This weekend, Austin was home to the first annual ATX Festival, a celebration of all things television. Caitlin McFarland and Emily Gipson founded the festival when they saw a need for a festival to celebrate strictly TV. Since Austin is home to a burgeoning television market, it only made sense to keep the festival in the heart of Texas. The festival opened on the first with a special screening of "Suits" and "Royal Pains," as presented by the USA Network. Saturday and Sunday brought more show screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse, as well as panels attended by TV stars and industry insiders. The inaugural event seemed to be a huge success--here's to many more years of the festival to come. I had the privilege of attending on Saturday and these were the highlights.
- The first panel I attended was "The Creators." The panel included Noah Hawley ("The Unusuals"), Kyle Killen ("Awake), Kevin Biegel ("Cougar Town"), Mark Schwahn ("One Tree Hill"), and Liz Tigelaar ("Life Unexpected"). They talked about how running a show is different than writing a show because you spend more time managing the crew and less time writing on the show, although you ultimately still have the final say in what happens. Growing up, they all seemed to be fans of "The West Wing" and "The Cosby Show." Not all of them intended to be writers, but they all love where they ended up.
- The "TBS: Very Funny" panel featured both "Cougar Town" and "Sullivan and Son." The take-away from Bill Lawrence was that if you knew your show wasn't going to be a huge hit (and most shows aren't), then you need to reward your viewers with extra content. For "Cougar Town," he gave us spoilers for 2013's season four. The Harlem Globetrotters and Vince Vaughan are going to be guest stars next season! (Just to clarify--that is absolutely not true.) "Sullivan and Son" will premiere on TBS on July 19th.
- From the "Stages of a Writing Career" panel, the writers gave advice on things they wish they knew. They encouraged aspiring writers to give themselves tight deadlines to finish projects. Define your brand or it will be defined for you. While it seems like people in Hollywood play favorites, talent will ultimately win out. Remember that ideas are the easy part, but writing is hard. Explore other writing venues at the same time--sometimes it can be easier to come into the television industry from the side than working your way up from the bottom. Write lots and re-write lots.
- My favorite panel was "Women in Television." Jane Espenson ("Once Upon a Time," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," pretty much anything that's ever been great), Liz Tigelaar ("Life Unexpected"), and Erica Messer ("Criminal Minds") headlined the discussion. Currently, only 19% of TV writers are women. All of these women have loads of experience, but they still face difficulties in how they are treated. Jane has enjoyed being able to have control over her web series, "Husbands." Working with other women creates a more supportive environment, but they've all been fortunate to work with righteous men that treated them (and women characters) like equals. They'd like to see more female showrunners and they're all excited for the upcoming season. Their influences include D.C. Fontana ("Star Trek"), Winnie Holzman ("My So-Called Life"), and Amy Lippman ("Party of Five"). Erica closed the panel by reminding us that "nice, good people can have nice, good careers"--regardless of gender.
- The night ended with a "Friday Night Lights" outdoor screening. A bunch of actors from the show also have local bands, so there was a concert series before they showed the finale. Jesse Plemons (Landry), Scott Porter (Jason Street), and Michael B. Jordan (Vince Howard) were present...and very gracious, I might add.
- Some of the Saturday panels that I missed included "Friday Night Lights Revisited," "Page to Small Screen," "Love Monkey Retrospective," and "One Tree Hill Says Goodbye." While I was unable to attend on Sunday, there were additional panels for a "Conversation with Jason Katims," "Music in Television," and an "Actors Round Table."
The ATX Festival was a TV nerd's dream and I'm glad that I got to go to the pioneer event. I could see it turning into a required festival for all television fans in the years to come.