'American Crime' and 'Empire' Headline Third Edition of aTVfest

ABC’s forthcoming American Crime debuted and Fox’s surging Empire took a bow as two of the headline events during the third annual aTVfest in Atlanta, which wrapped Saturday.

Shows from FX, HBO, TBS, HGTV, Pivot and WGN America screened, and panels featured execs from Travel Channel, Lionsgate and NBCUniversal as well as several established producers and writers. A sizable contingent of professors and students from the Savannah College of Art and Design, which also mounts the well-respected Savannah Film Festival, fanned out across the several buildings that comprise SCAD's Midtown Atlanta campus.

American Crime, a gritty drama with interconnected storylines set in drug- and gang-pocked Modesto, Calif., premieres March 5 on ABC. Its first two episodes screened at aTVfest to enthusiastic audiences. During a Q&A after the screening, creator and exec producer John Ridley, who won an Oscar last year for his screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, took note of the challenges of making such intense material for an ad-supported broadcast network.

“Look at Empire — it’s breaking every single rule that’s out there and flourishing in a way that we haven’t seen in television in 21 years,” he said. As to “the concept that, ‘Well, broadcast can’t do this,’ look what Shonda Rhimes has done on Thursday nights. She’s built a block where viewers not only want to see something on a weekly basis, but they tweet about it and socialize around it and make it part of their weekly habit.”

Michael McDonald, an exec producer of American Crime, added, “Everyone has talked about the death of network television ... But I woke up last Wednesday and opened my eyes and felt tired and was like, ‘Oh yeah! Cookie’s coming tonight.’ I watch everything binge, but when it’s delivered once a week and Empire shows that if it’s great television, they’ll come.”

In a brief interview with B&C just prior to Empire’s screening, creator and exec producer Lee Daniels noted the project’s origins as a feature film, which was familiar turf for the writer-director known for films such as Precious and The Butler. He decided episodic TV would be a better test. “Could I be a big boy and play with the suits?” he recalled wondering.

The show’s meteoric success, with week-to-week ratings growth since its January launch, equates to much more than dollars to Daniels and star Terrence Howard. “To know that the African-American experience can be seen, and that studios and networks see that white people are interested in things outside of themselves and people outside of themselves is in itself a massive victory,” Daniels told B&C.

Howard responded to a question about the show's ratings with a long rumination about the Great Wall of China and Rosie the Riveter, which concluded with: “We are changing the world. Everything that the audience dreamed about 100 years ago or 50 years ago is now occurring and we’re center stage to watch it. That’s beautiful.”

In addition to breaking through as a drama series dominated by African-Americans both in front of and behind the camera, Empire also features a prominent gay character, noted Daniels, who is gay. “For the wall of homophobia to be shattered in the African-American home is a massive victory for me,” he said.

Howard, miming an agitated viewer with a remote control, teasingly added, “I thought every black household was going to go, ‘Change!’”

Daniels cackled. “Click! ‘Bye, Felicia!” he said, before turning a bit more reflective. “For us, it’s like a tightrope. That’s the way I do all my films and theatre. We walk a tightrope.”