For a guy who doesn’t have cable, Austin McKinley is a shrewd television buff.
Admittedly, he rents a lot of shows on Netflix — science fiction/fantasy/comic book stuff. It’s a good way to avoid commercials.
“It’s like with any field,” says McKinley, 34. “You have to be immersed in your art form.”
There’s a cerebral art to his relationship with the boob tube that runs as deep as an aspiring novelist’s relationship with Faulkner and Dostoyevsky.
Had he spent the past five years snubbing television, he probably wouldn’t have walked away with three wins, including the grand prize, at last month’s inaugural “TV ME!” pitch contest sponsored by Sarasota County Film and Entertainment Office (SCFEO).
McKinley entered nine different television pitches in the competition, which was judged blindly by industry professionals. Out of the 250 entries received from writers across the country, three of McKinley’s treatments placed in the top 12.
His sitcom, “Local Access,” about a crew of misfits running a local cable television station, placed first in the scripted category, and his sci-fi miniseries, “Quintessence,” placed third in the one-off category.
What earned him the coveted grand prize, however, was a pitch for a serial “dramedy” called “Quixotic,” which McKinley describes as a “modern-day retelling of ‘Don Quixote.’”
Inspired by the BBC’s recent update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” detective series, McKinley’s Quixote is a low-level aristocrat who embarks on good deeds as a wandering motorcycle adventurer.
“As I started digging into the novel,” McKinley says. “I realized the Golden Age of Spain is a lot like the American empire right now. There are a lot of interesting parallels.”
The pitch earned the writer an all-expense paid trip at the end of May to Los Angeles, where he’ll meet with four to six network executives to discuss the series, among other concepts.
“It’s interesting,” says McKinley. “In college and even after college, I didn’t have a TV at all. Television wasn’t the same in the late 1990s. Since digital video has become prevalent, shows have become cheaper to produce with higher production values. What’s traditionally been done in movies has migrated over to television. TV is where it’s at.”
McKinley is sitting at a café in Burns Court, sipping an iced tea. While everyone else in the restaurant is perched in front of expensive salads, McKinley is perched in front of a floppy journal — the telltale sign of a writer.
A former illustration student at Ringling College of Art and Design, McKinley, an Alta Vista resident, has worked as a freelance artist, writer, and video production assistant since 1998.
A self-described “dabbler,” his resumé is so varied even he has a hard time recollecting all the projects on which he’s worked.
“I have a wicked case of ADD,” McKinley says. “I honestly get antsy if I have to do the same thing all the time.”
Local comic book enthusiasts might recognize his illustration work.
For 10 years, McKinley has worked as a contributing artist, colorist and writer for dozens of indie comic books. His weekly strip, “Squareasota” has appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune since 2007.
“Everybody draws when they’re a kid,” McKinley says. “Most people stop at one point. Cartoonists never do.”
He rattles off a list of his favorite comic book illustrators, none of which sound familiar. Midway through, he stops and blushes, conscious of the fact that he sounds like a fanboy.
“I’m not a superhero-comic-book guy,” McKinley says. “I’m more into the underground mini-comics.”
Obscure comic book references aside, when McKinley talks about TV, he does so with the wizened outlook of a seasoned television writer — a knack that thrills Jeanne Corcoran, director of the Sarasota County Film and Entertainment Office.
“‘Quixotic’ has got that quirky, oddball feel to it,” Corcoran says. “It’s got great potential for surprise and variety, plus it has similarities to other projects that have been successful. When you’re pitching a project, the concept needs to be immediately comparable to something, yet have characteristics that distinguish it as uniquely its own.”
McKinley is decidedly less effusive. He has to be. As much as he realizes he’s landed an opportunity few aspiring screenwriters get, he refuses to let the achievement pad his ego.
“It is absolutely my dream to write a television show,” McKinley says. “But I’m realistic about what’s going to happen in L.A. If they offer me a deal, of course I’m going to take it. I think ‘Quixotic’ has a good chance, but I try not to trust my Spidey senses. You don’t want to get your hopes up too high.”
TALES FROM THE TV CRYPT
McKinley resurrects his favorite canceled television programs.
‘Firefly,’ ran for 14 episodes
“The characters were fantastic. There were a lot of them, but it allowed you to see philosophical and social issues from like nine different perspectives.”
‘The Tick,’ ran for nine episodes
“It was based on an indie comic book. I thought it was outrageously funny. Patrick Warburton (who played The Tick) deserves to be the lead in another series.”
‘Caprica,’ ran for 18 episodes
“It was a spin-off from ‘Battlestar Galactica.’ It could have been a really great series. I guess I was disappointed that it wasn’t as great as it could have been.”
‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,’ ran for 31 episodes
“I think it failed because the title was impossible to say.”
‘Dollhouse,’ ran for 26 episodes
“Here’s another Joss Whedon show that didn’t last. All his shows are too niche to find a mainstream audience. His ‘Buffy’ (‘The Vampire Slayer’) was always on the verge of being canceled. It’s amazing it ran as long as it did.”
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]