Independent TV Pilots Are Having A Moment

Can television have its own New Hollywood moment?

Much like movies such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Rosemary’s Baby and Easy Rider took the late 1960s by storm, a group of writers and directors are hoping that their own independent TV projects can break through and find their way to the small screen amidst the current Hollywood contraction.

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After a number of web series such as Issa Rae’s The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, Broad City and High Maintenance were turned into TV series over the past decade, writers and directors hoped that this would lead to more.

However, the rise of streaming originals saw the business go the other way, with incredibly expensive dramas and comedies, often led by movie stars, taking over. This trend is now waning and a new generation of creators hopes that cost-conscious companies will now pay more attention to their projects instead.

This is being led by Mark Duplass, who started out making independent films such as The Puffy Chair before creating series such as HBO comedy Togetherness and anthology series Room 104 and starring in Apple TV+’s The Morning Show.

Duplass revealed at SeriesFest in Denver earlier this month that he sold his latest independent project, YA series Penelope, to Netflix after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. “I knew when I brought the scripts to the buyers that there would be a bidding war,” he wrote on Instagram in December. “But there wasn’t. No one would give us the money to make it. So I thought to myself… I’ve financed my own films before. Why can’t I do it with TV?”

Michael Polish, who broke through with Twin Falls Idaho, which premiered at Sundance before going on to make Billy Bob Thornton-fronted The Astronaut Farmer, is doing this with Heebuck, a Montana-set series that he says has a Northern Exposure vibe.

He told Deadline, “This is the wave of the future. People who make independent films are going to make independent TV. It’s only a matter of time before people go and make 10 episodes and take it to market as opposed to waiting.”


Heebuck follows a deputy sheriff who is investigating the disappearance of a girl from the Hungry Horse Reservoir, where his first suspect is a man who only responds to the name “Juicebox,” whose drug addictions and crazed personality allude to a guilty verdict. It stars Travis Bruyer, Mary Riitano, Adam Pitman, Jeff Medley, Melanie Wendt, Leon Stiffarm and Tim Dudley.

Polish has gone down this independent route before with Bring On the Dancing Horses starring Kate Bosworth.

Kit Williamson was behind EastSiders, a dark comedy series starring Constance Wu that started on YouTube before moving to Paramount’s Logo digital service and then Vimeo before being sold to Netflix. Ten years ago, he said it felt like there was a “wave” of independent filmmakers getting to make television, but the pandemic “shut off the faucet for everybody.”

As such, he decided to make his latest project, Unconventional, which follows two eccentric, queer siblings and their significant others as they try to start an unconventional family while navigating their 30s, himself with help from The Diary of a Teenage Girl producer Miranda Bailey and release it via VOD through distribution label The Film Arcade in the U.S.

“People love to develop content for marginalized communities. But, it’s a little disheartening to hear that [the industry] wants hard-laugh, mainstream, non-threatening middle America content. I can’t help but believe it’s like the Kid Rock-ification of our industry where everybody’s so afraid that if Dylan Mulvaney drinks Bud Light, somebody is going to lead a hate campaign against their company. While there were a lot of people that were open to marginalized stories in the Trump era, as a way of signaling to new subscribers that they were in supportive of us existing, now we’re in an era where they’re signaling to the worst people on the planet that they’re cool with us disappearing,” he told Deadline.

Unconventional stars Williamson, James Bland, Aubrey Shea, Briana Venskus, Willam Belli, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Laith Ashley, James Urbaniak and Kathy Griffin.


Polish and Williamson were both at SeriesFest, where nearly 20 shows were in its pilot competition. Shazia Javed’s Potluck Ladies and Jesse Toledano’s Broken Toilets scooped this year’s drama and comedy prizes, respectively.

