In the first week in June, Austin hosts the ATX Television Festival. It’s a four day event, beginning on Thursday and ending on Sunday. The event is packed with industry panels, TV show reunions and premieres of new television programs. If you’re a TV addict it’s like going to TV summer camp. Even though I live here, I only started attending the event a few years ago. I wish I had started earlier. You meet other TV fans from around the country, and you get to interact with a lot of TV professionals and celebrities. The event is in downtown Austin, but all of the venues for the events are in easy walking distance from each other. Unless you’ve been in a coma most of this year, [lucky you] then you can guess that the physical festival was cancelled because of the coronavirus. Instead of cancelling the event all together, the festival was turned into a virtual festival. The ninth season of the ATX Television Festival became ATX TV…from the Couch!
The TV Festival’s co-founders, Caitlin McFarland and Emily Gipson hosted this year’s event from a couch, introducing mostly prerecorded panels. There were supposed to have been more live panels, but with the protests going on around the world over of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop, it was thought it would be best to prerecord them. Even though they were prerecorded, George Floyd and racial injustice was on everyone’s mind. It caused some interesting and heartfelt discussions. Instead of it being four days, it was reduced to three days. The Festival did all they could to keep the Festival as close in spirit to the physical Festival as possible. Caitlin and Emily suggested snacks and drinks you could enjoy while watching the program. During interstitials between the panels, there was programming on the charities the Festival was supporting, Direct Relief, Color of Change and Direct Relief. They were asking people to donate at least $9 since this is the Festival’s ninth season. They also had one on one interviews between showrunners and the stars of their shows called #1 on #1, being the show’s star is number one on the call list and the showrunner is the head of the show. Also different celebrities showed where they were working since the stay-in-place orders.
I didn’t watch every panel, so I will only discuss the panels I watched. Since I didn’t take any notes, I won’t go into exact detail describing the panels. Not a journalist, sorry. Friday they had a panel called The Pivot. The panelist discussed how they pivoted their shows productions after the coronavirus hit and shut down productions. A special treat was the Mandalorian panel, with all of the first season’s directors. As Caitlin and Emily pointed out, if this wasn’t a virtual panel, there was no way they would have been able to bring all of these prominent directors to Austin. Zoom made it possible for them to participate. Later in the evening was a panel on the new HBO series, Perry Mason. Normally this would be the big opening night screening, but we didn’t get a screening for the series, but we did get to hear from the producers and cast. The highlight of the panel was Robert Downey Jr. popping up at the end. His wife Susan is one of the show’s producers.
On Saturday, a program that returned from the eighth season was Sherman’s Showcase. It was the surprise treat of last year’s festival. They are having a Black History Month special this month. That’s kind of the joke, but in reality it corresponds with Juneteenth. Like the show it’s clever and funny. They showed about half of the special and then had a panel discussion with John Legend, Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin. Later on the program was a panel called Celebrating Authentic Stories that featured four Latinx showrunners from Vida, Pose, One Day at a Time, and Diary of a Future President. They discussed how diverse the Latinx community is and how you can’t have the industry try to make it homogeneous. They called for more stories from different Latinx communities. There was a panel for the HBO anthology series Room 104. They had the co-creator Mark Duplass and other producers and directors of the series. The other series that normally would have had a screening was the Showtime limited series The Good Lord Bird, starring Ethan Hawke and newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson. The author of the book which is the show’s source material was also on the panel. It’s an irreverent look at John Brown and his raid of Harpers Ferry.
Finally on Sunday, they began with Phil Rosenthal, Everybody Loves Raymond creator and the star of Somebody Feed Phil, discussing what he’s been eating since he’s at home and not traveling for his show. They followed with the panel Mental Health & Addiction Storylines. It was industry professionals talking about mental health and addiction and how they incorporate it into their stories. All of them have had personal experiences with it and they wanted to make sure they covered it responsibly. The writer’s room from Little Fires Everywhere had a panel discussing how the show dealt with race and having a diverse writing room helped with that. The star/creator/ executive producer of I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel had a discussion moderated by Jeannine Amber. She discussed the show and its theme of sexual consent and recovery from sexual assault. I ended the festival with the Showrunners: State of the Union. I thought it was the best panel. The panel consisted of Robin Thede, Julie Plec, Liz Feldman, and Marta Kauffman. They discussed being showrunners, but it got interesting when Robin Thede discussed being a black women in the industry and the obstacles thrown at her. The other panelist listened since they’ve decided to listen to black people now. Marta Kauffman became choked up when she confessed she should have done more to have more people of color on Friends. She shouldn’t blame herself, she only had 10 seasons to do it. It was an informative and entertaining panel, thanks Robin.
Hopefully next year the festival will be back to normal. I won’t complain about how long the lines are and how hot it is. [Of course I will complain about the lines and heat, it’s June in Austin.] I think that the ATX TV Festival staff did an excellent job with the format change. Working from home since March, I know how much effort it took us at work to make the transition. There’s talk they will try to incorporate some of the virtual elements in the physical festival. So continue buying that Zoom stock. See you in Austin next year, fingers crossed.