On Jun 9th, I finally took the plunge. I finally went to the ATX Television Festival in Austin. For those of you who aren’t familiar with ATX Television Festival, this festival is an annual festival devoted to all things TV. The festival was started by Caitlin McFarland and Emily Gipson five years ago. The festival is panel based, featuring discussion topics ranging from the writing process to how casting works. Attendees get to hear from different perspectives from the industry: actors, writers, directors, and producers (fellow RLR writer Amy Martinez had the chance to interview one of the panelists, Matt Lauria, and you can check out her interview here).
I had been planning for years to attend the festival. I had plenty of reasons to go in the past; the festival had panels that reunited my favorite shows’ cast members (Friday Night Lights, Gilmore Girls, Boy Meets World), and I would get to hang out with fellow RLR writers Jordan and Amy. In addition, the festival is a great opportunity for me to meet like- minded people who geek out on TV the same way I do. Most people I see on day to day basis are more into discussing TV show storylines, while I am also into more of the behind the scenes creative process in putting together a show. I am glad I finally went this year because I had a blast and came back having a deeper appreciation/understanding of television.
As a first timer, I wasn’t sure what it would be like, even though Amy and Jordan- who’ve basically attended all of them – had given me some tidbits. Last year had apparently changed some of the vibe of the festival; due to the Gilmore Girls reunion, the attendance was higher than normal, which impacted the festival panel access. In addition, last year’s reunion also drew different crowd than the usual attendees. The festival’s typical audience base is people who really appreciate the art of television making. However, multiple attendees told me last year’s Gilmore Girls drew people more into the celebrity/Hollywood glamour aspect of television, thereby changing the festival tone. When the people who attend are more into the behind the scenes action, the festival can have a more casual tone. I was concerned the after effects of last year’s issues would continue this year and impact the tone and accessibility to panels.
Thankfully, from all the feedback I heard, the festival returned to its roots: a laid back atmosphere for fans and industry to have genuine, normal interactions. The Festival strips away the actors/writers/producers’ celebrity status and makes them just artists and normal people you would meet on a day to day basis. The festival’s casual nature really allowed me to better see the television actors and creators as human beings and not the hype that is attached to them. Social Media/ Entertainment Magazines often make you think the hype is the real part, when it in fact is artificial.
The festival was four days long, starting Thursday and ending Sunday. My favorite panel was definitely the Ugly Betty reunion. I not only got to experience how lovely, smart, and down to earth the cast is but also came away from the panel with a better appreciation how Ugly Betty revolutionized Latino portrayal onscreen. Latino characters had been typecast for years under a specific narrative and relegated to minor character status. Ugly Betty broke the stereotypical storyline for Latina character and gave them a leading role.
While I enjoyed the Ugly Betty reunion the most, I learned a great deal from the other panels I attended as well. Rather than summarize each panel, I’ll touch upon the common themes I heard throughout the festival:
“Write what you know”: Multiple panelists brought up how writing what they knew helped create authentic and relatable storylines, which ultimately kept audiences engaged. Showrunners discussed how writers brought in their personal stories into writing planning sessions. One showrunner joked, “See who was crying and that’s your story,”
Parenthood is an example of how writing what the showrunner knew helped keep the show on air. The showrunner, Jason Katims, drew upon his own personal experiences’ with his son’s Asperger’s syndrome and incorporated that as the main storyline for one of the show’s characters, Max Braverman. Katims mentioned how drawing upon his experiences allowed show to connect with other families’ facing the same issue. These families were thankful for the show bringing attention to their struggles. This connection is one reason the show had a loyal audience, who fought for the show multiple times as it faced cancellation.
One of the most interesting points about “write what you know,” was Katims’ point that even if he was writing a storyline that wasn’t part of his direct experience, he could find some relatability/common humanity within it. As the legendary Norman Lear (creator of groundbreaking sitcoms Jeffersons, Good Times, All in the Family) said in a panel, each individual “just another version of you.” We are all united by the human condition. Both Lears and Katims have been successful because of their focus on the common humanity. It was also clear that this relatability was also very important for all the other writers/showrunners at the festival.
It really does take a village to create a character: When fans like a character on screen, everyone usually credits the actors for their great portrayal. However, what the audience often don’t realize is how many other people-writers, directors, film editors- also contributed towards bringing the character to life. During a panel featuring TV show directors, Everybody Love Chris’s director Ali LeRoi stated that writers create the characters and actors bring the best version of it. The director then finds the right camera shots and actions to execute on the vision for the character. The film editor cuts what is shot to create the ultimate story. I found all of this fascinating as given the different execution points for the story, character can literally transform to something different from when it is written to what is actually shown on screen to viewers.
The power of social media: It’s no secret how social media has allowed TV watching to be a more communal activity. Twitter and Facebook has allowed TV show fans to connect and debate storylines/couple pairings. The festival panels touched upon passion the fans exhibit for the show on social media, and how it can get a little extreme at time. Multiple panelists noted how social media has impacted their writing/production process. Some showrunners/ writers stated they make it a point to separate social media commentary from their ideas and story creation in the writers’ room. Others noted they sometime get nuggets from fan feedback and incorporate into their process. Overall, showrunners noted the positive influence of social media, whether it was in spreading the word about the show, bringing visibility to some of the behind the scenes’ folks (directors/writers/producers) work, and finding passionate fans to create merchandise promoting their work.
Other highlights of the festival included the pop culture trivia night (I finally got to put my useless tv knowledge to work) and the Friday Night Lights 10 year tailgate reunion. A majority of the cast members attended the reunion, which was held on the Panthers field. In addition to watching a screening of the show, we also got to hear Crucifictorious band play (Landry’s band on the show). I really enjoyed their performance and wish they had an album. It was the perfect chill, mellow music for the event.
Overall, I had a great time and will most likely attend next year. I highly encourage people who are as excited about all things TV to attend this festival- it won’t disappoint.