ATX Festival welcomes top US writing talent

Andy Fry
By Andy Fry
June 15, 2016

The Writers Room
The Shield starred
The Shield first aired in 2002 and starred Michael Chiklis as Detective Vic Mackey

The TV industry’s annual calendar is packed with great events – though not all of them have a high profile outside their domestic market.

A good example is the ATX Television Festival, which has taken place in Austin, Texas, over the last few days. For those not familiar with ATX, the organisers say: “We have the functionality of a traditional film festival with screenings followed by Q&As from cast and creators; panels focused on industry related topics; and an array of events that includes parties, live music, meet-ups and social media events. Unlike traditional festivals, however, we celebrate the history of the medium as well as the future. We spotlight classic shows, never-aired pilots, cancelled-too-soon series, cult favorites, current hits, and premieres of new series.”

Significantly, ATX gets plenty of support from big hitters in the US TV industry. At this year’s event, there were panels with the likes of Betsy Beers (Grey’s Anatomy), Noah Hawley (Fargo), Beau Willimon (House of Cards), Tom Fontana (Homicide: Life on the Streets), David Simon (The Wire) and Howard Gordon (Homeland).

There were also sessions exploring the depiction of the LGBT community in scripted TV, comic book adaptations, the way faith and religion are tackled, the role of the director in TV drama and the secret to making a successful fantasy series for TV.

One of the most interesting sessions saw writers from FX’s iconic series The Shield (2002-2008) meet up to discuss how the show shaped their respective careers.

Kurt Sutter (photo by Gage Skidmore)
Kurt Sutter (photo by Gage Skidmore)

Scott Rosenbaum, who has gone on to executive produce series like V, Conquistadors and Gang Related, said: “There was an immense amount of pressure. It was very, very competitive because we all wanted our ideas to get on screen and when we didn’t, we could be angry or petulant – but I think that’s what made it so great, this sense of competition.”

Aside from Rosenbaum, other Shield writers on the panel included Glen Mazzara and Kurt Sutter, who have gone on to work on both megahits and short-lived failures. In Mazzara’s case, credits include The Walking Dead and Damien, while Sutter’s post-Shield work includes Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner.

Also on the panel was Shawn Ryan, showrunner of The Shield. Ryan has gone on to create and produce a number of new series since The Shield including Last Resort, Lie To Me and Mad Dogs — with NBC’s new time-travel drama Timeless his next adventure.

However, he clearly still has a residual affection for The Shield and its central character, Detective Vic Mackey (played by Michael Chiklis). Quizzed on the show, he gave the impression that he could be persuaded to go back to the franchise if the conditions were right and he could call on some of the original writing team: “I have some ideas where Vic Mackey is, but I don’t know where Vic Mackey is until someone puts me in a writers room with a group of these people (on the panel) and some people who aren’t here and gives us a week to sort it out. Usually my first idea or instinct isn’t the right one, so I have some thoughts. I’d love to hear their thoughts and I’d love someone to pay us to sit in a room.”

The 1973 film adaptation of Michael Crichton's Westworld
The 1973 film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Westworld, which is coming to HBO as a series

Rosenbaum also gave some insight into the psychology of working in the writers room of such a high-octane show. Recalling the addition of established showrunner Charles Eglee (NYPD Blue, Moonlighting) to the team, he said: “There was a proprietary feeling of, ‘This is our show. We’re the ones who did this. Why do we have to have a new person come along? We’re capable of doing this.’”

However, that initial resistance disappeared when “we realised we had someone really special. My first impression of him was that I thought he was one of the smartest people I’d ever met.”

Another ATX panel of interest was “Westerns: Then and Now,” which saw HBO give a sneak peak of Westworld. Co-creator Jonathan Nolan said: “It was Game of Thrones that made us feel like we could pull this off. The 30-second pitch for Westworld was that we were sort of making Days of Heaven and Alien simultaneously and then putting them together, which is kind of my dream project – exploring two genres and playing with the juxtaposition of both. It’s fantastic.

“HBO felt like the only place we could make this. And Game of Thrones was the inspiration for us. Game of Thrones has this commitment to practical production value, which is not necessarily what’s in play (elsewhere) these days.”

Elementary stars Lucy Liu and Johnny Lee Miller
Elementary stars Lucy Liu and Johnny Lee Miller

Meanwhile, still in the US, the creator of CBS hit series Elementary, Rob Doherty, has just signed a three-year deal with CBS Television Studios.

CBS has already renewed the show for a fifth season, but the new deal suggests Elementary will get a least a couple more runs yet – which is no surprise when you learn how much money it generates for the network. In May, CBS boss Leslie Moonves said Elementary made CBS an estimated US$80m in profit last year (the result of being a wholly-owned CBS property).

Elementary is Doherty’s biggest hit to date, though he has written and produced for a number of series, including Ringer, Medium, Point Pleasant, Tru Calling and Dark Angel.

Outside the US, the big story of the week is that Canal+ in France has renewed its spy drama The Bureau for a third season. Federation Entertainment and TOP will start filming the third run in September. This is the second piece of good news for the show, after its existing seasons were picked up by Amazon Prime UK.

Eric Rochant
Eric Rochant

The Bureau was created by Eric Rochant, who is also known for writing and directing movies such as Autobus, Mobius, Love Without Pity and The Patriots. In terms of TV projects, he also wrote and directed a number of episodes of Canal+’s Mafiosa, le Clan. Created by Hugues Pagan, this show also ran on Canal+ for five seasons (40 episodes in total) from 2006 to 2014.

Finally, coming full circle to the subject of interesting industry events, screenwriter and director Bill Gallagher (The Paradise, Lark Rise to Candleford) has joined the line-up for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London (November 29-December 1). Gallagher will discuss new work such as Sky1’s forthcoming eight-parter Jamestown at the event, as well as his approach to the craft and his role as a creator and writer.

Jamestown, about the first British settlers in America, is being produced by Downton Abbey and Lucky Man producer Carnival Films and is slated to air later this year on the UK satcaster.

Last week it was announced that writer/director Tony Grisoni had also joined the line-up for the International Drama Summit.

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