I was working on my first TV series, which was my first professional role as an actress for producer Garry Marshall, whose shows 'Happy Days' and 'Laverne and Shirley' were just down the alley from our soundstage. Michael Landon was two tables down, sitting with A.D.s, presumably prepping 'Little House on the Prarie'. Or it could have been the 'Father Murphy' spin off. My co-star, Scott Baio, was chatting up Henry Winkler while my other co-star, Jim Belushi was reading the latest issue of Time Magazine, featuring his brother John Belushi on the cover for his role in the much talked about film, 'Animal House'. John Travolta had made an enormous splash with 'Saturday Night Fever' and 'Grease' and while on lunch from filming 'Urban Cowboy', was sitting with Tony Danza, who starred in 'Taxi' (a show I loved so much, I had to sneak away from my set tutor just to watch their run-throughs).
People were shouting greetings to each other, crew members were intermingled with cast and film people were intermingled with one hour drama people and sit-com people. Studio folks didn't use the commissary. Networks for damn sure didn't use the commissary. Agents were just not allowed, by some unspoken rule. It was a cast and crew place and everyone there knew each other. Kind of like one, huge, dysfunctional family. People always visited each other's sets and supported each other's projects. There were some feuds, there were some disagreements but overall, there was tremendous respect for actors, writers, cinematographers and directors. Regardless of genre and regardless of format.
It was like magic and I was a believer.
Alas, it was not meant to last. While the old studio system had it's drawbacks, like needing your studio to 'loan you out' for any project that another studio produced, it also had a feeling of community for artists above and below the line. People bitched and moaned about the shortage of options we had by being under contract to a studio but it was an incredible learning experience for me, doing anything and everything that came up at Paramount. It was kind of like "Ready or not, here's another project with loads of new challenges". When my contract for Paramount came to a close after 3 series and 5 or 6 pilots, I was thrust into the real world of entertainment. And in that world, television was, well, just about the least respectable thing you could do. It was also the most lucrative thing you could do. Entering the dreaded pre-teen years as a child actor is pretty daunting so my parents and my agent didn't take chances. Television was where I would stay. I did not realize then that television would be my primary home for almost 30 more years.
Most of those years, I had a great time. I was there for the cross over in sit-coms from film cameras to video, which was pretty exciting at the time (It's so FAST! It's the FUTURE!). I remember shaking with excitement when I met Norman Lear, who produced my all time favorite show, 'All in the Family'. I was there when soaps made their way with a huge bang into prime time and ended up doing one of the classiest continuing prime time dramas ever, 'Homefront'. I worked gleefully with my comedy idols, Carol Burnett and Dabney Coleman on the first comedy mini-series, 'Fresno'. I worked extensively with Jackie Chan's stunt crew on the action comedy, 'Martial Law' and the iconic Chuck Norris' crew on 'Walker Texas Ranger'. I worked with legends Roddy McDowall and Dick Clark and Joe Namath…oh, the list goes on and on. In TV, you never knew WHO you would meet. It was fantastic.
And fast. Television was fast…faster than film, faster than theatre and it kept you on your toes. You worked fast, you bonded fast…sometimes you were cancelled fast. I am pretty sure at this point I have knocked out every genre there is in TV. Maybe not but it sure FEELS like I have. I did lots of characters, lots of formats and then one day…I stopped. I just…COULDN'T anymore. I no longer felt like I fit in because I no longer believed.
The magic was gone.
Here's how it seemed to go wrong from my POV - studios and networks took the creative reigns more and more each year. Agents and managers pounced into the creative concept/decision process and wielded the power needed to be influential in the outcomes. The 'creatives' weren't trusted anymore to deliver what audiences wanted to see. Now, it was all the middle men who decided and informed us what to deliver creatively. Truly, I do understand from a financial point of view that there is big money on the line and perhaps artists dictating ALL creative decisions is just not feasible. However, it began to feel like every year, more and more creatives were getting pushed out entirely and there didn't appear to be many good options for finding a way back IN. Naturally, when the talent pool gets this small…many extremely creative people get lost in the shuffle.
The irony is that it's always really been the relationship between the creatives and the audience that creates success on television. When artists do something, dare I say it, 'artistic' and audiences respond and engage with their viewership, feedback and loyalty, THAT is when a show is a true success. A highly engaged audience pleases the number one revenue source for television, the advertisers and this is how we ALL prosper. Canned, churned out network/agent/studio managed fare is just NOT getting it done right now - for audiences or advertisers. And you know, nowadays, with all the cable networks, online networks, etc., it seems television needs a much larger pool of creatives more than ever before. We need new ideas and new faces to engage audiences and bring our advertisers back. And maybe the return of a veteran or two wouldn't be amiss.
But what could I do?
I can tell you what I DID do…nothing. I felt I had to do something different to reignite my passion but nothing seemed 'right'. Then a call came in from my then manager. A casting agent I knew for years wanted to know if I'd be interested in doing this spec project, still union but 'deferred pay' (meaning, no dinero). I'm excited, as someone asking me to work for free sadly makes me feel that the project may actually have merit. I asked the normal questions.
"A film? A pilot? Spec WHAT? I deserve to know if I'm not getting paid…"
"A web series pilot." was the answer.
"A WHAT?!? WTF is a web series?"
Silence was the answer I got. I think she thought I'd pass but in actuality, this was the first time in years I'd actually felt my pulse.
"Email me the script."
I was in. For the first time in many years, I was excited about working my ass off. We shot all night with no network notes or studio 'tweaking'. By the end of the night, an old idea I had many years ago for a truly independent television festival became…way more compelling than ever before. As I talked to this talented writer who was now this project's writer/producer/director/gaffer/caterer/transportation about this 'web series' stuff, the idea became clear. Somehow incorporate the television festival with audience interaction and feedback. Get the audience involved. Get them interacting with the filmmakers. Get them CHAMPIONING the filmmakers they love, get them forming fan groups, get them passing this information to their friends. Make a television festival VIRAL by putting a social network in (and corresponding app, of COURSE) for internet audiences and above all, give them an equal voice in the outcome. Plus, the industry judges I had in mind were experienced artists in various genres. No studios judging, no agents judging…just the 'creatives' judging other 'creatives'. Kind of like a cross between Facebook and Sundance for television and web.
Maybe most important, we are working to more fully integrate sponsors and advertisers with the indie filmmakers that submit to Telefest as well as the audience voting that begins in late November/early December. Many independent filmmakers have already realized that a direct relationship with sponsors and advertisers makes a large impact on project funding. I would really like to give independent filmmakers the platform to interact and engage in a more meaningful and personal way with these companies and I have a few exciting developments in this area that I feel will provide real benefit for indie filmmakers.
We chose pilot presentations as the main format because those are generally shortened versions of full pilots for network and/or studio consideration and WILL need to be re-shot as full pilots, so we thought "Hey! It's just the concept. Put that concept online". Films, documentaries and teleplays have different rules and there's that copyright thing. I want to do the right thing by artists submitting and protect their work but I also want these projects to have an opportunity to gather an audience to show potential for TV and web. In particular, I am ALL over this web series thing. It's new, it's exciting and it is my belief that the future of television and new media is intertwined. So, why separate the two? I'd like to pull in audiences for both.
So, that's me and that's why I co-founded Telefest, in a nutshell. Send me feedback and ideas…let me know what you like and what you don't.
Email Tammy Lauren