By Jeanette Bonner
To get a sense of what ITVFest actually is, you could always troll Facebook for some of the many hundreds of pictures that participants put up the next day. Or you could scroll through the delightful Twitter handle @OverheardAtITVF which made its debut this year with anonymous overheard nonsense. But to truly understand what ITVFest is, I wanted to sit down with the “showrunners” (to coin a TV term) – that is, the people running the show. The staff that runs the festival are very much an active part of it, seen out and about in the very same screening tents and panels you are attending, and cheers-ing you at the very same bars you’re palling around in in the evenings. For a festival that boasts 10+ years, 500 yearly submissions, and nearly a hundred attending industry and executive VIPs, it’s as accessible and transparent as a festival can get. In fact, there’s something downright “down home” about the whole affair. But of the many things that ITVFest is, what stands out to me most of all is its sense of community.
ITVFest began in 2005, when producers AJ and Jenny Tesler created an independent TV festival for indie content creators. In 2013, ITVFest moved out of Los Angeles and made its new home in the quaint mountain town of Dover, Vermont, spearheaded by resident and former HBO exec Philip Gilpin. Today the festival is run by a staff of four. In addition to Gilpin, there is Supervising Producer Trish Clark, VIP Producer Cara Harrington, and Internship Coordinator Pat Whalen. Gilpin’s small wonder-staff has only joined him recently. Clark became an official producer after volunteering in 2013, Harrington was brought on to the team after attending as a student in 2014, and Whalen was recruited this year after assisting Trish with running the New Haven 48 Hour Film Project. Together these four schedule the events, coordinate the venues for screenings and educational panels, configure the transportation and lodging needs of the VIP attendees, and plan the social activities. “Despite our individual titles, we all do each other’s jobs to some degree,” explains Clark. “Basically there is a staff of four, and you’re just juggling all the time, making everything happen, so if there’s slack, I will run box office if I need to, for example. We’re always running around doing everything on the fly.”
That sense of communal responsibility has kept Harrington coming back. “I couldn’t imagine not coming back to help Trish. There’s so many reasons I love ITVFest, but a big part of it for me is that I have a little family here. I love the team I work with. It’s my little ITV family.”
It’s worth mentioning that both Clark and Harrington have additional jobs outside of the festival. “Doing this AND a full time job, it’s a lot of watching things until 2, 3 A.M,” says Harrington. But it’s clear these gals both do it for the love of it. “I do this for the filmmakers,” Clark explains. “I want to see them happy and to see them have a good time and then hopefully move on or get a connection from here. When people say, ‘I met this person at ITVFest’ or ‘I got this gig because of someone I met at ITVFest,’ I like hearing that. I like pushing things forward for people.” Harrington agrees: “It’s a community we’re building. I want to help other people have their goals met.”
And while that sounds like a pre-fab answer that every film festival runner around the country might say, it should be noted that ITVFest is actually doing that. What ITVFest does differently is actually connect filmmakers and content creators to the direct buyers that are interested in new content via screenings that are viewed by attending networks (such as HBO, WB, AOL, NBC Universal Networks, CBS Interactive or Starz), unique pitch opportunities, and direct consultation sessions known as Network Notes. Additionally, in 2015 Gilpin launched an organization known as the Creative Network, which helps to make connections and introduce people via monthly workshops and events held in different cities around the country.
The fact that ITVFest comes through on its promise to foster community between content creators and buyers is what keeps ITVFest unique and draws hundreds of people every year to a wooded valley where there is barely any wi-fi connection. “HBO is here. You can connect after they see your show! We really do serve as a programming connector,” explains Clark. “We set up individual meetings. That’s something that I don’t know if other festivals actually do.”
Even beyond the people-connecting that they do for Official Selections of the festival, ITVFest wants to help those creators whose work may not be TV-ready or distribution-ready quite yet, which means building the festival out to more than just finished products. Last year’s festival included pitch workshops where selected participants got to work with network execs to write and hone their pitches and then perform them in a mock environment to an audience of festival attendees. This year the festival hosted Producer Prep workshops with reps from the International Academy of Web Television and an extended Writers Retreat with the Jacob Kreuger Studio.
This idea is groundbreaking. Instead of just being a festival honoring the finished product, its focus is morphing to become more about the process and the various aspects involved in making content, allowing the festival to be both educational and have a network value. Kevin Harrington (unrelated to Cara), who produces and books live comedy shows for evening events and helps to facilitate the festivals Q&A’s, explains: “People want to help, even the big executives, because they know how hard it is to crossover. The barrier to entry with web-based media is getting lower because this is a new field. So even for the people in the studio system, there’s something new that they’re learning. They’re all thinking, ‘How’s this gonna shake out?’”
Great question. If audiences continue to change their tastes and habits as the pace of technology quickens, the question remains: What’s ITVFest gonna be in 5 years? Yes, ITVFest is a television festival, but what does that mean if we no longer watch things on our TVs? As I attempt to broach this topic with Cara and Trish, a man with a delightful mustache sharing our picnic table (Jay Ignaszewski of Vidtech Videocom, a sponsor of the festival) pipes up. “The important part here is it’s not film. It’s not TV, it’s not digital – it’s story. That’s the important thing. What’s it gonna be in five years? I think it will be a really good storytelling festival.”
Gilpin agrees. “I am doing this because I believe that the most powerful way for me to impact a positive change in the world is to create true opportunity for the world’s best creative storytellers to be heard by all, free from industry constraints. My passion for ITVFest comes from my love for the art of storytelling and my belief that it is the only way any of us can effect that change.”
“Phil had a vision to make this more like a Sundance, a destination festival, away from the noise of a bigger city,” Kevin Harrington adds. “No matter what level you are at in your career, you can to go to a festival in an intimate setting where you can have real connections with people in your industry.”
“I truly hope ITVFest’s collaborative spirit will continue to make it an important destination for any budding or established TV producer or filmmaker for years to come,” says AJ Tesler, Founder of ITVFest.
The beauty of having the festival in Dover, VT (population 1,108) among the fresh air and beautiful foliage is simple. “Look around,” insists Clark. “Every single person you see here is part of ITVFest, just sitting and chatting. Do you know what happens around the fire pit? Magic. That’s what happens here.”