by Jeanette Bonner
Lauren Atkins, the founder of NYC Web Fest, wants you to know what her motto is: “It’s not business, it’s personal.” She believes it’s this mantra that brought her to the moment of having the brainchild to create NYC Web Fest and has carried her through the three years that followed as sole founder and Executive Director of the festival.
NYC Web Fest was founded in 2014 after Atkins attended LA Web Fest in 2013 with a series she produced called “My Friends Think I’m Funny.” She found the representation of NY creators at that festival to be pretty low. She was further shocked to find out that outside of larger, more encompassing festivals back home (like the NYTV Festival for example) there were no festivals that targeted rapidly growing genre of web series in a centralized New York way. And that seemed odd. After all, says Atkins, “People find a way to get their projects made here. I grew up hearing that New York was the place to be for those who hustle.”
Once Atkins recognized that need, she decided she would found a new festival, with only her longtime collaborator and friend April Day coming on to act as Senior Advisor. In 2014 NYC Web Fest debuted with just over a hundred submissions; this year the festival saw double the submissions, 96 of which were chosen to be screened in two days. Atkins also reports that attendance has quadrupled since its first year.
“It’s become a destination for many people,” Atkins says proudly. “We had several premieres this year, and people have flown in from several countries just to screen here, including Canada, Ireland – even Australia. It’s really beginning to bring the web series community together from all over the world.”
NYC Web Fest is distinct in several ways, not the least of which is Atkins herself. It wants to showcase the work and allow creators to meet each other. This year there was only one panel where sponsors SeekaTV and Stareable focused on distribution; a second panel with partners Big Vision Empty Wallet and Nuva Comedy was postponed. “I didn’t want people to just sit around and have the conversations that every festival is having,” Atkins explains. “My theory is: Let’s have fun, let’s get to know each other! Let’s enjoy the open bar!”
It also differs from other festivals by the way series are screened. Series are grouped by thematic content with blocks that are given pithy names like “Lost and Found-ing Myself” and “When Love Goes Wrong, Nothin’ Goes Right…” and not by type (eg, Drama, Comedy, International). For series that were screening two episodes, these episodes were often not screened back-to-back, but shuffled within their hour-long block like a mixtape. In the dark, unable to read the programs, the audience did not know what would be next, whether it would be a comedy, drama, or a second episode of something we’d just seen. The phrase that popped into my head during this shuffle was “web series buffet.” It was like a wonderful sampling of all sorts of different types of series that are being made, and with the absence of the standard categorization system, the only real way to watch was to open your mind and drop any expectations. This was met with mixed reactions by the creators and the audience, but I thought it was a unique approach to screening content.
Additionally, while Atkins has accrued a small staff to help execute the festival, there are very few festivals (if any?) that are being programmed and curated by a single person, without the help of even a small advisory board. I asked Atkins if it was hard shouldering a festival by herself, but aside from begging tiredness – “I literally didn’t get out of bed for several days after the festival. I dragged my laptop into my bed and I sent out the press releases about the winners from there.” – to Atkins it all seems like NBD. “This is the first thing I’ve done where I’m the boss. There’s a freedom to that. It’s nice to just go with my own ideas and vision. But yeah, sometimes I think it’d be nice to have someone to help take on the responsibility.”
I understand the feeling, but I’m not the least bit surprised that a woman like Atkins has chosen to go it alone. She is but one member of a strong and powerful community of female producers and content creators who also saw a need in the industry to change up its representing voice and decided to take it upon themselves to do something about it. This year two of NYCWF’s partnerships were Big Vision Empty Wallet and Nuva Comedy, organizations who are both outspoken in their desire to create opportunities for diverse voices in the entertainment industry. While not an original part of the festival’s mission, this year Atkins made it a point to address it. An open letter to the creators on the NYCWF site states:
“For last year’s NYC Web Fest, 25% of all submissions received were directed by women. Over 30% were written & produced by women. As a female of color born in Cape Town, I’m truly excited as I expect that number will grow. I’ve created an inclusive festival that serves a community as diverse as the city that hosts it. With web content, the possibilities of self expression are endless, and some amazing talent has come through our doors these past 2 years. For 2016, I’d like to salute the creators who are unafraid to speak their truths and push the envelope.”
It seems that female-centric and minority voices continue to be drawn to NYC Web Fest, likely because of the example Atkins makes. But the feeling, she says, is mutually beneficial.
“I feel like female-driven and diverse voices are gravitating to us just like we’re gravitating to them. Look, if [our submissions represent] the percentages of diverse people making web series, this has to be the percentage of [diverse] people making things in Hollywood; we’re just not hearing about those films being made. They’re not making it to the producers, to the agents. Web series are the real reflection of where we are at in society. I think we have a bigger influence than we give ourselves credit for. It changes the game,” Atkins explains.
And Atkins hopes that her festival continues to change along with it. “The last three years were an experiment. But an experiment gone right,” Atkins tells me. If this year is any proof, NYC Web Fest will only continue to grow from here. “This is what I had hoped for,” Atkins says. “The vision has come to be. We’re on to something. It’s an exclamation point on New York City. We’re the cool kids.”
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