During the year that comedian Amber Ruffin lived in Denver, she never visited Red Rocks. She did, however, make repeated pilgrimages to a slightly less indelible landmark. “For a year, all I did was do shows and eat at Cheesecake Factory. That’s all I did,” she says, pausing ever so briefly. “For a year.”
If you go
SeriesFest Season 8, May 5-11. A week of screenings, parties and panels on episodic storytelling. Venues include the Sie FilmCenter, Red Rocks, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the Cable Center. For the lineup, schedule and tickets, go to seriesfest.com.
It was 2006, and Ruffin was a member of the Second City team sent from Chicago to take in and then take on Denver in a sketch-comedy production at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Although the troupe visited some iconic spots for “How I Lost My Denverginity” — such as the Buckhorn Exchange, the Molly Brown House, the U.S. Mint — Red Rocks was not one of them. A fact to which one might respond, with a nod to Ruffin’s idiosyncratically goofy bit from her time as a writer and performer on “Late Night with Seth Meyers, “Amber says what!?”
Come May 8, Ruffin will remedy that oversight when she precedes the band Lake Street Dive at Red Rocks for SeriesFest Season 8’s centerpiece offering. “That’s why I said, ‘yes’ to this, because I lived there for a year, and I never got to go to Red Rocks,” Ruffin says.
Before the band takes the stage for its annual episodic storytelling, the impossibly witty, equally nerdy Ruffin will screen her favorite episode from “The Amber Ruffin Show,” now in its second season of streaming on Peacock.
Don’t call it a hiatus
In 2020 and 2021, SeriesFest took place virtually. Given that its content is all about watching from wherever, whenever, one might think little was lost shifting from in-person to virtual. “We were able to grow our audience internationally in a very significant way,” says Clair Taylor, SeriesFest director of programming of the COVID-nudged move. “We also saw some incredible pieces from all over the world — Australia, England, Spain.”
Yes, the virtual event had pluses, but little could be further from the pleasures of the SeriesFest’s experience.
Season 5 in 2019 was indeed binge-worthy. Only instead of hunkering down in a living room, viewers spent hours at the Sie FilmCenter, listening to panelists and show runners, and watching pilots — loads of them, domestic and international — vie in the Independent Pilot Competition to become the next big conversation around the proverbial watercooler.
When SeriesFest last held its signature Red Rocks Centerpiece, a trailer for Season Three of “Stranger Things” kicked things off on the venue’s massive screen. Then, Stevie Wonder took the stage in a long-overdue Red Rocks debut, calling on friend Usher to join him. Other musical guests have been Lauryn Hill, John Legend and Lady A. Onscreen offerings have included Taylor Sheridan’s “Yellowstone,” which has only gotten more popular.
This year, Lake Street Dive will play a full set during the band’s only scheduled appearance in Colorado for the year. With the Red Rocks Centerpiece, SeriesFest early on forged one aspect of its identity: It’s cool.
SeriesFest celebrated a big night during its last in-person gathering. From left: SeriesFest co-founder Kaily Smith Westbrook, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, Global Liberty’s Mike Fries and SeriesFest co-founder Randi Kleiner.Credit: SeriesFest
More than a Sundance wannabe
When Randi Kleiner and Kaily Smith Westbrook launched SeriesFest in 2015, they wanted to become a Sundance-like event for episodic storytelling. It was great shorthand. Sundance stood for the buzzy, the indie-driven, the hippest meeting of creatives with the industry folk who can make it possible for them to tell their — and our — stories. And the growing acclaim of (and access to) SeriesFest are making it a destination fest for storytellers.
“Many of our close colleagues have told us about the amazing opportunities and connections they have made attending the festival, and we are happy to be a part of it,” said New York-based director Carlos Cardona. His pilot, “Chiqui,” part of the Independent Pilot Competition (Drama), follows Colombian immigrants Chiqui (Brigitte Silva) and husband Carlos (Sebastián Beltranini) as they navigate New Jersey and then Montauk, N.Y., in the late 1980s.
Sydney Davis and Mike Holt’s comedy contender “Syd & Mike” builds on the success that the duo has had online. “We’ve always been inspired by the sketch comedy we came up watching, but at the same time, starting out, we were a little intimidated to follow in the footsteps of the giants that had come before us,” the pair wrote in an email. “After collaborating with a ton of talented writers and shooting with cast and crew who really vibe with our style, we knew we had to take a shot at creating a show that would allow us to play with the things we think are funny.”
Sustainability is the idea. “One thing we ask all our filmmakers is, ‘Why is this a series?’ And I think that we keep that in mind with everything that we watch,” says Taylor. “Randi and I are both film lovers. We don’t want film to go away — it’s an incredible way to tell a story. But for SeriesFest, we have our filmmakers prove that their story is a series and lay out their plan for how it would look for one season, for eight seasons. And it’s amazing to see.”
