SundanceTV President Is on the Lookout for Flawed Characters

Sarah Barnett doesn’t believe in pilots


Who Sarah Barnett

Age 48

New gig President and general manager, SundanceTV, just green-lit The Red Road

Old gig EVP and gm, Sundance Channel

The Sundance Channel was recently rebranded as just SundanceTV. How is the look of the network changing?

It partly is just changing the logo. Because you have to live on so many screens these days—some of them super small—the fewer letters they have in their names, the better. It’s what one of our strategists called brand hygiene, which has to do with being recognizable across many screens, the smallest of which is phones. We already exist across all of these; it’s more about making us easier to identify.

So as you push programming that you’ve commissioned, as opposed to acquired or co-produced, how important are good reviews in places like The New Yorker?

The critical response is enormous for us. It’s a lot like HBO and The Wire, and also AMC in the early days of Mad Men. What we’re trying to do is create content that isn’t imitative.

You guys have been aggressive about putting stuff like Top of the Lake on subscription VOD. How does that platform help to grow your audience?

People can find content over time and watch it in different kinds of ways. The VOD platforms and the SVOD platforms, the shifted viewership—there’s increasingly a patience that viewers have for content that may feel a little bit obscure. It may appeal less to the mind-set people have when they just want to kick back and watch telly. They hear critics and peers who are talking about the cool thing. Critics have an appetite for the new.

What’s different about your upcoming series, The Red Road?

I think that compared to some of the shows, Top of the Lake and Rectify, The Red Road has a different pace. Aaron Guzikowski, the scriptwriter, references ‘70s thrillers—it taps into all of these secrets and all of this past that exists between these two men in these two communities. One of the things that we try to have every time is this depth of characters. It’s so great to have Jason Momoa—we were all kind of craving a bit more of him after Game of Thrones.

What else do we have to look forward to?

This year we have Season 2 of Rectify. Rectify is super, super close to my heart. It’s the first show as both studio and network that we’ve fully owned. Honourable Woman is our next co-production, which is about all these themes that are endlessly fascinating. The great wave of TV over the past however long has explored masculinity and what it means to be a flawed man with such great detail in our culture—Orange Is the New Black is such a great example of how to do that for women—and [in Honourable Woman], Maggie Gyllenhaal plays this incredibly complicated character who’s trying to do something extraordinary noble, and it has to do with who you can trust in your most intimate relationships. She’s a very modern, very flawed kind of woman who’s absolutely sort of real and human.

You guys have green-lit and produced quite a bit in the recent past. Have you staffed up in the programming department, or do you do nothing but read scripts?

Our model is a six-episode first season and then 10 episodes in the second season. We actually quite like this form. We want to be in business with artists; we want to work with people who have a singular vision. That form is really interesting to creative people. We don’t pilot. If we believe in something, we like to go straight to six episodes.

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