From Sept. 27-Oct. 2, 2014, Sundance conducted its first Episodic Story Lab. Established with founding support from Lyn and Norman Lear, it invited ten writers to learn from the wisdom and guidance of an august board of creative advisors from the world on the small screen. Among the famous show-runners who took part were Michelle Ashford (creator, “Masters of Sex”); Jenny Bicks (executive producer, “Sex and the City”); Greg Daniels (co-creator, “Parks and Recreation”); Chic Eglee (executive producer, “Dexter”); Kerry Ehrin (co-creator and executive producer, “Bates Motel”); Howard Gordon (co-creator, “Homeland”); Noah Hawley (creator, “Fargo”); Felicia D. Henderson (creator, “Soul Food”); Warren Leight (executive producer, “Law & Order: SVU”); Amy Lippman (executive producer, “Masters of Sex”); Murray Miller (executive producer, “Girls”) and Elwood Reid (executive producer, “The Bridge”).
According to Michelle Satter, founding director of the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program, the decision to start the new lab almost made itself.
“We felt it was in the air,” said Satter, who has been at Sundance since it moved to Park City in 1981. “Keri had been talking about it. I had been talking about it.” (Keri Putnam is Sundance’s executive director.)
“There was a call for it in our community of writers from theatre and film at our festivals,” continued Satter. “You really felt the opportunities for telling stories over multiple episodes was exploding.”
The first Episodic Story Lab was put together fairly fast. “The first year we wanted to get it up quickly and do our own pilot version of the lab,” explained Satter. “So we went out to our very large alumni community, as well as a targeting outreach to people in the cable and TV community for recommendations.”
Attendance was only by invitation. Once the writers recommended to Sundance were invited to apply, the Institute received a whooping 900 submissions. One was from writer Peter Biegen, who had seen an article about the lab in an industry trade publication.
“I wondered, did I know anyone with a connection to Sundance?” he recalled. “I started furiously making phone calls because I really wanted to get one of those invitations.” It turned out that a producer he had been working with had been asked for recommendations and had already thrown Beigen’s hat in the ring. He got an application soon after.
Eventually, Sundance chose ten writers out the 900 applicants. Biegen was one of them, as were theatre writers Lisa Kron and Katori Hall. Each was asked to bring with them a pilot for a new series, and an overview of that series.
(For the second year of the lab, the method of selection is different. Instead of invitations, there will be open submissions. The deadline is Feb. 11.)
The lab lasted five days and Biegen described the experience as “very immersive.”
“There were round table discussions,” he said. “There were one-on-one notes with advisers. The latter half of the lab was working with executives who were on the business end.”
Biegen was assigned three advisors: Ashford, Reid, and Gordon: “They would really ‘break story’ in your pilot,” he said, using industry jargon for cracking the heart of a script. “They had really done their homework. They gave extraordinary notes. The way the lab worked, it made you extraordinarily vulnerable, very quickly. I think that was a really good thing. You’re working with a nurturing group of people, so this vulnerability really opened you up.” Knowing the business side of modern television is as important as having a good story to tell, according to Biegen.
“They explained how television — whether it’s Netflix or a network or premium cable or HBO — was in flux, and how the models were changing, and what they were looking for,” said Biegen of the business executive he met with. “Also, the impact of cable on network television. What that will mean is still being formed, but the impact is very there.”
Writers were also schooled in the art of story pitching, and thrown into a mock-up of that television version of the lion’s den: the writers’ room.
“We did writers’ rooms, because writers rooms are part of the collaborative process in television,” explained Satter. Different groups of writers and advisors were put together in different rooms and told to brainstorm. The writers needed to know “what that experience can be and feel it in their bones,” said Satter. “That was an exciting thing for all of them.”
For Biegen, the stress was all worth it. “You’re talking to people who have worked in the trenches of television,” he said. “They have a deep understanding of complexity.”
Strange as it may seem, the lab schedule featured little writing. Rather, writers and their advisors focused on examining the pilots that the scribes had already penned.
“It was really about actively listening,” told Biegen, “about understanding the notes, how the industry works, and understanding the place where television is right now.”
Michelle Satter encouraged him not to think about the future or the past, but to just soak up what was going on in the room each day. “She said something when I was being interviewed,” he added. “She said, ‘Just be present.’”