By Billy Hanson
I came to Los Angeles in 2007 after four years of film school and eighteen years of knowing exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve always been a writer. I’ve always wanted to be in TV and movies. My career has been less about figuring out which direction to move than about trying to make a living out of doing what I love. That’s easier said than done, as we all know (or have yet to learn). But after eight years of struggling in the big city, I’d managed to make a handful of short films and I had a stack of original screenplays that I was giving out to everyone who would read them.
In 2012, I made a short film called Survivor Type that was a big festival hit, and I travelled around the country to every film festival I could attend, hoping to network, to raise my professional status, to meet other like-minded people to work with in the future. I should have felt confident in my work and should have been creatively fulfilled. But after several years of that routine, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was stuck in an endless cycle of unsuccessful productions; of writing in the middle of the night, scraping together as much cash as I could, and begging friends for help, only to spend more money at festivals that didn’t care whether I got anything out of the experience or not. I was becoming cynical about the whole idea of independent filmmaking, and unfortunately, that’s where a lot of artists land.
I channeled my frustrations into an independent pilot that I wrote, directed and produced called No Place To Fall, a bittersweet drama about two struggling musicians finding their own path to success while working together on an album. I was and still am immensely proud of that story. But I when it was finished, I wasn’t looking forward to the festival circuit like I did after Survivor Type. I’d been through it all before and had started to feel like festivals were simply a money trap for hungry filmmakers.
That’s when Philip Gilpin strolled in with a sport coat and a big smile.
After seeing the pilot at SeriesFest, he suggested we submit to ITVFest, the Independent Television Festival. I was skeptical. After all, it was his festival, it was all the way in Vermont, and how much quality indie TV could there possibly be? But that last glimmer of hope in the back of my mind and a few good recommendations convinced me to submit and when we were accepted, I decided I would attend.
I’m so happy I did.
The moment I got to town, I could tell that this was different than any festival I’d been to before. The first person that I passed on the street had a big badge hanging from a lanyard around his neck. He flashed a big smile and pointed me toward the screening tents. That friendly stranger turned out to be Rob Barnett, one of the festivals many execs, and a staple of the VIP parties (and a big Tom Waits fan, as we’ve discussed at length).
The entire town had been overtaken by other writers, directors, actors, producers, agents and execs, all from out of town, all milling about, chatting with each other like they never would back home in LA, New York, or Chicago. The entire week was an absolute blast, filled with screenings, parties, after-parties, and VIP meetings. That week redefined for me what a festival was and could be and restored my faith in the business of storytelling.
At long last, I’d found my people.
At face value, the festival is a week-long party, celebrating the best indie TV in the world, a chance for everyone to share their newest work on a big beautiful screen and let a captivated audience gush about how much they loved it. Believe me when I tell you how important and valuable that is, but I could tell that something deeper was at work. Something more important. All of the screenings, panels and events were structured not just to get butts in seats, but to corral industry people to the same watering holes to strike up conversation that could solidify future relationships. And it absolutely happens.
I wasn’t just making new friends and watching great content, I was finding kindred spirits floating around the same difficult world of showbusiness. I was connecting with peers who were looking for the exact same things that I was. Where had all these people been before? A lot of us lived in the same city. How had we never met? Even if we had met, would we have cared?
That first year, I left with a bag full of business cards that I immediately opened when I got back home. Once the new contact info was safely stored in my phone, I started to wonder what had been so different in Vermont. There must be something in the water, I thought. (It was whiskey). But what I soon realized was that the festival itself wasn’t Philip’s endgame. It was the network that forms from a group of people who yearn to tell stories and the people who get things done.
I returned to the festival in 2016 with a short film, Earworm. That year, I met Khara Campbell at a bar while I was trying to order a drink over her shoulder. We quickly realized we had a Network Notes session scheduled for the next day to discuss two of my other projects. That lead to one of the best professional meetings I’ve ever had. A year later, I was directing Khara and a handful of other alums like A. Monnie Aleahmad, in the web comedy, Lightning Dogs, which was created by Brett Elam and Josh Logan, who I’d met in my first year at ITVFest.
Not only was Lightning Dogs born out of our collective ITVFest experience, but minutes after it screened at the 2017 festival, we were approached by the digital distribution company iThentic, who told us they were looking for content exactly like ours and wanted to do business. Shortly thereafter, we signed a deal with them and Lightning Dogs was up on Funny or Die. It’s still there now. Thanks to Philip Gilpin and ITVFest, we’d landed our first distribution deal.
I’ve attended ITVFest for the last three years and I’m headed there again this year. I’ve stayed in touch with other alums for years. I’ve created new projects with them. I’ve cast actors I’ve met there, traded notes with writers, gone to other directors’ local screenings. A few months ago, I even went to a play by Lucky Mor, who I met along with his crew on my very first night at ITVFest back in 2015. And every time the alums get together, we talk about ITVFest and its incredible network of creators.
I still live in LA, still struggle to fight off that cynicism in a system that seems unbeatable. I had reps for a while, then lost them. I’ve had big projects that almost sold, only to have the deals cancelled just before contracts were signed. All the usual headache of trying to sustain a career in movies and TV. But none of it can keep me down anymore. ITVFest proved to me that it’s possible to strip away all the white noise of this business and simply create together. And that truly inspires me to keep going.
There are thousands of us struggling artists out there, all clawing our way through an endless road of obstacles. But Philip has created something amazing for people like us. He’s leveled the playing field, removed most of the hurdles that people think they need to jump over to get their work into the hands of people looking for new content. It’s taught me to keep myself open and available, taught me to help out my fellow filmmakers and not treat them like competition, and taught me that the people who can get things done are always nearby.
I look forward to ITVFest every year. It’s a refreshing reminder that pitch meetings don’t have to be a slog, and not everyone it out to make a quick buck off your hard work. There are people out there who want to make, create, tell stories, and share themselves.
Sometimes, you just need to get out of the city for a few days to remember that.