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
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.”