Austin Film Festival: Wrap-Up Part 1

By Elizabeth Quinn

It’s been a week since I returned from Austin and I’m still trying to digest all of the great information I learned from the panels.  The wrap-up blogs provide a brief summary of the remaining panels but regardless of the topic, every speaker always brought it back to the elements of storytelling and how we as writers and filmmakers can accomplish this in a meaningful way for both us and the audience. Stay tuned for Part 2 of the wrap-up and two great interviews from the festival.

Also, if you want to hear great podcasts on writing, check out On Story, always a featured player at the Austin Film Festival!

New Media / New Televisionfeaturing Carrie Gillogly (AMC Networks), Brian McGreevy and Lee Shipman (creators of the Netflix original horror series Hemlock Grove)

Carrie, Brian and Lee each gave their takes on storytelling for new channels and mediums but at the end of the day, they all agreed that storytelling is storytelling – the targets are just more specific now and you need to tailor your pitch to each one whether it’s a network or a streaming service.

Carrie Gillogly:  The medium really doesn’t matter. You can’t decide how someone is going to watch your show (live, DVR, or binge watching) but you still need to serve the story arc, the seasonal arc, and the character arc.

AMC is character driven and we like a story about a unique character in a unique world. But it can’t just be an odd story; it has have a clarity of vision. As a writer, you have to be able to show that this story is important to you and you have something to say over five seasons. If you can create a character with an unsolvable conflict, that will provide longevity for your show.

An agency is not going to encourage you to write the unsellable script because it’s not in their interest. But I often tell agents, “You know that script that you were mad at your client for writing? That’s what I want!”

At AMC, a pitch is better for established writers, and a spec is better for newer writers. Usually if we like a pitch or spec, we’ll make a deal for two re-writes and a polish. The important thing to remember in the pitch is that you need to talk about where you want to take the script/story. Our format is to have a bible of the first season which should also illustrate why it’s important and why it should be on AMC. Our goal is always to make the most compelling character-driven show. AMC likes to own stuff but they won’t pass up a great story. The only thing you can safeguard is to have awesome material.

Brian McGreevy and Lee Shipman: Ours was a unique experience in that production started and then we would get a lot of notes on our show from both Gaumont (the production company) and Netflix. It was challenging to write for the arbitrary running time inherent in Netflix and given that we had already started production on the show, we found ourselves having to make a lot of changes once the train had left the station.

Brian stated that he is not interested in being a traditional showrunner and Lee does not enjoy the writer’s room the way other showrunners do. But ultimately the streaming platforms gave us a lot more freedom than working on a network or cable channel.

Netflix is notoriously secretive about their numbers and their metrics are pretty foreign to anyone outside of Netflix. However, Netflix does factor in the cultural long tale and cultivating dedicated, niche audiences so that’s a huge factor in why they option a show and whether or not they renew it. Incidentally, Hemlock Grove has been picked up for a second season on Netflix, set to premiere in 2014 along with second seasons of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black.


Creating a Web Series: A Conversation with Issa Rae creator of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl webseries

Issa Rae: The idea for my show came about through my frustration of breaking into industry. Gatekeepers kept wanting me to change things about my scripts that I didn’t want to. Then one day, I literally had an epiphany – I’m awkward and I’m black and I can’t be the only one! I had also read the article “Where is the Black Liz Lemon” and that inspired me, too. I identified with Liz Lemon and characters like here but I didn’t see a black version on television.

Most of the efforts were about reaching out to friends for help and learning on the job. I had done two web series prior to “Awkward Black Girl” and I learned what not to do from those experiences. I set about outlining the beats of the first two episodes and did a lot of the work myself. But as the audience grew I had to hire more people to help create consistent schedule, which has been crucial to creating the show and to its success.

The audience comments were also helpful to the series. For example, White Jay was not originally going to be a series regular but he became an audience favorite and the audience called him White Jay so he ended up becoming important to the show. The audience building came from the community building itself around this idea/character because people identified with the character.  Social media also helped to highlight the universal appeal of the “awkward” part of her character and not just limit it to a black audience. I fully admit that putting a white person in my show on the advice of my producer was to bring more white people to the show.

By the sixth episode I ran out of money and I felt uncomfortable asking for donations but a friend convinced me to do Kickstarter. When it came time for distribution and fundraising, I used the NPR/PBS model to ask for donations (e.g., you watch it all the time so why not donate?) On the Kickstarter campaign, we really promoted it as a unique piece of content that you couldn’t find on network television and I think that helped us.

Even as recently as 2009 I still ran into agents who told me to go the traditional route, but now if networks are interested in a writer they look to see if they have some sort of online content: Youtube, Yahoo, AOL, Twitter, Vine Instagram– agents are looking at that. I definitely see TV and the Internet merging in the future.

This experience has been so wonderful and my web series led to opportunity for me to write a pilot for ABC studios and meet with Shonda Rhimes and her people. I tried to fit my voice into the ABC “family” mold but ultimately I prefer to work online or in cable so I can stay true to my voice and my content. Even though that didn’t work out, it was a very interesting learning experience and I’m now working with HBO to develop a series.

You can find out more about Issa Rae by clicking here.