Broken Toilets, which stars Luzer Twersky, who had a role in Amazon’s Transparent, and Dede Lovelace, who starred in HBO’s Betty, tells the story of Yossi Klein, a young Hassidic man tasked to take care of his father-in-law’s buildings in a low-income, mostly Black outer borough of New York City. But Yossi has a secret: he loves hip hop. During the everyday mundane, often absurd tasks that come along with property management, he meets two tenants – young aspiring hip hop artists DiAndra “Dee” Jones and Kevin Randolph. Together they form the most unlikely of musical trios and set off to make a demo record, all while Yossi navigates what it means to be a Hassidic Jew in the modern world.

Toledano told Deadline that before the writers and actors strikes, it felt like independent projects were about to “burst through.”

“There was an idea of going to Netflix and saying ‘We’re not going to cost you $1 million per episode. We could do this in a gritty way.’ We’re independent filmmakers and we could do this at a cost that, nothing against them, writers coming up through writing rooms and not having that on the ground, guerilla experience, lack,” he said.

Toledano said that after Covid, he didn’t want to stay in the traditional development process because “10 years can go by when you’re developing, writing and pitching and I want to make something.”

Each of these creators is looking to do something slightly differently, whether it’s making a full series that can air as-is, or as a proof of concept that can trigger a bigger deal.

Anna Camp-fronted post-apocalyptic drama Neo-Dome, which also stars Michael Mosley and Nicholas Logan, is an example of the latter. Writer Matt Pfeffer told Deadline that the project, which premiered at SXSW in March, started as a short film idea. “We were friends with Anna and she said she wanted to get more into producing. She loved the script and wanted to play the lead in it, Monica, but also said that we should build this out into something bigger, as a series, so it shifted gears towards more of an episodic piece and we created the pilot.”

The series is set in the near future, 20 years after the collapse of the American economy and events that spiraled the world into disarray. It centers on an ensemble of characters venturing towards a distant utopian Dome in quest of a new beginning … in quest of a better life. But as they will soon realize, the reality of a better life, and the journey to get there, is never quite as easy as it appears.

Directed by Bonnie Discepolo, the filmmakers say it is inspired by series including Westworld, Fargo and Lost.  

Given the expansive nature of the project, Pfeffer and his brother Mark, who edited the pilot, are looking to generate momentum and secure a deal with a studio.

“Our project probably can’t be done independently because it’s a bigger concept so the idea would be to get it into a studio or with a producer who’s got a great overall deal somewhere,” he added.

‘Dick Bunny’
‘Dick Bunny’

Katie Locke O’Brien is a director who has helmed episodes of series such as A.P. Bio and Ghosts. But she said that her own sensibility was a bit darker than these shows so she wanted to make something that fit with this. This is where Dick Bunny came in.

The project follows Max Griffin as she navigates the anxiety and isolation of new motherhood in L.A. alongside a caustic man-rabbit from a mysterious British children’s book that comes to life. It stars Kim Griffin, Drew Droege, Kate Micucci, Laraine Newman, Betsy Sodaro, Sheila Carrasco, Grasie Mercedes and Brendan Griffin.

Locke O’Brien said that her own experience of motherhood was not one she saw on television, which focused on either moms with “hands on hips in front of the highchair spaghetti sauce kid” or a “drunk mom who regrets having her kids.”

Created by Susie Mendoza and Kim Griffin, the team made six short episodes, directed and produced by Locke O’Brien. “I wanted to make this thing and I knew there would be a ton of women who would relate. The greatest risk is that it gets made incorrectly. If you tried to pitch this in a room, they’d be like, there’s no way that this these elements could possibly co-exist, so now we’re in this place where we made this as proof of concept,” she told Deadline.

Locke O’Brien said the death of digital platforms including Warner Bros’ Stage 13 and ABC Digital, as well as networks such as IFC not ordering originals, set things back for independent creators, but she is hopeful that festivals such as SeriesFest can generate momentum and an audience. “The market is still relatively abysmal, as everybody figures things out. I know, from years of experience, that Dick Bunny is not the first risk out of the gate that anyone is going to take, which has forced us to be very zen but it’s also gotten us to focus on this festival thing, and at the same time, it’s also giving us proof that there’s an audience, which we wouldn’t have had if we just went straight into pitching it as a half-hour,” she added.

