ATX Television Festival: What to Expect

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The ATX Television Festival kicks off in Austin, Texas tomorrow.

Only in its second year of existence, the laid back event drew raves last summer for its interactions between fans and the stars of their favorite shows, along with its focus on not just today's hit shows, but yesterday's as well.

Among the many programs that will featured this year? The Vampire Diaries, Party of Five, Boy Meets World, Once Upon a Time (whose panel will be hosted by TV Fanatic's Jim Halterman!) and Scandal.

Visit TV Fanatic often over the next several days for endless scoop from actors, actresses, showrunners and more - and take a look back at the success of last year's festival now:

Jim also spoke at length to founder Caitlin McFarland and Emily Gipson, who gave us an idea of what they have learned from last summer and what has made the event such a big draw.

TV Fanatic: Whenever I talk to people going into the second year of a TV show, I ask, ‘Okay, the first season’s over. What did you learn? What’s different in the second season?’ so that question can apply to both of you, right?
Caitlin McFarland: Yeah. Absolutely. I think we are really trying to hold on to a lot of last year. I think a big part of what made last year so special. Sort of the community, itself, and the people that came interacting with the season creators and cast. They loved their show. They were fans of their other shows at the festival and they were just super accessible and very open and generous with their time. And on the other side, the badge holders, the attendees, were very respectful. They were aware of personal space. And they got to have their moment with their favorite person, but also knew when to walk away. Or sit there and have a beer with them for an hour because some of our panelists were totally up for that. It’s interesting we will, as we grow, we fear, we will eventually lose some of that. But we’re really trying to hold onto that as much as possible and this year with programming and we try to find people what they are coming to and the community and the environment that we’re trying to create.

TVF: How did you guys actually decide what would be on the schedule? How do you kind of pick, especially past shows? There’s so many past shows you could honor. You know, you have to pick some great ones, personal favorites of mine. But I guess, how did you guys go through that? Is it kind of a committee where you guys kind of whittle a list down? Or how does it work?
Emily Gipson: It's a committee of Caitlin and myself.

I like that.
EG: We do, but the main thing is with our advisory board, it’s really a lot of them and people that do watch it, had a great time last year almost pitched us shows, they had, well, I guess, also that they had worked on that they really liked the cast. So, they loved each other and would want to come back together after that experience.

So, “American Dreams,” we sat down with the creator last summer. Just to talk about the possibility of it and we sent an e-mail out to our team. The cast was very interested. Within, I think in twenty minutes all of them has responded, “Yes.”

I think that was super easy. And then, you know, “Boy Meets World” we were put in touch with Rider Strong, one of our guys who is good friends with Rider Strong. And since we were both fans of “Boy Meets World” growing up, we thought, “Oh, that would be a great thing to do.” I mean, something simple. So, that’s just Rider and he put us in touch with Michael Jacobs, the same thing. As soon as we send out, we invite them and we get interested the entire cast, “Yes. We are friends. We love each other. We want to come back.” And then we, fortunately, that just falls back into the “Girl Meets World” announcement.

Festival Founders

TVF: I think last year you guys did the “Friday Night Lights” screening. Is that right? And there’s something else this year with “Friday Night Lights”?
CM: Yes. Basically, I have worked for Tribeca Film Festival. Whenever I was in New York and one thing I was really impressed by, in their ten years, at the time, was their family day. They had the outdoor screening and you know, free events for the community because that’s a big part of why that festival started is bring the community and lower Manhattan together.

Austin is such a small town, big city. Television is such a community, festivals are such a community, that having free events for Austin and our badge holders and panelists, which are important. And so we started that with our outdoor community screening and there’s no other show that you can really do in Austin for the community than “Friday Night Lights.”

This year, it started with, “Well, we’ll just do that show again. We’ll screen an episode. We’ll have fans vote on it. We’ll have live music. That will be our community screening. And everyone who’s in town will come to it.” Well, that snowballed because, again, that show is so centered around family. The cast and crew are very tight and love each other. But it’s turning out to be bigger than we thought it was going to be. And we’ve even added on a panel to go with “Friday Night Lights.”

