See more of the story

DULUTH — Michael Goldburg, like many other people wearing lanyards and dipping into downtown venues on East Superior Street this week, has an idea for a television show.

The writer from New York City stood on a stage at Teatro Zuccone and delivered a five-minute pitch for his project "What's Eating Dad," a half-hour single-camera sitcom about a woman who is getting to know her boyfriend's family and it's poorly kept secret. Dad isn't just sick, he's a zombie. "The X-Files" meets "The Addams Family," Goldburg added for context.

Catalyst Content Festival kicked off Wednesday morning here, connecting TV and podcast-minded creatives and professionals. The four-day event includes several sessions of the pitch contest, screenings and informational workshops on topics like "Neurodiversity in the TV Industry" and "Crafting Your TV Bible: Capturing the Engine of Your TV Series." Comedians David Letterman, Tina Fey and Jason Alexander are each scheduled to talk about comedy and careers during live virtual Q&A sessions going into the weekend.

"We're going to do for independent TV what Park City [Utah] did for independent film," said executive director Philip Gilpin Jr., drawing a comparison between his event and the Sundance Film Festival.

The event formerly known as the Independent Television Festival started in Los Angeles, moved to Manchester, Vt., and has been in Duluth under its new name for the past four years. While festivalgoers are looking to sell concepts, Gilpin is also selling the city. Lake Superior could play an ocean, he noted. As part of the festival, the Upper Midwest Film Office has scheduled location tours around the city and on the Iron Range.

Josh Hopkins is sold. The Twin Cities-based writer was at Catalyst last year and set his hour-long series "The Exurbs" here. The thriller mixes people experiencing homelessness with an alien invasion.

"Have you seen 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'?" he asked, heading into a works-in-progress session with Kris Lefcoe, who has been a writer/director/producer since the mid-1990s.

Lefcoe told Hopkins to use a modern, award-winning TV show as a comparison to what he is pitching. When she heard he had a schizophrenic character, she told him to emphasize it.

"People want something unique," she said. "But the need to have seen it a million times to know if it works."

Hopkins said he picked Duluth for his setting in part because of the film incentives offered in northern Minnesota. Production studios can get 25% in Minnesota State Tax Credits after spending $1 million. St. Louis County, the Iron Range and Duluth also have stackable financial incentives.

This year Catalyst was part of the North Star Story Summit, consecutive festivals centered in entertainment. It started with the Duluth Superior Film Festival, segued into Minnesota WebFest, which is specific to internet-based media, and ends with the largest event, Catalyst — which had 600 attendee as of Wednesday, but Gilpin expected it could draw up to 1,000 people.

The day before Catalyst officially started, TV writer Lee Ahronson — whose career spanned at least 40 shows from "The Love Boat" to "Big Bang Theory" and "Two and a Half Men" — held a mock writers' room. Seven students learned to collaborate on a script by tossing out jokes, favoring the double entendre, and seeing what stuck with the seasoned comedy writer.

Getting the title in place, "Mediation," counted as a victory.

"We did the hard part, gang, where you stare at a blank screen," said Jason Kyle, who runs workshops with Ahronson as part of Creators Writing Room.