NYTF opens channel for indies


When Rob Kutner and Mike Shapiro set out to create the pilot "Family Values," they had a vision for a family sitcom that would resonate in today's polarized political climate.

The pilot stars "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" correspondent Rob Riggle as an ultra-conservative pundit whose life is turned upside down when his wife leaves him and he is forced to raise his children on his own with the help of a left-leaning single mother who lives next door. Kutner ("Daily Show," "Dennis Miller Live") wrote the pilot, but he wasn't sure the series would emerge with his original vision intact if it went the traditional route for TV production.

Enter the New York Television Festival, the third annual celebration of the burgeoning independent TV scene, where "Values" will be screened in front of networks, producers and agents who could give it a shot. "Values" is one of 28 independently produced pilots that will compete for prizes and the chance to be picked up by networks and studios during the four-day festival, which starts Wednesday and runs through Sept. 9 at New World Stages in New York.

"The festival is just a few years old but it's a very unique opportunity," said Shapiro, who directed "Values." "We're both familiar with the independent-filmmaking model of production and we applied that to the idea of 'Family Values.'"

Giving a boost to a new generation of TV producers, much the way the Sundance Film Festival has given a leg up to those on the movie side, is just what Terence Gray had in mind when he created the festival in 2005. The event, which started modestly with backing from such agencies as WMA and CAA as well as such networks as NBC and Fox, has grown to the point where it's a destination of choice for the hundreds of people for whom the digital revolution has put within reach the creation of their own TV series.

Selling those shows, especially if you're just starting out and have no connections in Hollywood, isn't so easy — something that Gray, a TV writer and producer himself, knew all too well.

"There was a real need in Hollywood and the movie landscape to bring back great storytelling, and they (Sundance) along with other festivals were able to achieve that," Gray said. "It's our hope to introduce a number of new ideas and storytellers and producers to the industry and infuse a great deal of creativity."

The festival follows a dual track, uniting up-and-coming writer-producers, agents and networks while at the same time celebrating the best of TV. Beyond screenings of the indie pilots in competition, the networks will unveil some of the season's highly anticipated new series including ABC's "Pushing Daisies," NBC's "Chuck" and Fox's "New Amsterdam" (filmed in New York). The producers and stars of the series will be on hand to answer questions afterward.

But the main point of the festival is to bolster independent TV, and launch the careers of the next generation of TV writer-producers. There have been three success stories so far. A sitcom titled "Split the Difference" won two awards last year and was bought by NBC Universal Television Studios. A&E picked up for development "Criss-Cross" during the festival's first year, while reality program "Off the Hook" appeared on Comcast-owned cable channel Versus.

Twenty-eight pilots were selected among 2,000 submissions this year; another 180 minipilots are being considered for a special Microsoft Xbox Live competition for the next big thing in gaming. The finalists — a wide-ranging field of sitcoms, dramas and reality series, mostly from New York but also hailing from Boston, Orlando and as far away as Bangalore, India, and New South Wales, Australia — will be screened at the festival and shown on the Web beginning this week thanks to co-sponsor MSN.

Jon Rosen, an East Coast TV agent at WMA, has been involved with the NYTVF since the beginning. He believes it has grown into a viable place to do business.

"The product that came out of the festival was very good," Rosen said. "We started to sell some of those projects to cable and network executives and it immediately became legitimate for networks to look for the new talent in our business, the emerging talent, here."

CAA's Adam Berkowitz, who also has been involved from the start, agreed. He is passionately committed to bringing new creative voices to the screen, and said the NYTVF helps to do that.

"It means a lot to be involved with helping to bring young raw talent to people's eyes who can help them get where they deserve to be," Berkowitz said. "It's so hard for people to succeed without credits. This is a forum that gets people's attention."

It has certainly been the case for Mary Egan Callahan and Joe Narciso, who produced "Split." The first-time producers — Callahan was a longtime casting director and Narciso a writer and commercial actor — have found themselves in demand, with each producing another pilot as well as being involved in other projects.

"The festival was invaluable," Narciso said. "It's really opened doors for both of us as a team and individually."

Callahan heard about the festival last year and pushed hard for "Split," which like "Values" was filmed in New York, to be included. This year he and Narciso served as mentors for friends who saw their success and wanted to try, too. Eight of their friends submitted pilots and six made the cut.

New at the festival this year is a mentor program, where four aspiring writer-producers will be paired with one of four accomplished industry veterans — "Arrested Development" creator Mitch Hurwitz, "Everybody Loves Raymond" creator Phil Rosenthal, "Oz" creator Tom Fontana and top reality producer Michael Davies — who will work with them for the next year on their projects and help them along.

"It's a phenomenal opportunity for young talent to work with such successful people," CAA's Berkowitz said.

Also new this year is the involvement of Procter & Gamble Prods., which picked three sketch comedy troupes from across the country and will record a pilot for the P&G Productions Players at this year's festival. Brian Cahill, who heads P&G Prods.' agency Televest, said the comedy troupes are part of an initiative to broaden its base beyond soap operas like "As The World Turns" and "Guiding Light" and "The People's Choice Awards." And pairing it with the festival, he said, is a great way to keep TV production vital in New York.

Even as this year's festival gets under way, organizers are looking to the future. Not only is it getting easier and cheaper to create TV, but the festival isn't just about TV. Co-sponsor MSN is one of a number of companies looking to the festival as a way to find new talent for original Web series, mobisodes and other platforms. Beyond MSN's $10,000 award that will be handed out at the festival, Reed Price, editor-in-chief of MSN Entertainment and Video, said it's a valuable opportunity for the company to help discover what's the next big thing in broadband.

"It's definitely crossing over," WMA's Rosen said.

For Kutner and Shapiro, they hope the festival will help them launch the pilot in what promises to be a good year for a smart, timely comedy mostly about family, but with some politics thrown in with the presidential elections just around the corner.

"The festival is a phenomenal way to do that (be seen). … It's a one-of-a-kind opportunity for new producers of television like Rob and me to have an idea, let it bloom in full form and have an audience," Shapiro said.