ATX Television Festival brings TV classics, pilots, cancelled shows to fans

Anna McCreary

Before bringing in 2,500 attendees and some of the biggest names in the industry, the ATX Television Festival started with a casual lunch between two
former assistants. 

Emily Gipson and Caitlin McFarland had both worked in television before — McFarland in production and Gipson for a studio and network. McFarland said when they met in 2006, they were in a transitional phase, wondering where their careers would go next. Six years later, the festival was born.

“We really looked for a television festival to go to or work for, but didn’t really find one — not the equivalent of what they had in terms of festivals for film or music,” McFarland said. 

The two women decided to fill in the blank themselves and launched a Kickstarter campaign to create their
own festival.

Texas natives Gipson and McFarland said from the moment they began talking about the festival, they knew it was going to be in Austin.

“We wanted it to be a destination, where people could get away from work and enjoy their time away,” Gipson said. “People really love Austin, and so we thought, even if the first festival was a bust, people would have a good
time [here].” 

Today, the four-day festival includes 250 panelists comprised of television casts, creators, writers, executive producers and music supervisors. The festival will also feature “The West Wing” and “Ugly Betty” reunions, two of many reunions for which the festival has
become known.

“Last year, we had the ‘Gilmore Girls’ reunion here, and a couple of years ago we surprised our ‘Friday Night Lights’ fans with Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler,” McFarland said. “We like to do things that make us feel like a community, and make it fun.” 

Kevin Falls, co-executive producer of “The West Wing,” festival panelist, and member of the ATX advisory board, said the fest is more fan-focused than other industry events. 

“When you go to the upfronts, which is when your show is shown to advertisers in New York, or you go to a screening where there might be critics, you’re nervous [about] what people [will] think,” Falls said. “When you go to this festival, it’s really fans and people who
love television.”

McFarland said TV itself is a community — which is why she and Gipson were surprised there wasn’t a television festival sooner.

“You spend a lot of time with these characters, more than the two hours you get in a film,” McFarland said. “The community it creates around these shows is perfectly matched with the community that a festival creates.” 

Although the festival is their main event, Gipson said they’re also expanding to year-long programming. For instance, they screened the season three premiere of “The 100” at Alamo Drafthouse in January. 

“The festival isn’t always perfect timing for everything, and some people can’t come during that week,” Gipson said. “TV happens all year long, and there’s so many great things happening that we really want to focus on keeping our community active throughout
the year.” 

Gipson said they continue to be surprised by attendees’ reactions to the event.

“There is such magic that happens on the ground during the festival,” Gipson said. “The conversations that happen on the panel and the conversations after and pieces written about things we talked about — it helps us realize that this is something special, and that keeps
us going.”

Correction: The festival features 250 panelists, not 250 panels.