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Why Independent Television Finally Deserves Independent TV Festivals

The article originally appeared on IndieWire

By Liz Shannon Miller

The first time I attended ITVFest, it was 2009 and, at that time, as a writer and editor for the tech blog Gigaom, I was totally focused on this evolving concept of the web series. This often meant watching a lot of not-so-great shows about aspiring 20-something actors trying to make it in Hollywood (set in the apartments of aspiring 20-something actors), so I was always more than eager to discover new great media; stuff on par with what my DVR would scoop up from broadcast and cable channels.

At that point, though, the split between many of the series showing at ITVFest and what we would call “professional” content was massive. I’d walk from my West Hollywood apartment, conveniently just four blocks from the theater hosting the screenings, and the walk would be worth my time because there would be gems like the thriller “Urban Wolf” and the sensitive drama “Oz Girl.” But there would also be plenty of other entries which fell flat because the sad truth is that, at that point, it took real monetary investment and talent and some degree of kismet to create independent television on the scale of what was happening in mainstream venues.

And even if you did make something extraordinary, the platforms for successfully distributing it — you know, actually getting your show seen and not going broke — were quite minimal. Netflix’s streaming service was only two years old, as was Hulu, and not only were both services years away from pursuing original series, they weren’t venues open to industry outsiders. Meanwhile, Blip, founded in 2005, was at that point a cornerstone of the web series world, but the company would prove to be non-sustainable in the long term. YouTube was a long way from proving itself as an established home for premium scripted content. Lots of people were making independent television, but not a lot of people were really making money at it.

Cut to 2015 and me attending ITVFest again. Except instead of walking four blocks from my apartment, I flew from Los Angeles to Boston, then met a car that drove myself and two other festival attendees to the town of West Dover, Vermont. I left my house at 6am PST and arrived at the West Dover Inn at approximately 8:30pm EST. It was a long, long day, but upon my arrival I was surrounded by other festival attendees who’d also made the trek; interesting people committed to the cause of creating independent television. And given the way the quality of independent television has escalated in the last several years, that day of travel felt like a worthy use of my time.

West Dover is one of those towns that largely exists along a major road, if you’re coming up to Vermont in the fall for the leaves, there’s a good chance that you’ll travel through it as you drive along State Road 100. It’s a three-hour drive from Boston and a four-hour drive from New York, and this is a major part of the design of the event, according to ITVFest executive director Phil Gilpin. “That’s what this location does. It makes everybody interact on a level that you don’t get at the big festivals in the big cities,” he said when he had a chance to sit down and talk about the festival he’d brought to his hometown.

ITVFest has undergone several changes in ownership. Gilpin first brought ITVFest to Vermont in 2013, after talking with original founder A.J. Tesler. “I called him up in 2012 and asked him what’s going on with the festival. And he said, ‘Ah you know, it’s kind of just out there,'” he told me. “And I said, ‘Well, you know, I live in this small town that’s three-and-a half hours from Manhattan, three hours from Boston. I think if we held the festival here and got 1,000 of the world’s best creative minds, brought them together, and let them play for a weekend in a place where their cell phones probably don’t work, where all they have to do is hang out and chat, I think it could be really special.’ And [Tesler] said, ‘If you can build it, you can do it.'”

When I spoke with Gilpin, we were sitting in a screening tent erected in a field. West Dover does have one movie theater, but similar tents made up the bulk of the screening venues. You’d step outside and be in rural Vermont in September. Which, to be clear, is not a bad thing.

“In an era where content is driven by likes, clicks, views and the Kardashians, the ‘Dover Filter’ — as I call it — weeds out the true artists from the popularity seekers. That’s what makes it fun. You can sit around the fire and know that you’re in a cool, creative place,” Gilpin said.

The concept, if you will, is that ITVFest might become the Sundance of independent television. That doesn’t mean the current celebrity-soaked Sundance, though. Instead, there’s an aim towards recapturing the Sundance of the ’90s; a seething marketplace for new shows, which, years ago, seemed relatively impossible, but now — with the economics of television production adapting to digital platforms and a diversifying array of paths to real distribution — these fests have become a major steppingstone toward new, independently-produced TV shows getting a real shot.


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