In fact, there’s a little love and hate hardwired into the SeriesFest experience. If a pilot hooks you, you’re thrilled — and then you’re like, “Wait, what happens next? No, really; what happens?!”
That’s the kind of feeling, the kind of response that fans, producers and streamers crave and that SeriesFest wanted to tap into from the get-go. “We really love the idea of watching TV in a movie theater, in a theater with an incredible picture, incredible sound and with a community of people,” says co-founder Kleiner. “Because I think TV is so often watched by yourself or with your family, but it’s not watched in a large group. That’s such a cool experience.”
Brigitte Silva is Chiqui, in Carlos Cardona’s competition pilot of the same name. Credit: Chiqui
Illuminating an industry
Shows that came to Denver and have since found streaming homes include: “Cooper’s Bar” (AMC+ later this year), “Generation Por Qué” (HBOMax) and “Everyone Is Doing Great” (Hulu).
“SeriesFest has uniquely positioned itself as a marketplace and discovery platform for new talent, and with the demand for content continuing to accelerate, it is a terrific resource for both the industry and emerging creators,” wrote Denver-based Liberty Global CEO and SeriesFest champion Mike Fries in an email. “That’s one of the reasons we’re so proud to support them. Plus, we think Denver is the ideal home for it.”
In 2019, Fries sat down with Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Serandos, for one of the fest’s first-ever Innovation Talks. It was entertaining and illuminating — and might have had you gulping the streamer’s brand of Kool-Aid.
What a difference a couple of years make. In the intervening years, the old-school networks have launched or rebranded their streaming services: There’s Peacock (NBC), Paramount Plus (CBS) and ABC’s products on Hulu. That’s just for starters. Cable news concern CNN started CNN+ only to yank it. And it was big news — the biggest — when Netflix announced in April that it has experienced a dramatic shedding of subscribers. The changes have been fast-paced, to say the least.
“Things are evolving on almost a daily basis,” Fries wrote. For his Season 8 Innovation Talk, he will sit down with Jon Feltheimer, CEO of Lionsgate, a company that has deep roots in film production but also in television, with Starz. “I’m looking forward to doing a deep dive into Jon’s personal and professional journey as well as discuss where the industry is heading.”
On closing night, NPR’s television critic Eric Deggans will offer one side of another Innovation Talk, exchanging big ideas with W. Kamau Bell, the writer-director of Showtime’s documentary miniseries “We Need To Talk About Cosby” and executive producer and peripatetic host of CNN’s “Unites Shades of America.”
Some of this may sound like a wee bit of insider baseball. “Industry-schmindustry,” you say. What matters is what we watch, right? But how we watch continues to experience seismic shifts that affect the content we consume. The table is piled high, and who’s cooking up that fare is increasingly diverse. That variety of storytellers is reflected throughout SeriesFest Season 8.
The terrifically bonkers “Tank Fairy,” from Taiwan, finds its vinyl-suited protagonist delivering propane tanks and free-spiriting a bullied boy. It’s part of the Digital Short Series Competition, as is the Canadian produced “Hello (Again),” in which supernatural magic will be required to mend the relationship between a cook and his internist girlfriend.
“We are most proud of the fact that “Hello (Again)” is an authentic Asian story told by Asians supported by an Asian creative team,” stated producers Teresa Ho and Timothy Yeung in an email. The comedy is the work of writer Nathalie Younghai and actor Simu Liu. “SeriesFest has the prestige like a Sundance to showcase “Hello (Again),” and it is the perfect festival for its U.S. premiere.”
The band Lake Street Dive will play a full set for SeriesFest’s Centerpiece night at Red Rocks, May 8. Credit: Jay Blakesberg, provided by Lake Street Dive
Amber shows what?
“The Amber Ruffin Show” episode Ruffin chose for the Rock Rocks will be a surprise — perhaps even to the comedian herself. “I remember narrowing it down a little bit, but then I don’t remember which one I went with,” she says. “I’m pretty partial to all of the shows.”
And why not? She and her writers have crafted a half-hour show that is agile when it comes to skewering the headlines of the day or the week and is often madcap.
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“I always want my writers to be a little silly. I think there are two schools of thought on comedy. Your stand-ups, a lot of times, are more “over it”; they like to make fun of how dumb everything is. They operate from a cool-guy island, and I am not that,” Ruffin admits. “And I don’t do that. I’m very silly and kind of overly loving. Odds are if I met you, I love you, and I think we’re best friends.”
Whichever episode she selected is sure to be smart and silly, and she’s likely to be wearing a killer, custom tie that looks like the love child of a bolo tie and a seriously fab bow tie.
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