Why in the World Do TV Shows Go to Sundance?

Sundance TV - H 2016
Courtesy of Sven Frenzel

"It positions these shows as being something different and special if they make it into a film festival," says fest director John Cooper as ESPN's O.J. Simpson doc and Hulu's Stephen King adaptation prepare to make their debut in Park City.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

It’s the Sundance Film Festival, but in recent years, TV series have been popping up in the program with more frequency. In 2013, the festival screened all seven episodes of the Emmy-nominated series Top of the Lake (which, yes, aired on Sundance TV) while last year’s festivalgoers got an early peek at HBO’s The Jinx. The 2016 lineup features an O.J. Simpson documentary from ESPN and Hulu's Stephen King adaptation 11.22.63 — in all, seven television events, shows and miniseries (and one web series). “It positions these shows as being something different and special if they make it into a film festival,” explains festival director John Cooper. (Conversely, TV networks have a history of snatching up Sundance docs: CNN Films nabbed the rights to 2015 festival favorite The Hunting Ground while, ahead of this year’s festival, HBO has acquired the rights to the doc Jim: The James Foley Story.)

“The line between TV and filmmaking feels very porous,” says Bridget Carpenter, the showrunner of 11.22.63, which bows at fest on Jan. 28. Carpenter believes the exodus to television is rooted in something simple: “It’s getting harder to make films, and it’s getting easier to make television.” Examples of indie filmmakers who have refocused on the small screen include Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, the writer-directors of Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience — adapted from the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film — which premieres Jan. 23 at Sundance. “There are a lot of opportunities for independent filmmakers to get a series of their own,” says Kerrigan, who cites audiences’ appreciation for auteurdriven television like Soderbergh’s Cinemax hit The Knick. Summarizes Cooper, “We try to track what the independent film world is doing, and then by following them, we follow the audience.”