Sundance Channel TV show gets a movie-style introduction

The New York TimesMarch 4, 2013 

— Jane Campion has spent decades traveling the festival circuit, listening to countless audiences react to her films, like “The Piano” or “Bright Star.” Still, nothing prepared her for the response during a showing in the Egyptian Theater during the Sundance Film Festival in January.

As a character appeared to hurtle backward over a cliff hundreds of feet above a canyon floor, the crowd let out anguished howls of “Oh no!” What made this reaction different was that it came more than four hours into a daylong screening of Campion’s miniseries “Top of the Lake,” which begins March 18 on the Sundance Channel. It was the first TV series to make its premiere at Sundance in the festival’s 29 years. The series then was shown in full last month at the Berlin Film Festival.

“To hear an audience gasp and cry and cheer like in the old days after they’d been sitting for so many hours was remarkable,” Campion said the next day. “In this era of Twitter, where the human element can sometimes be missing, it was beautiful. There was such a feeling of community in that theater. It felt like a giant sleepover.”

Campion and her show’s stars – Holly Hunter, Elisabeth Moss and Peter Mullan – had converged on Park City in a bid for buzz. While that may be par for the independent film course, it is a new tactic for TV networks aiming to give series special cachet in a time of abundant choices for viewers and concomitant anxiety for show creators and network executives.

The Sundance Channel came here with the six-hour “Lake” and the first two episodes of “Rectify,” a drama from the producers of “Breaking Bad.”

Even if the Sundance showing involved brand synergy (though the festival and channel operate separately), it’s not the only channel testing the festival route: HBO brought “Girls” to South by Southwest last year and attendees this year will get a look at the A&E series “Bates Motel” and the PBS film “Hawking.”

TV shows have had premieres at film festivals before, especially in Europe, which has a longstanding tradition of the two media commingling. But in most cases, a feature theatrical release was in the offing, as with “Carlos,” the first TV series to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, in 2010. It went on to run in a feature-length theatrical cut, then was broadcast as a five-and-a-half-hour miniseries on the Sundance Channel. Campion’s last television project, “An Angel at My Table,” in 1990, was produced by a New Zealand network before a two-hour cut became the toast of the Venice Film Festival en route to theatrical release.

“Top of the Lake” and other examples differ in that they are being expressly showcased as television.

Emile Sherman, an executive producer of “Top of the Lake” along with Iain Canning (their film credits include “The King’s Speech” and “Shame”), said he explored the possibility of a feature-length version.

“We discovered that if you cut out elements of the show, you lose what makes it worthwhile as a series, the characters and the level of intimacy and detail that develops over six hours,” Sherman said.

Campion and her co-writer, Gerard Lee, were thinking long form from the moment they conceived the story.

“Top of the Lake,” which blends the mystery-laden atmosphere of “The Killing” and “Twin Peaks” with stunning visuals, centers on a detective (played by Moss, of “Mad Men”) searching for a girl who disappears in Milford Sound, an area defined by a narrow lake some 1,600 feet deep. “We looked at the high point of Victorian novels as a model – Dickens, Thackeray, Thomas Hardy,” Lee said.

Campion recalled the difficulty of adapting “Portrait of a Lady” as a theatrical feature in 1996. “It’s very frustrating when you do a feature because you have to leave so much out,” she said. “This structure gave us room to stretch out.”

After the miniseries’ 18-week shoot, backers turned their attention to promotion. The many cinematic elements (besides a director and writer with a film background, the creative team included Adam Arkapaw, the cinematographer of the Oscar-nominated “Animal Kingdom”) suggested a festival. The Sundance festival director John Cooper said his own tendency to binge-watch TV influenced his decision to program “Lake.”

Binge viewing, gaining currency across the television industry (witness Netflix’s decision to release all episodes of “House of Cards” at once), suits a festival environment. Gulping down an entire TV show is manageable for festivalgoers used to knocking off four or five features in a single caffeinated day. Plus, the talent behind and in front of the TV camera has become nearly identical to film’s: Following the careers of leading filmmakers has meant keeping closer tabs on television.

The scene inside the Egyptian reflected this new landscape, with all 290 seats filled 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There were a couple of breaks, during which audience members chatted with cast and crew members.

Hunter said she was reminded of theater happenings from her days as an emerging New York actress in the 1980s, attending productions like the marathon “Nicholas Nickleby.” “This feels to me like the same sense of excitement, a real extension of the experience,” she said.

Sarah Barnett, executive vice president and general manager of the Sundance Channel, said the debut “just seemed cool” given the confluence of cultural factors.

“People now consume TV content in so many different ways,” she said. “Why not add a film festival to that mix? Given that it’s Jane Campion, it makes sense to introduce it to a film audience. But it’s tough. Film people can be snooty about TV at a film festival.”

Happily for the Sundance Channel, the gamble paid off. The Egyptian crowd gave the show a standing ovation, film critics for Variety and The Hollywood Reporter wrote positive reviews, and a couple of blogs published swooning posts.

“As we were making it, we really wanted it to become a six-hour film,” Moss said the morning after the marathon premiere. “It was so cool to see people stay with that. We could feel them really want to take that ride.”

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