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Scripted TV getting in on Sundance spotlight

Published January 21, 2016 7:33 pm

Film festival • And it's not just documentaries; there are a couple of scripted shows, too.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Sundance Film Festival is all about movies … and television.

The small screen has had a presence at the big-screen event for years, but it's a presence that is growing.

Once again this year, there are a number of documentaries that won't be opening in theaters but will be airing on TV. There are also some select, scripted TV series offerings. They're not in competition, but they are getting a share of the spotlight as Sundance begins its 11-day run Thursday in Park City.



"It's a fun way to get this out into the world," said J.J. Abrams, an executive producer of "11.22.63," a Hulu series based on Steven King's novel about a teacher who is transported back in time and attempts to prevent John F. Kennedy's assassination.

The first two hours of the nine-hour series will be screened Thursday, Jan. 28, at 5:15 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City. The screening will be followed by a question-and-answer session with the producers and members of the cast, which includes James Franco, Chris Cooper, T.R. Knight, Josh Duhamel and Cherry Jones.

"I know that everyone here is excited that we're doing it," said Abrams, fresh off directing "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." "I was grateful that they would have us."

And screenwriter Bridge Carpenter said she sees the Sundance screening as a "validation" of their work — along with a nod to the cast.

"We have such an extraordinary wealth of talent," she said, "and it is thrilling to get to go to Sundance."

Carpenter acknowledged the prospect of watching the show in a theater filled with people is "nerve-wracking."

"That's not normally how television works," she said. "Usually, we get to hear about it later. So that'll be a new one for me."

Steven Soderbergh, on the other hand, is a film festival veteran, an independent film icon whose 1989 film "Sex, Lies and Videotape" prompted the late film critic Roger Ebert to dub him "the poster boy of the Sundance generation." Soderbergh will be heading to Park City with a TV show this year. He's an executive producer of the 13-part Starz series "The Girlfriend Experience." Based on his 2009 film of the same title, it's about a young woman (Riley Keough) who becomes a high-priced call girl.

"It certainly seems, given the pedigree of the filmmakers, like a good spot for this show to be screened," Soderbergh said. (Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan wrote and directed the series.)

"The people who are going to appreciate the filmmaking approach are all going to be there," Soderbergh said. "I think it fits within this sort of construct of what that festival is trying be about."

Soderbergh, who won a best-director Emmy for "Behind the Candelabra" to go with his best-director Oscar for "Traffic," is convinced that some of today's best work is being done in television, so he's not surprised that Sundance is beginning to pay more attention. He might have been talking about independent film when he described TV as a place of "real excitement and enthusiasm and sort of fearlessness. Right now, if you're just interested in telling stories, it's a really good space to be working in."

The first four half-hour episodes of "The Girlfriend Experience" will be screened Saturday, Jan. 23, at 5:30 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre, and will be followed by a Q&A with the producers and cast. The series premieres on Starz on April 10.

Even if you've got tickets, you'll only get to see a portion of "11.22.63" and "The Girlfriend Experience" at Sundance. All 10 hours of the ESPN "30 for 30" documentary "O.J.: Made in America," however, will be screened Friday, Jan. 22, at the Egyptian Theatre in two big chunks: the first 273 minutes at 11:15 a.m., followed by a lunch break, the remaining 190 minutes and a Q&A.

"It will definitely be a long day," said Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Ezra Edelman, who noted that although it's a made-for-TV project, he never conceived it as a TV series.

"Yes, it is on television. Obviously," he said. "But I have not approached it as a TV thing, I approached it as a documentary movie. And once I got into it, it turned into a much longer movie.

"O.J." will air on ESPN in five two-hour time slots. It's not just about the murders of Simpson's ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman, it's about O.J.'s life — his rise and fall. And Edelman is excited that it will be screened at Sundance.

"That meant a lot," he said, "because it validated the story from beginning to end."

"O.J." is just one of the made-for-TV documentaries at Sundance. The list includes PBS' "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You," which will air later this year as part of the "American Masters" series; Spike Lee's "Michael Jackson's Journey from Motown to Off the Wall," which will premiere on Showtime on Feb. 5; "Jim: The James Foley Story," which HBO acquired and will premiere Feb. 6; and the HBO-produced "Becoming Mike Nichols," which will air Feb. 22.

Chelsea Handler will debut her four-part documentary series "Chelsea Does" at Sundance with the "Chelsea Does Marriage" installment. (The others are "Chelsea Does Racism," "Chelsea Does Silicon Valley" and "Chelsea Does Drugs.")

They begin streaming on Netflix the day after "Chelsea Does Marriage" screens at the Egyptian Theatre (Friday, Jan. 22, at 4:45 p.m.).

"They are feature-length films," said the former E! Late-Night host. "I'm a big girl."

CNN anchorman Anderson Cooper plans to attend the festival for the premiere of a documentary about him and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt. (It's set for Saturday, Jan. 23, at 5:15 p.m. at the MARC.)

"I'll be there, and [filmmaker] Liz [Garbus] will be there," Cooper said. "And my mom will be there in spirit."

Vanderbilt, 91, said she was "thrilled" that the documentary, titled "Nothing Left Unsaid," will premiere at Sundance, but she doesn't feel up to the trip. And, while she's written four autobiographies, she said she was "freer, maybe, in revealing things about myself" for the documentary, which will air on HBO in April. "You're going to know everything about me."

Garbus is no Sundance novice. Her first documentary, "The Farm: Angola, USA," debuted at the film festival in 1998 and won the Grand Jury Prize. She has been back multiple times, and was nominated for two more Grand Jury Prizes ("The Execution of Wanda Jean" in 2002 and "Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech" in 2009).

"But every year, when you send a film for them to consider, it's like this nail-biting thing," Garbus said. "And when you're accepted, It just feels like it's this birth announcement to the world. It's like giving birth to your film and it's a glorious experience."

spierce@sltrib.com

Twitter @ScottDPierce

 

 

 

 

 

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