind of voice, 20 years ago you were just getting that in independent film," he said.
The rapid shift in the artistic validity of episodic work has been freeing for artists. Unconfined to the constraints of film, they can tell their stories in whatever format most makes sense. Many, of course, have created gripping tales that span the course of several seasons, allowing for in-depth character development and layered plots. Tonya Glanz and Chris Roberti, though, saw a different kind of creative opportunity.
Their web-based series "The Adulterers," whose first season is screening in the Indie Episodic program, consists of five-to-10-minute episodes about two coworkers carrying on an affair. Audiences gain only glimpses into their lives as the story unfolds.
"For us, it actually serves the story better," Glanz said. "You can just focus on one idea or one conflict or one moment and have it be about that. It gave this story a kind of voyeuristic feel."
Mike Mayer has also embraced the freedom of the episodic format. His 2013 documentary "Mortified Nation," which examined stage shows where adults share embarrassing stories from childhood or adolescence, was a feature-length film. But his follow up to it, "The Mortified Guide," is a series that explores one theme from youth, such as fitting in or family, every episode.
The series is set to premiere in the Indie Episodic program, but five years ago there would have been no place for it at the festival, Mayer said.
"For Sundance to recognize something like our little project has that same independent spirit that they've celebrated in films for so long, to me, is just wonderful," he said.
Despite storytellers churning out more compelling episodic work than ever before, and there being more places for viewers to find it, the formula for independent artists to get shows picked up remains murky, however, with no tried-and-true pathway like there is for independent film.
Sundance organizers began seeing the festival's potential to help solve the problem in 2014 when filmmaker and actor Mark Duplass approached them, Sextro said. His point was simple: Television executives already attended Sundance to scout talent and network with industry insiders, so if the festival began screening episodic work, they'd bite.
Duplass was quickly proven right when HBO purchased the rights to "Animals.," an animated series he executive produced, after it screened to wide acclaim at Sundance in 2015.
"That was kind of the light bulb like, 'We should kind of explore this. This is something new and different,'" Sextro said.
That realization led to Sundance accepting submissions for episodic content for the first time last year. The success that followed — the documentary "O.J.: Made in America" premiered at the festival and ultimately won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, for instance — made clear it was time to shape an entire program around episodic works.
What resulted is an eclectic offering of seven screenings in this year's festival. Six of them feature webisode series' or television pilots that are tonally similar — Sextro described them as akin to shorts programs — while the seventh will allow viewers to see the first five episodes of the 10-part documentary "America to Me."
The in-depth series follows students over the course of a year at a diverse high school near Chicago and was directed by Steve James, whose documentary "Hoop Dreams" was a breakout hit at Sundance in 1994 but which threw some audiences off due to its nearly 3-hour runtime. Sextro said the episodic program is a perfect fit for someone like James, who specializes in slow-building stories.
"You're getting to see people who are considered some of the great documentary filmmakers really expand and have total freedom in how they want to tell their stories and how long that kind of experience can be," he said.
While established artists have embraced episodics, Sundance added the Indie Episodic program largely because many among the next generation of great storytellers are operating in that territory.
In the estimation of actor and Sundance veteran Matthew Lillard, who stars in the episodic entry "Halfway There," giving those artists a platform will be the program's lasting legacy. To Lillard, who said he could never have predicted the rise of TV when he was breaking into acting in the 1990s, the festival's inclusion of episodics validates independent television and web-based work as art worthy of standing alongside cinema.
"This will give kids in the middle of Iowa, in the middle of Michigan, somewhere down in Florida this idea that, 'Oh, instead of a film, I can do a TV show? Sure,'" he said. "There are a lot of people out there with a lot of stories."
And one day, perhaps, some of them will be told at Sundance, where they will delight audiences — one episode at a time.
Information about the Indie Episodics program, including screening times, can be found at sundance.org.