In the age of “peak TV,” any project, no matter how small, might be considered fair game for adaptation to television. From self-produced webseries like Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl (now HBO’s hugely acclaimed Insecure) to labor-of-love microbudget indies like Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience (now slated for a second season on Starz), there’s seemingly no limit to the source material from which the next major show might be developed.
Considering the ever-expanding range of networks, digital and broadcast alike, and the public’s ravenous hunger for new programming, this year’s South by Southwest provided an unusually bountiful spread of forthcoming series for our consideration. The festival’s Episodic section, as always, featured the World Premieres of high-profile projects: The Son (AMC), starring Pierce Brosnan; the much-anticipated Bryan Fuller/Neil Gaiman adaptation of American Gods (Starz); and Netflix’s Dear White People, based on Justin Simien’s film of the same name.
But the Austin-based extravaganza has also become a world-class platform for under-the-radar animation, documentary and fiction series without the promotional push of a prestige network’s distribution. Now that SXSW has come to a close, Paste presents the five projects from this year’s lineup most likely to become visionary television.
5. Middle Witch
Written and directed by: Amanda Gotera
Nothing says do-it-yourself like a giant vulture puppet trying to pick up a live human actor. But filmmaker Amanda Gotera, highlighted in the Austin Film Society’s ShortCase program, pulls the image off with the kind of wide-eyed imagination sadly missing in this age of remakes, revamps and reboots. In her new short, Middle Witch, Gotera crafts a self-styled mythology around witches that combines visual elements from The Dark Crystal and a number of Jim Henson productions. Gotera is a darker soul than Henson, though: Here, her magical teen protagonist, Tasha, is forced to contend both with adolescence and with her baby sister’s possible murder-by-carrion. Originally produced at the University of Texas at Austin, this 19-minute film abounds with ingenuity, and Gotera (who does her own digital effects) seems bound for a major career in crowd-pleasing family programs. If there’s any justice, her first Hollywood project will be to adapt Middle Witch into a daytime television series.
4. I Love Bekka & Lucy
Created, written and directed by: Rachael Holder
Jumping forward from a more “traditional” (read: lower-budget) DIY webseries model, I Love Bekka & Lucy—the first ever digital series to premiere in SXSW’s Episodic section—was brought to high-definition life by its gifted creator, writer and director, Rachael Holder. Holder’s sunny, giggly tale follows Bekka (played by Jessica Parker Kennedy, terrific in fellow SXSW selection Gemini) and Lucy (Tanisha Long), two best-buddy Angelenos investigating all the usual millennial questions: How is sex with a paraplegic? Can you steal a bag of chips if you pretend it’s your love child? Far more than this description reveals, I Love Bekka & Lucy is an unrelenting joke machine that powerfully highlights the two talented actresses of color hamming it up at its center. It also, thankfully, refuses to reduce them to lust objects or layabouts, with Holder’s direction of rising stars Kennedy and Long consistently handy. And, best of all, the entire series will be bingeable in 100 minutes when it launches this year as part of Stage 13, Warner Brothers Entertainment’s digital content brand. It’s not hard to picture this becoming the next Broad City or High Maintenance, creative influences Holder wears blatantly on her sleeve.
3. The Rabbit Hunt
Directed by: Patrick Bresnan
Written and produced by: Ivete Lucas
This obscenely smart documentary short from Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas, the power couple named among 2016’s “25 Faces of Indie Film” by Filmmaker Magazine, had its World Premiere at Sundance earlier this year. Drawn from the filmmakers’ years-long immersion in the sugarcane fields of Florida, it scopes out the complex, often dangerous lifestyles of local bunny-thumping teenagers and their families. But The Rabbit Hunt is so much more than its twelve minute runtime: Captivating in its subjects’ athleticism and shot to luminescent, inquisitive effect by Bresnan, the short is a magical-realist wonder of nonfiction. Given that it was originally conceived as one part of a larger series (following their previous Florida-set short, The Send-Off), it would come as no surprise to see a prestige network like HBO or Showtime adapt the film for their growing docuseries slates. Wherever the short winds up, it could serve as the perfect backdoor pilot for a truly daring network.
2. Summer Camp Island
Created, written and directed by: Julia Pott
For animator and filmmaker Julia Pott, best known as one of the writers of the legendary children’s show Adventure Time (we’ll miss you, you Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning beauty), Summer Camp Island could have been a simple one-off. Two of Pott’s previous short films, Belly and The Event, also played SXSW in the Animation Spotlight section, the latter subsequently airing in the U.K. as part of Channel 4’s Random Acts program. But her new project is something altogether special, even for her: a colorfully lush and typically hypersensitive rendering of young relationships at an animal summer camp. Some of her interspecies characters have human names, like Oscar, whose best friend is simply called Hedgehog—opening up a vibrant original culture of social behaviors and new norms around the island that begs to be expanded upon, like a children’s version of Lost. No surprise that in January, Pott received a green light for the series version from Cartoon Network, where it’s currently scheduled to air next year. Set your DVRs now.
1. The Wait (La Espera)
Written and directed by: Juan Pablo González
Although The Wait (La Espera) is the most self-contained of the projects on this list, it is by far the most topical—now would be the perfect historical moment to adapt it for television. Written and directed by Juan Pablo González, the ingenious storyteller whose ¿Por qué el recuerdo? netted him Slamdance’s Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Short in 2015, his new film (a fiction) portrays “the straits of immigrant life and the haunting soundscape of reprieve.” Yet La Espera is not some distant, overwrought border drama. Rather, it is a cinematographic mini-masterwork with such goals as engaging our increasing fear of political self-annihilation; requesting empathy for grieving mothers around the world, regardless of nationality; and reopening the dialogue among the newest wave of Mexican cinema masters on the subject of America’s domestic immigrant experience. Few films wring so many warring sentiments together, much less in 19 minutes. González’s greatest accomplishment is to force us to demand more story, more from his stupendous performers, more aesthetic beauty: A feature film would barely skim the surface. The dire world of La Espera is desperately, perfectly cable-ready.
Sean L. Malin is a media critic and producer based in Austin, TX. He is a frequent contributor to The Austin Chronicle and Filmmaker Magazine; and he is the editor-in-chief of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism.