Sure, last year, the Sundance Film Festival programmed a section for serial content. But according to Sundance programmer Charlie Sextro, last year was an experiment where a few truly independent series were included, and the results defined this year's brand-spanking new category.
"2017 was the first year we took open submissions, and it got great reaction. People really loved the creators," Sextro told No Film School. "This year instead of playing projects that already have distribution through major channels like Netflix or Amazon or Showtime, Indie Episodics are really fully embracing the idea of discovery and independence, and seeing what new things can happen when we showcase new creators. This is what people expect of Sundance, and so that's how we created the section this year." This new program is truly indie.
Why episodic work from new, unknown voices?
"For a lot of these projects, this is really no-budget," explained Sextro. "To make a feature film, for the most part, takes a lot of people. It could take a good amount of money, even a low-budget film could take quite a bit of money to make. That's part of what's really cool in this space. A lot of these projects don't have very much money at all. They are very much friends getting other friends to help make something. They weren't making it with this idea of selling it and making all their money back. They're just going and creating something and experimenting, and that's been exciting to see."
Spotlight on originality in this year's lineup
Poppy appears in 'I'm Poppy' by Titanic Sinclair, an official selection of the Indie Episodic program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Bryant Jansen, courtesy of Sundance Institute.
"I'm a big fan of Poppy," said Sextro. "I think she's super interesting, super, super transgressive, but also entirely pop in the same way."
Susane Lee appears in 'susaneLand' by Susane Lee and Andrew Olsen, an official selection of the Indie Episodic program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Alex Gaynor, courtesy of Sundance Institute.
"The voices of these creators are very exciting, like in Susane Lee of susaneLand," said Sextro. "She's incredibly funny, and I'm excited to showcase her and the weird world her and direcrtor Andrew Olsen, are looking to create."
Caveh Zahedi and Amanda Field appear in 'The Show About The Show' (Season 2) by Caveh Zahedi, an official selection of the Indie Episodic program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Stephen Melichar, courtesy of Sundance Institute.
"The Show About the Show is original in how it's approaching its web series format," said Sextro. "Caveh Zahedi is entirely creating a show about creating that show that you're watching."
Tonya Glanz and Chris Roberti appear in 'The Adulterers' by Tonya Glanz, Chris Roberti, and Darin Quan, an official selection of the Indie Episodic program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Zack Schamberg.
"[The Adulterers is] small in its scope and it's also very strategic, smart, and subversive. It sets up this couple that's clearly having an affair within their first episode, and every subsequent episode that comes along, it reveals a little bit more of their situation, which isn't exactly what you thought. It complicates and illuminates this situation," explained Sextro. "Also, each episode is as long as it needs to be to tell the story. Some episodes are 12 minutes long, and some are just 3 minutes long. It's just like this totally unique form in watching a story unfold."
There are many roads to success within the Indie Episodic program
When you premiere a feature film at the Sundance Film Festival, odds are that you're hoping a distributor will buy your film. You want the whole world to see your film, and you also need to pay back your investors, yourself, or at the very least, have enough money to send out all your backers' Kickstarter rewards. An independent episodic is a different beast altogether.
"Ultimately, we're just trying to build fandom for creators that we think are special and unique."
"I don't even know if this project is the ultimate goal, and this project itself getting out there is going to be the big thing for the creators," said Sextro. "But the creators are getting attention, building up fan bases, [including] within the industry [which] can lead to the right person reaching out and being like, 'Hey, I would like to develop something else with you. I would you to work on this. I would like to figure out a completely different thing to develop with you but I'm excited about your voice.' Ultimately, we're just trying to build fandom for creators that we think are special and unique, and it can manifest itself in different ways. If more people want to watch what these creators are doing, that's ultimately what would be successful."
What you need to know as a filmmaker
If you’ve been developing or considering experimenting with an episodic story, Sextro offers some words of wisdom based on what he’s seen that works. "You can do whatever you want to tell your story, and being economical, especially when you're making these short-form web series, is part of the charm," explained Sextro. "I mean, people are watching this stuff on their computers, so you don't need to add a massive scale to justify the importance of something. Stick to your storytelling. Stick to your characters and voice, and just convince us of that."
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.
Featured image: Tonya Glanz and Chris Roberti appear in The Adulterers by Tonya Glanz, Chris Roberti, and Darin Quan, an official selection of the Indie Episodic program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Zack Schamberg.