Choreographing a New 'Dance
Sundance's Michalchyshyn pairs art-house films with funky new series
By Michael Malone -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/3/2006 8:00:00 PM
Laura Michalchyshyn has a knack for marrying the avant-garde and the mainstream. Since becoming executive VP of Sundance Channel in January 2005, she has expanded its regular slate of artsy films with broader-based series like One Punk, Under God, about the tattooed son of preacher-man Jim Bakker and his ex-wife Tammy Faye Messner, and Pleasure for Sale, about a Nevada whorehouse.
The Canada-reared Michalchyshyn is equally at home in a Manhattan gallery and on the ice playing “shinny”—pickup ice-hockey games—with directors and producers back in Toronto.
Prior to joining Sundance—a joint venture of NBC Universal, Showtime and actor Robert Redford—Michalchyshyn (pronounced MICHael-CHIH-shin) was a senior VP at Canadian media monolith Alliance Atlantis, as well as an independent film producer. She was also part of the team that launched Canada's first women's channel, WTN, in the mid '90s. In late 2004, Sundance President Larry Aidem called to sell her on Vote for Change, a concert film/documentary about the 2004 U.S. presidential election, and ended up selling her on a job.
Moments before she met with Aidem at Sundance's New York offices, a blast of serendipity hinted that the fit might be right: Michalchyshyn glanced at the TV in the lobby and saw a film she had produced playing on Sundance. She shared the coincidence with the receptionist, who knew seemingly everything about the obscure film, a documentary about Canadian surrealist filmmaker Guy Maddin. “What an amazing place,” she recalls thinking. “Even the person sitting at the front desk was a cinephile.”
In her year and a half on the job, Michalchyshyn has focused on broadening Sundance's appeal by bolstering its stable of series, both original and acquired. The channel has scored with shows like Iconoclasts, which pairs luminaries in different fields, such as singer Michael Stipe and chef Mario Batali; TransGeneration, about young people who've undergone sex-change operations; and City of Men, about the struggles of residents in a Rio slum.
Upcoming series are similarly varied and vibrant. There's Nimrod Nation, a series about a small-town high school basketball team; a new batch of Iconoclasts pairings (including comedian Dave Chappelle and poet Maya Angelou); and documentary series Sin City Law, about a district attorney and an activist with opposing views of capital punishment.
While cable networks like A&E and OLN have strayed from their original audience, Michalchyshyn is working to retain the hard-core film crowd while pursuing new viewers with more-accessible series. “I have no problem crossing the great divide of independent and commercial. I like to think the two can be joined,” she says. “What I look at is the voice: Where is it coming from, and is it fresh and innovative?”
Michalchyshyn sees minimal backlash from the art-house set. “We're not going out and buying procedural cops, medical or legal dramas,” she says. “These are still very compelling and unique television experiences.”
Because Sundance shows no commercials and is not Nielsen-rated, she aims to spin this content boon into increased revenue. She recently unveiled a sponsorship game plan to kick off in January 2007, in which advertisers pair up with programs the way Grey Goose vodka and Miller Genuine Draft have done with Iconoclasts and fashion reality series House of Boateng, respectively. “We're looking for who fits our models—slightly more sophisticated thought leaders with a similar brand equity and brand values,” she says.
Aidem gives Michalchyshyn full credit for crafting Sundance's new profile—and himself full credit for bringing her on board. “Robert Redford likes to joke that we looked all over America to fill the position and couldn't find the right person, so we had to go to Canada,” he says. “Laura knows how to do an awful lot with the limited resources we have. We're quite blessed to have her.”
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