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Sundance Interview with Sarah Barnett, General Manager of the Sundance Channel

Interviews
by Melissa Silverstein
February 6, 2013 1:30 PM
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We got to spend a couple of minutes at Sundance with the woman behind the Sundance Channel, Sarah Barnett.  We don't get to talk to executives too often so it was really nice to get her perspective.

Women and Hollywood: You have this pretty big job at the Sundance Channel. What are the biggest challenges in your day to day work and what are the greatest rewards?

Sarah Barnett: I’ve come to realize that after 3 years you are nothing without the people on your team. People what to know their roles are and essentially and feel like they can contribute.  It’s very primitive that need that desire to feel like they are contributing. I’ve come to realize that that’s crucial.  You are never going to be able to get anywhere or achieve anything if your team isn’t really feeling that. And I think that if you start to see that with the people around you that’s mentally fulfilling.  It’s funny actually, during the panel we just had I kept looking at that theme of being connected and it just made me think about how so much of work or creating content or any of that is so collaborative. I think for the sort of connectedness and the team to really be effective it’s important for everyone to feel like they are sharing a purpose and know what their role is.

WaH: Talk about having a vision for a television channel vs. a film?

SB: I think it’s a mix—the vision thing—sort of the analysis and the creativity but I think that’s something I really like about my job. It’s how I’ve always functioned throughout my working life which is that synthesis between sides. I think that with a TV you have to do a bit of analysis, you have to know the landscape, the environment, the business, the objectives, the market of success—you have to understand all of that and then you have to try and figure out how to synthesize all of those, at times disparate seeming elements into something that seems potentially distinct and clear. It doesn’t always work. It’s only through making mistakes that you can figure out what’s going to work. And that sounds like the biggest cliché but I truly believe that.

WaH: I feel like Top of the Lake is Sundance putting a stake down in the TV world. You have Jane Campion; you have a seven part miniseries.  What does it say about Sundance Channel?

SB: It says that we are hoping to really redefine the network in some ways. We are owned by the same company that owns AMC. And I’ve looked at the success of AMC over the past years through really ground breaking content, so I think for Sundance it seemed as though it was the right moment. There are so many great creative makers moving from film into television and Sundance feels like the place where you should have those kinds of smart, layered, complex stories.

WaH: I mean how do you get Jane Campion on your network? That’s everyone’s dream.

SB: The Sundance Channel and BBC have issued like a mandate to make daring, different content.  I think Jane Campion, BBC and Sundance all kind of lined up. The thing is that it’s not just Top of the Lake, it’s a much bigger vision and business investment that we have.  Top of the Lake is a co-production and also Rectify which is our first scripted series that I think shares a lot of characteristics with Top of the Lake. It’s sort of a singular vision from auteur I think it’s executed in an incredibly beautiful, bold and unusual way. We are really excited.

WaH: Are you saying that you are going to try and be like our BBC America? The Hour is do good.

SB: I think there’s an interesting space in cable television that a few networks occupy. That they are able to be really smart and also really entertaining. I think that the Sundance Channel was always thought as very smart, but not something that was urgent. Like do I have to get home to watch that? But I think with shows like Rectify and Top of the Lake—they are the kind of compelling shows that pull you in. I hope and believe that audiences will just kind of develop that passion and obsession for the shows.

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