‘Potluck Ladies’
‘Potluck Ladies’

Javed’s Potluck Ladies is following another, slightly unusual route. The series follows three women between the ages of 25 and 45 who live in “The Wives Condos” in the suburbs of Toronto with their children, while their husbands work in other countries. They initially meet at potluck lunches, a weekly guilt-free escape from the loneliness of immigrant life. At first glance, they seem to be living perfect lives, but when their carefully crafted façades crumble, they must learn to be vulnerable and seek each other’s support.

Starring Natasha Krishnan, Elisa Moolecherry and Kavita Musty, Javed has already raised money from Canada, where broadcasters Hollywood Suites and Yes TV ordered four half-hours. She is now taking it to festivals such as SeriesFest as she looks for money from the U.S. and globally.

“[Potluck Ladies] is coming from a personal need to see stories of women like myself, my friends and my community on screen. I wanted to create something that is authentic but is also entertaining and engaging in a way that all audiences can relate to it,” she told Deadline. “This world allowed me to tell culturally specific stories that touch upon some universal themes of body shaming, stigmas, taboos, and toxic versus healthy relationships while also offering a look into discrimination that qualified immigrants face. I built this world with both drama and levity so that it is not just about the struggles but also about the joys.”

‘Girls Aren’t Funny’
‘Girls Aren’t Funny’

Also on the comedy side, Jasia Ka is behind Girls Aren’t Funny, a dramedy that tells the stories of up-and-coming women comedians in NYC. Directed by Ka, who wrote it with Amamah Sardar, it stars Sardar, Zubi Ahmed, Sadhana Singhal, Farooq Hussain, Usama Siddiquee, Caleb Eberhardt, Kelly Bachman, Dan Yang and Liza Dye.

Ka, who is also behind Bushwitches, a supernatural dark comedy series about a coven of witches living in Bushwick, told Deadline, “I’m primarily a film director, and when I moved to NYC in my early 20s, I got into doing stand-up and took notice of the way women comedians are ruling the scene – and they’re not just the comics that get Netflix specials, but the comics with day jobs performing in hole-in-the-wall bars, running open mics, and hustling to do three shows a night. A new generation of comedians are reimagining comedy as a vehicle to tell their stories, their way. I wanted to create a cheeky, heartfelt show that spotlights these incredible comedians and debunks the asinine myth that girls aren’t funny once and for all.”

She added that she made the pilot as a “proof of concept” with Brooklyn-based arts organization Bric TV and executive producers Kuye Youngblood and Kecia Elan Cole. “I have a very specific and ambitious vision for Girls Aren’t Funny and to be able to make a low-budget pilot as a proof of concept is a fantastic way to execute on that and demonstrate its potential so that we can break through the noise, get this series ordered and on screen in front of millions of people.”

It’s not just scripted series that are heading down the independent route. Joanna Forscher directed four episodes of Long Time Sun, a documentary series that chronicles the rise of Kundalini Yoga and 3HO Sikh Dharma and explores the corrosive nature of power, the spiritual toll of capitalism, the commodification of wellness, and the slide into moral ambiguity that often underlies the quest for a greater good.

Forscher told Deadline that the project came about after she worked with Rick Rubin, who is an exec producer on the series, on Hulu’s McCartney 3,2,1 as the Beastie Boys and Slayer music producer had been to Kundalini sessions and had friends in the community before it had its own reckoning and was accused by some of being a cult.

She said she wanted the freedom to tell the story how she wanted, helped by funding from Fifth Season. “I think amplifying their stories can provoke real change in order to get them the justice that they deserve,” she said. “Having the liberty to tell it in the way that I wanted to without front-loading the trauma was the real deciding factor [to do it independently].”

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