ATX Festival: How Austin's "TV Camp for Grown-ups" Became an Industry Hub

Fest founders Emily Gipson and Caitlin McFarland reveal the evolution of the event, which will see more than 3,000 attendees for this year's fest, running June 7-10.
Courtesy of Jack Plunkett
Caitlin McFarland (left) and Emily Gipson

Austin's ATX Television Festival lives up to its branding as a "TV camp for grown-ups." In its seventh "season," the fest is drawing voices from across the television landscape — showrunners, development executives, actors — delving into hot-button topics from abortion on TV to emerging platforms.

Founded in 2012 by former development execs and longtime friends Emily Gipson, 36, and Caitlin McFarland, 34 — who launched it all with a Kickstarter campaign — ATX started out with panels "as broad as 'showrunning' and 'comedies on TV,'" McFarland recalls. "As it grew, we started including inside baseball things — like [writer-producer] Kyle Killen doing a PowerPoint presentation on the ratings system and focus groups. Those would be packed because both industry and fans didn't understand the ratings system and wanted to know how they could save their shows."

As the fest's scope and impact have grown, so has its buzz: The first ATX drew about 700 attendees. In 2018, its fourth sold-out year, it will see more than 3,000.

ATX puts executives over stars. Where did that strategy come from?

EMILY GIPSON It all started with who was at our first festival. We had no money, and the people who came were staff writers and producers — like Jane Espenson and Jason Katims. Friday Night Lights filmed in Austin and it had just ended. We were contacted by [exec producer] David Hudgins through Kickstarter and he contacted [creator] Katims [for a panel]. The next year, we went to the cast and said Jason was in for a reunion, and everyone else came easily.

CAITLIN MCFARLAND Because of him, the creator is the first person we try to get on board for anything.

The festival has become known for these big reunions, like The West Wing, Gilmore Girls and Queer as Folk, and this year Felicity. What's the dream get?

MCFARLAND Friends is the pie in the sky.

GIPSON And Parks and Recreation.

This year, you've added the Syndication Project for panels in which you're working with outlets including the TV Academy, ACLU and more. What's the hope?

GIPSON We believe in the power of storytelling, that it can really change people's hearts and minds. When the election happened, a lot of people on both sides felt powerless. Everyone was fired up after the Women's March and wanted to make a difference but didn't know what to do. The panel with the ACLU focusing on immigration is a great example.

MCFARLAND We hope to help writers who may not know about a specific issue or group, pairing them with resources that help them work a character or story into their shows that could make a difference.

What's your favorite fest moment?

MCFARLAND Year two with the Friday Night Lights reunion when we surprised the audience with Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton.

GIPSON Year one, seeing Jason Katims and his wife, Kathy, standing in the parking lot with tears in their eyes as everyone watched the Friday Night Lights season one finale. That's when it felt like, "OK, we did it."

Bookmark THR's The Live Feed for full coverage from the ATX Festival, which kicks off Thursday and runs through Sunday.

This story first appeared in the June 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.