SeriesFest, the ‘Sundance for television,’ returns to Denver this week
“SeriesFest: Season 3”
Dates: June 27-July 2, most events held at Sie FilmCenter, 2510 E. Colfax Ave., Denver
Prices: $12-$20 for individual tickets, packages range from $60-$330
For tickets: Seriesfest.com
According to recent statistics compiled by the FX Network there were 210 original scripted television shows that aired in 2009. In 2016, that number had increased to more than 450. This year that number will be around 500. TV is becoming the preferred medium for many of the world’s best story tellers.
Realizing the power of serialized programming, entertainment veterans Randi Kleiner and Kaily Smith Westbrook knew there was an opportunity to fill a need and created their own festival. The pair founded SeriesFest, which is like a film festival but for television, and decided to hold it right here in Colorado.
Now in its third year, the six day annual event is a celebration of television highlighting innovative programs while also hosting industry panels, workshops and competitions for a myriad of genres. Documentaries, reality programming, animation, comedies and dramas are all represented.
Attendees can even get early looks at some network shows that will air in the fall. This year’s festival opens on Tuesday at Red Rocks with the world premiere of CNN’s “The Nineties” along with performances by Lauryn Hill, Common and En Vogue. Sia and John Legend have been previous opening night performers. SeriesFest knows how to get a party started.
Recently I chatted with SeriesFest co-founder Randi Kleiner to find out what TV aficionados can look forward to this year and why television is giving film a run for its money.
Gazette: SeriesFest is a unique concept. How did you and Kaily come up with the idea?
Kleiner: I used to produce events for the New York Film Festival and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Kaily’s background is as an actress, director and producer. She created one of the first web series back in 2008 and went through the very tough process of trying to sell it. She approached me about doing a panel at the film festival, which I thought was an interesting idea. As I started to delve into it, I became obsessed and immersed in how the television world was evolving across platforms. Everyone seemed to be looking for diverse and creative serialized content but there was no place to find it.
On the other side, Kaily and I both knew major filmmakers who, just like with independent films, were producing and financing their own pilots. They had no place to showcase them or distribute them. We felt if we could bring these parties together - the filmmakers and networks, brands, platforms, etc.- and create a discovery platform for serialized content, a la Sundance for television, we would have something really new and exciting. So we decided to launch SeriesFest!
It has grown faster than we ever anticipated, proving there was a real need for a festival like this. We couldn’t be more excited and proud to be heading into our third year.
Gazette: Most people would expect an event like SeriesFest to be held in New York or Los Angeles. Why is it important to you to have it in Denver?
Kleiner: We wanted to create a destination festival. There is something to be said about walking down Main Street at Sundance or eating barbecue in Austin for SXSW. Everyone leaves their offices to immerse themselves in those festivals, and we felt that was hugely important to creating our community. Kaily was born and raised in Colorado so she naturally suggested we check out Denver. We received immediate support from Governor Hickenlooper and Donald Zuckerman (Colorado’s director of the Office of Film, Television & Media). We flew out in January 2015 for 48-hours and met with so many incredible community leaders who were passionate about Denver and advocated for our TV festival concept. We were also introduced to Britta Erickson and the Denver Film Society, which provides a home base for us at the Sie FilmCenter and have been tremendous partners. Finally, when Kaily showed me Red Rocks for the first time, I knew I had to produce an event there. Little did I realize at the time we would be bringing John Legend there just a few months later to launch the first ever SeriesFest.
The community here has been integral in our festival growing so fast. We are continuing to build our network of local businesses who provide invaluable support. This year, we have more people than ever traveling in from around the world, including a partnership with the French Embassy in the United States, and we look forward to showing them the best of Denver. This city is so beautiful and truly provides an incredible backdrop for SeriesFest.
Gazette: With so many quality programs to choose from, how do you decide which to series to feature for the independent pilot competition?
Kleiner: The Independent Pilot Competition is one of the hardest sections to program. We receive hundreds of submissions from around the world and we have an incredible programming team that watches and narrows it down to the final selection. Ultimately, it all comes down to story. We are looking for strong and unique perspectives, good character development, structure, and solid production quality. We also want to make sure our lineup is diverse, bold, and there is something for everyone.
Gazette: Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk (“Con Man”) and Linda Hamilton and William Sadler (“Shoot Me Nicely”) bring quite a bit of star power to their series. But what hidden gems are you personally most excited for attendees to see this year? Please tell me “Lost & Found” because it looks great.
Kleiner: “Lost & Found” is wonderful! It’s a dramedy that takes a beautiful and very authentic look at relationships as it follows a group of friends in their 30s. I also highly recommend “Shepherd” as it challenges your perceptions about moral authority in a complex urban environment overrun by poverty and crime. The lead actor gives a dynamic performance as Father Joseph, a true anti-hero. “Up North” is about a corrupt New York City prison system and follows three compelling actors as they battle their way out on to the even more dangerous streets. And if you are fans of Will and Grace, definitely check out “The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo!”
Gazette: SeriesFest isn’t just about watching great serialized program. You also have opportunities for up-and-coming storytellers. Tell me about your artist initiatives.
Kleiner: We have expanded into year-round programming with our initiatives dedicated to fostering and supporting emerging artists. Our Storytellers Initiative is our half hour comedy script writing competition. This past year, three finalists were brought to Los Angeles for an intense two-day creative workshop with established industry experts where they participated in writers’ rooms, learned about the inner workings of the industry, and spoke to several incredible network writers and showrunners. The winning artist received an exclusive development deal with presenting partners, Parallel Entertainment and Elysium Bandini Studios. We are excited to do a live-read with professional actors of the winning script, “You From the Future,” on Friday, June 30 at the Sie FilmCenter. Audiences should definitely check this out.
Last year, we also launched our Featuring Women’s Initiative in collaboration with Rose McGowan along with a crowdfunding diversity campaign called the New Voice Rally with Seed & Spark, Band of Outsiders, FullScreen and MasterCard. We will be premiering the four New Voice Rally finalists pilot presentations on Thursday, June 29 in front of an audience and jury. Our esteemed jury will be determining who will receive a $30,000 cash prize towards development or production as well as a development deal with Band of Outsiders.
Gazette: Film used to be the medium of choice for great stories but now television seems to have eclipsed it. Why is episodic storytelling so popular today?
Kleiner: I believe access and cost is a huge reason. Whether you subscribe to cable or do an annual subscription to a digital platform, you have so many options right at your fingertips. With the expansion of digital platforms, episodic storytelling is more diverse than ever. Technology has also been a huge part of this evolution. Television systems are so advanced you can stream high quality content to your home, not to mention on the go, with iPads and phones. The quality of content has also increased significantly. Networks are putting massive budgets behind their key series and the results are pretty incredible. I believe the toughest challenge now is how to break through the noise. There is so much great content out there, how do you figure out what to watch? My answer is to come to SeriesFest!
Gazette: What has been your best memory or experience from these initial years of SeriesFest?
Kleiner: Our first year, I’ll never forget the moment Kaily and I walked into the Sie FilmCenter together and stood at the top of the stairs. We looked down on a buzzing lounge of creators, network executives, actors, and television fans all mixed together chatting. The energy was palpable and we knew in that moment that we had created something truly special.
Gazette media columnist Terry Terrones is a member of the Television Critics Association and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @terryterrones.