California State University, Northridge graduate student Matt Young spent the past week at the Sundance Institute in Utah, putting in long nights and getting into deep discussions with some of Hollywood’s top television writers and producers about an idea he has for a television show.
Young, a candidate for a master of fine arts degree in screenwriting in CSUN’s Department of Cinema and Television Arts, was one of only 10 writers from across the country selected to take part in the Sundance Institute’s inaugural Episodic Story Lab. The lab is the institute’s first program for emerging writers creating series for television and online platforms.
“It’s incredible to have been selected,” said Young, 41, of Sherman Oaks. “The Sundance Institute is such a respected name in the entertainment industry. To be associated with it is a fantastic feeling.”
Jon Stahl, chair of CSUN’s Department of Cinema and Television Arts, said the honor was well deserved.
“Matt is one of the most talented students that we’ve seen in a long time,” he said. “We have a lot of wonderful writers here, but Matt stands out. Not only is he creative, smart and funny, he also is extraordinarily savvy in regard to the industry. I have no doubt that he will be successful. We couldn’t be prouder of him.”
Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, called the Episodic Story Lab a rare opportunity for independent artists to develop unique multi-part projects and learn how to navigate the changing landscape of the television industry.
“Independent thinking continues to drive our culture in new ways, and nowhere is it more evident than within the changing landscape of storytelling,” said Robert Redford, Sundance Institute president and founder. “It is with this in mind that we created the Sundance Episodic Story Lab to provide a creative place for writers to explore new territory.”
Every applicant for the program was required to submit a spec pilot and series overview as the basis for their creative work at the lab.
Young’s idea was for a one-hour drama called “Still,” about a down-on-his-luck farmer in Depression-era Virginia who runs into trouble with a sinister family of moonshiners after he is hired to bust up their stills. He struggles to protect his family while navigating the dangerous world of bootlegging and the horrifying realm of Appalachian black magic.
“The culture and lifestyle of the area speak to me,” Young said. “Though the story takes part in the Depression, I just love stores about witchcraft and creatures.”
Young and his fellow story lab writers spent six days, from Sept. 27 through Oct. 2, working with showrunners, television executives and producers. They took part in creative story meetings, a “writers’ room” to break down a story, pitch sessions and group conversations about the creative and business environment of television writing and producing.
The creative advisors for the lab included Michelle Ashford, creator of “Masters of Sex”; Jenny Bicks, executive producer of “Sex and the City”; Greg Daniels, co-creator of “Parks and Recreation”; Chic Eglee, executive producer of “Dexter”; Kerry Ehrin, executive producer of “Bates Motel”; Howard Gordon, co-creator of “Homeland”; Noah Hawley, creator of “Fargo;” Felicia D. Henderson, creator of “Soul Food;” Warren Leight, executive producer of “Law & Order: SVU”; Amy Lippman, executive producer of “Masters of Sex”; Murray Miller, executive producer of “Girls”; and Elwood Reid, executive producer of “The Bridge.”
Now the week is over, Young will be paired with a mentor for the next year. The mentor will provide him with support and guidance as he pitches his television series idea to industry executives, in hopes of seeing it become a reality.
“I’ll have access to other people in the industry, and a true opportunity to try to move my project forward,” Young said. “It’s an opportunity I never could have imagined and I look forward to taking advantage of it.”
Among the industry mentors are Michael Ellenberg, executive vice president for HBO Programming; Peter Friedlander, vice president for Netflix Original Series; Tana Nugent Jamieson, senior vice president for A&E Studios; Laura Michalchyshyn, president of Sundance Productions; Eric Motley, acquisition consultant for Sonar Entertainment; Nena Rodrigue, senior vice president of original programming for Sundance Television; Rodrigo Teixera, founder and CEO of RT Features; Betsy Beers, executive producer of “Scandal”; Dante Di Loreto, president of Ryan Murphy Television; and Mark Johnson, producer of Gran Via Productions.
Young, who has a bachelor’s degree and a master of arts degree in screenwriting from CSUN, said he feels the breadth and depth of experience of the instructors in CSUN’s film program provided him with a variety of “tricks of the trade” that will help him succeed in Hollywood.
“They helped me choose the best approaches that work for me,” he said.
He noted that in addition to the television project he is working on through the Sundance Institute lab, he also has received an offer to write a feature film, a thriller, based on a true crime event.
“Things are happening, and it couldn’t be more fun,” said Young, who is represented by Echo Lake Management.