So, we have our outdoor screening on Friday, June 7. It’s at the parking lot. We’re Astro-Turfing the parking lot. There’s going to be food and really good, and we really encourage people to bring lawn-chairs, a cooler, and hang out, listen to music. And when the sun goes down we’ll show an episode from Season 1, what they have voted on that they want to see.

TVF: I love it. Caitlin, you touched on something in your answer to that first question, how do you guys keep a rein on the festival so it doesn’t get too big, too fast? Because I think people still talk about the fact that, you know, Comic Con started out as this nice thing for the fans of comic books. And now, of course, it’s exploded and it’s a big thing. And you know, how you do you guys make sure that doesn’t happen? I assume that, that would almost be too big for you guys. Maybe not, maybe that’s your objective.
CM: Right. So, as I said earlier, our objective is not to become like Tribeca. They are beasts and they do it well. It is not what we want. We would die.

I think part of it is keeping our venues is keeping our venues small. You know, Comic Con has these rooms of 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 people can fit in some of them. Our biggest room is 300 people. And they go down to, I think, 65 or 60 is our smallest room. So, part of it is just keeping the number of bodies in a room that are interacting with people to a minimum. And we will hopefully do that in your advice, you know, obviously festivals cost money and we did not venture into this as our million-dollar idea. Because it is not.

We hope to try to also not do what some other festivals do, which is price people out of their tickets. And we do have, when we have a mathematical equation of like how many people can be seated at one time, and really trying to stay close to that and not oversell, where we’ve got five to six hour long lines where people don’t get in. Because it’s the one thing that they want to get into. And it’s tricky and we’re learning and we have a reservation system, you know, that are like fast passes.

So, we’re trying to implement things like that and just be very careful about how many badges we sell, how many people are physically promised something, and keeping the  venues small. We’re going to try to do that as long as we can and not sort of being rude, to the side of big names, big shows, big sponsors.

We really target our sponsorships even. you know, with brands that we legitimately love, we go out to them. This year Southwest Airlines came on board and they’re doing our party plane out from LA We’ve got a number of cast members, I think the final count is somewhere around forty from picture shows all on one plane. And we did it last year just because Southwest didn’t have change fees and we’re like, “We’re booking everybody on Southwest. If they decide to change their planes, I don’t have to pay change fees.” And we booked two cast members on it and approached Southwest in the final week and all we were really able to pull together were free drinks on the plane and we filmed them coming off of the plane.

Well, this year, Southwest was like, “All right, let’s do it bigger.” And they have a check-in counter at LAX. There’s going to be a breakfast sort of party LAX gate for everybody on the plane. There’s going to be music on the plane and really have it be a party plane. But part of that works because Southwest, their culture, that’s the way that their flight attendants are and they’re big from Texas. And they really line up with the fun celebration that we’re going after.

TVF: What was the biggest surprise you both had after the first festival? Maybe something you weren’t expecting or just what you heard from people. Is there anything that like just kind of took you off-guard that you weren’t expecting?
EG: I would say, the biggest surprise, minus the money, might’ve been at the beginning of the festival that people showed up. We knew it was going to happen, but we always joked. We didn’t actually know the festival was really going to happen until the Friday the festival started and the first plane landed and people got off the plane and it was like, “Oh, they are here. They are coming. This is happening.”

But really, it’s how quickly people wanted to start talking about year two. We thought that because we were going to have the summer and take the summer off. And then in the fall, we would start pounding people again to try and convince them to come back. But the day it ended, that Sunday that it ended, we were receiving e-mails from panels and attendees saying, “This was so great. What do we need to do to start working on next year?” And we took no time off, we immediately planned a trip to Los Angeles and talking with the studios and networks and people wanted to talk about the reunions. And they wanted to talk about who was coming and what shows. So, just the excitement that lasted like all year long.

Jim Halterman is the West Coast Editor of TV Fanatic and the owner of Follow him on Twitter.

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