Independent TV festival hopes to be an industry catalyst in Duluth

The exterior of a theater
The newly restored NorShor Theatre in Duluth is one of the venues hosting the Catalyst Content Festival, a five-day event that screens independent TV shows that could someday show up on streaming services like Netflix.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Picture this: A show opens, the camera zoomed in on a pale, yellow surface. A knife enters the frame and scrapes a long, curling strip that drops to the floor.

Zoom out. A 20-year-old woman is sitting on a stool, perfect posture, hair coiffed. She's wearing a tiara.

She's having her likeness carved into a block of butter inside a slowly rotating refrigerated glass case.

This is how Duluth writer Jean Sramek's script “Butterhead” begins. It's about a young woman who desperately wants to be crowned Princess Kay of the Milky Way at the Minnesota State Fair.

“Butterhead” is one of 25 scripts that will get a reading at the Catalyst Content Festival in Duluth this week, which runs through Sunday and will feature screenings, readings and networking events for writers, artists and producers across the video streaming industry.

Organizers expect a few hundred people to attend the festival, giving independent creators like Sramek a chance to meet industry executives, agents, and producers — and maybe, to sell their shows, their scripts, or their talent.

"Think of it almost as speed dating,” explained Riki McManus, director of the Upper Minnesota Film Office in Duluth. “The directors and producers and the writers will be meeting the executives, so they can find out from the executives what content they're looking for."

A man stands in front of a sign with famous movie imagery
Catalyst Content Festival director Philip Gilpin Jr. stands inside the Zeitgeist theater, one of the venues hosting the event. Gilpin moved the festival from Vermont to Duluth earlier this year.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Sramek has enlisted the help of a cast of local actors to help read her script. A crowd of fairgoers are watching the butter carving, her script continues. “Evelyn, a thin, sullen 20-year-old woman with stringy hair and slightly crooked eyeglasses is among them. She stands slightly apart from the crowd, holding a caramel apple, gazing longingly at the refrigerated case.

"And so it begins,” Sramek said with a laugh. “Hilarity ensues."

The Catalyst Festival started out as the Independent TV festival in 2006, not long after YouTube went online. Streaming content has since exploded with services like Netflix, Hulu, Sling and others.

"The No. 1 question we get is, ‘Well, this is the golden age of TV, aren't there a thousand other television festivals out there?’” said Philip Gilpin Jr., the festival’s executive director. “And the answer is no. There aren't. Especially for independently produced content."

Unlike a film festival, he said, creators aren’t coming to Catalyst with a finished product. They maybe have a pilot, or a script, but the festival is focused on fostering relationships that, down the road, will hopefully result in a series streamed somewhere like Netflix.

“So, there are people flying in from the Middle East,” Gilpin said. “They're flying in from Australia and Europe South America, all around the U.S. and Canada, and they are coming here to screen their shows, to meet each other.”

Gilpin moved the festival to Duluth from Vermont earlier this year, in search of a new home with what he described as a “ridiculous wish list” of attributes. He wanted bigger-city amenities like an airport, hotels and restaurants in a small town that felt like a getaway; a thousand theater seats in a half-mile radius; and an already vibrant arts scene.

He found it all, he said, in Duluth.

"It was a natural fit, where we like being in a place where bringing TV and film in is just another artistic addition to the town," he said.

Gilpin has set up an office on the ground floor of the newly restored NorShor Theatre in Duluth. He’s hired a small staff, and recruited around 100 volunteers to help put on the festival.

He said Catalyst will have a year-round presence in Duluth, putting on educational workshops and professional development training. It's also partnered with local colleges and universities. The long-term hope is that industry executives who see Duluth for the first time will come back to film projects in the region.

Sramek says she'd love to see her “Butterhead” script made into something that people can watch, to make the jump from page to screen. But she sees the festival's potential as bigger than that.

"The community has a real opportunity here to give this a chance, and see how we can benefit from it, not only financially, but benefit from it as as members of the community who support the arts."

If you go: Catalyst Content Festival

The Catalyst Content festival runs Wednesday through Sunday in Duluth.

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.