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Independent pilots for TV and web join Sundance's expanding storytelling world

Published January 27, 2017 9:55 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Giles Andrew and Dan Marshall, who met in film school in Southern California, just happen to live in an "especially obnoxious area with lots of obnoxious people," as Marshall puts it.

So when a friend with young children regaled them with stories about horrid playdates he endured with the obnoxious parents in his SoCal neighborhood, the two USC alums knew they had a story. The question was, what to do with that story?

Their decision to write a pilot for television was fortuitous, as it turned out. The Sundance Film Festival had just announced it was seeking submissions for independent TV pilots as a way to promote good storytelling destined for other mediums.



Giles' and Marshall's pilot, "Playdates," is one of three that screened as part of a first-of-a-kind special event at Sundance, the Independent Pilot Showcase. They couldn't wait to see how their story of a stay-at-home dad dealing with the "elitist culture" of Silicon Valley played to a big audience.

"It's an exciting place to release it and get the ball rolling," said Marshall, who has written a memoir, "Home Is Burning," about caring for his disabled father. This is his first visit to Sundance as a presenter, although he went to festival screenings during his years growing up in Salt Lake City.

Andrew, a writer/producer who is originally from England and now lives in Los Angeles, said the original plan for "Playdates" was to pitch it to the "traditional marketplace." They were still working on the 24-minute pilot when they got wind of the Sundance pilot showcase.

"It definitely put a timeline on finishing it because we probably were not going to finish it," Andrew said with a chuckle.

He recalled the original conversation that led to "Playdates" and said he and Marshall kept pressing their friend for more details about his life as a parent.

" 'All I'm doing is going on these playdates and it's just a nightmare,' " Andrew recalls the friend saying. "We thought it was really funny, as well as painful."

Other pilots in the showcase included one about a teen and her dim-bulb boyfriend who plan to do away with their boring parents, and a drama about the murders of a high-school girl and her teacher.

Sundance senior programmer Charlie Reff said accepting independent pilots, episodic works aimed at TV or the Web, and virtual-reality work is part of the evolution of a festival that is about good storytelling, no matter the medium.

"Sundance has always liked the idea of constantly evolving our programming connected to what artists are doing," Reff said. And television is where a lot of visual artists are working.

Writing a story arc over a series of episodes can give writers more options than a film, Reff said.

"The interesting thing is that filmmakers are using the episodic format but the stories end up becoming longer," Reff said. "They're seeing it as a way to dive deeper into characters and into story situations."

Episodic work at Sundance isn't new — a six-hour miniseries, "Top of the Lake," which Reff identified as the festival's first real foray into the genre, screened at the festival in 2013 — but its presence is growing. The 2016 festival saw the premiere of the five-part series "O.J.: Made in America," which later aired on ESPN, and a web series, "The Skinny," a comedy about a young woman coping with bulimia, among others.

This year, in addition to the three independent pilots, there's a new Midnight Episodic Showcase with two works, "Pineapple" and "Snatchers" (which was shot in Salt Lake City), and a Short Form Episodic Showcase featuring "The Chances," "Gente-fied" and "Strangers."

And four episodes of a comedy series that will debut on ABC later this year, "Downward Dog," also premiered at Sundance 2017 — the first network TV sitcom ever to debut at the film festival.

Then there are several other series and docu-series premiering at Sundance already set to air on network and cable channels or streaming services.

Reff said festival programmers weren't sure what kind of response they would get with their call for independent episodic work. In the end, about 500 works were submitted. That meant a lot of culling.

"We're open to this content but we've been careful and very selective in what we've been showing and how we've been showing it," he said.

Andrew and Marshall are just happy they've got a shot at pitching their first TV pilot to the industry types who flock to Sundance every year. While they've only written one episode, they've mapped out a first-season story arc with a "strong point of view."

Sundance, they said, is really leading the way in encouraging development of independent pilots and series.

"I feel like everyone we talk to [about going to Sundance] says, 'Oh, that makes a lot of sense,' " said Andrew.

The festival runs through Sunday.

 

 

 

 

 

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