New York Television Festival promises 26 development deals. But nothing can guarantee getting on the air
Terence Gray was a few years ahead of his time when he wondered, in 1998, why there wasn't a festival for television shows like there was for the then-thriving independent film industry.
A writer for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," Gray imagined a thriving world of independent television that didn't yet exist. But thanks to advances in digital technology, a slew of storytellers suddenly realized that they didn't need a network executive's green light to start shooting their own sitcoms.
Gray (pictured below with "Justified" creator Graham Yost) saw his moment. After soliciting funding from TV networks and studios, he launched the first New York Television Festival in 2005, the same year "Lazy Sunday" suddenly illustrated the viral reach of digital shorts.
Seven years later, the festival is coming into its own. By the time it ends Saturday, it will have handed out 26 guaranteed development deals with networks and studios, more than it ever has before.
Most of the shows won't make it to air – just as most shows developed through traditional channels don't. But the festival does give competitors a chance to meet executives from Fox, NBC, Comedy Central and IFC, among other networks, in a bid to get their work on television.
It can also allow complete newcomers to crack a notoriously tough industry, without having a second-cousin named Spielberg, sleeping with anyone or spending years fetching dry cleaning.
No longer do storytellers need to max out credit cards and sell their own blood to stitch together 90 minutes of film to show at Sundance or Telluride. Instead, they can make mini-TV shows and show them to development executives with an equal love of original voices and thrift.
If network executives like what they see, they may buy a script or pay for a full pilot. And until then, aspiring showrunners don't need to deal with a single note from a network. They also don't have to cast their fates to the fickleness of the Internet in the hopes that millions of strangers will deem their videos worthy.
"It's a 100 percent pure voice. There's no notes or feedback in the initial round of getting into the festival," Gray said. "It's once they get into business with those networks that they will obviously go through the process that's not unlike a regular deal. And for the buyers, they're hearing from voices that they don't regularly hear from."
Though the concept of a TV festival may still sound odd, it arguably makes more sense that of a film fest: Television, with its ever-growing list of channels, has even more routes to the small screen than indie films did to the big one.
So far, only three shows have made it to air through the festival: IFC's "Bunk," Speed's "Hard Parts: South Bronx" (both pictured at the top of the story with an image from "Dog"), and the fishing show "Off the Hook," which aired on Versus before it became the NBC Sports Network. None are big shows, and "Bunk" and "Off the Hook" have been canceled.
But the festival has nonetheless opened a lot of doors – and given competitors a chance to show their best work to executives from Fox, NBC, and Comedy Central, among other networks.
It also draws some of television's top names, including "Justified" creator Graham Yost, this year's keynote speaker (left), and "Lost" co-creator Damon Lindelof, who confessed in last year's keynote that he often wanted to quit the series.
The only requirement to get into the festival is that the festival's panel of TV professionals likes a project enough to accept it.
"What it's become is a gathering place for emerging talent that's producing in a different way that's not only economical, which is great for a network like ours, but it also feels creatively forward thinking," said Dan Pasternack, vice president of development and production at IFC. "It's a place to get a glimpse at what's next. And we're definitely a 'what's next' network."
Even winning in one of the festival categories is no guarantee of getting on the air. But it can launch successful careers.
Writing partners Luke Cunningham and Austen Earl won the festival's Fox Comedy Script Pilot award in 2010 for "Red Delicious," a script based on Cunningham's childhood in Philadelphia, when his chubbiness and tendency to wear red earned him the nickname in the title.
They received $25,000 and a development deal. Fox head Kevin Reilly personally read their script, and it went into development in 2011. Though Fox didn't think it fit in with a fall lineup that also included "The New Girl," the pair quickly found more opportunities.
"Almost immediately we went out with a couple of Fox execs, and we were also signed by CAA," said Cunningham. "Almost every time my manager or agent sends me out for work, one of the bullets points is 'His pilot won at the New York Television Festival.'"
Cunningham, who is also a standup comedian, has scored writing jobs on Comedy Central's "Sports Show with Norm MacDonald" and the recent "Night of Too Many Stars," where he worked with "Bunk" co-creator Ethan Berlin. He has another show in development with the TV Guide Network.
Earl, meanwhile, went on to write for NBC's "Up All Night."
Barry Gribble, whose drama pilot "The Conspiracist" is a finalist this year, was working on web design in Washington, D.C. when he first entered the festival in 2007. He had no Hollywood connections, he said.
His first entry, "Codeword Secret," was shot for less than $2,500 and won him a mentorship with "Everybody Loves Raymond" creator Phil Rosenthal. A 2009 entry, "Dog," was shot for just $100 and won the festival's best drama prize. (Its plot was strikingly similar to that of the shuttered Dane Cook NBC project "Next Caller, Please.")
He also credits the festival with helping him score a writing job with Animal Planet.
"Down the road, if my legacy is as a successful television writer/creator/director, the New York Television Festival will be directly responsible," Gribble said. "They were the stepping stone for me between being some dude who wanted to make television shows in Washington, D.C. to someone who has some of the connections, the tools and the knowledge to make it to the next level."
Watch the 2009 entry, "Dog":