Comic-Con for Screenwriters: Austin Film Festival
Getting the most out of the World’s Greatest Festival for Screenwriters.
By Lauri Donahue.
In the words of one panelist,
Think of this as summer camp – the best, nerdiest summer camp you could ever go to. You’re on a journey to build a career as a writer. It’s a two-part journey: building your craft and building your team of the people around you. It’s a feedback loop. The more people who like you, the more people to give you encouragement. And the more people you know, the more likely one will succeed and help you.
The Austin Film Festival (AFF) was founded in 1993 and claims to be the first film festival to focus on the writer’s contribution to film. It takes place every year in October in Austin, Texas, and in 2014 it attracted 30,000 people.
The Writer’s Conference, which runs over a long weekend in the middle of the AFF, drew 4,300 screenwriters (and people interested in screenwriting) in 2014.
Among those 4,300 were many entrants in the AFF screenplay and teleplay competitions. “Second rounders” (top 10%) and up get into private events, and Finalists get a free Producer’s Badge.
Austin’s widely recognized as one of the top five screenplay contests, and it’s launched a number of screenwriting careers. People who advance in the contest get that status noted on their badges – to make them easy for agents and producers to spot.
A Producer’s Badge ($675 at registration, cheaper in advance) gets you into almost everything. The cheapest option – the Lone Star Badge (aka the Saturday Badge, $150) — just gets you into events and parties on Saturday.
The 95 panelists in 2014 included a long list of screenwriting luminaries, such as:
- Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich)
- Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy)
- John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
- Ed Solomon (Men in Black)
- Randall Wallace (Braveheart)
- Linda Woolverton (Maleficent)
The dozens of panels, programs, and roundtables included:
- Notes on Notes: How to Take a Meeting
- Using Improv to Improve Your Comedy
- Artistic Integrity
- Writing Relatable Space Raccoons
There were also pitch sessions where writers have 90 seconds to pitch their scripts to a panel of judges (agents, managers, and producers). The finals are held at a party on Saturday night, and the prizes include a Producer’s Badge for the following year.
How to Austin
One of the first events is “How to Work the Conference.” You can skip this, and go to one of the five other events scheduled for the same time slot, as I’m about to tell you everything you need to know.
On the other hand, if you do skip it, then you’ll miss cool stories like this one from panelist Ramesh Santanam:
One year at Austin he met director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) in the lobby and talked with him for an hour about his family and his idea for a movie about the Sri Lankan civil war. Boyle gave him ideas for several scenes in his script.
The bar at the Driskill Hotel is the unofficial hub of the conference. If you hang out until the wee hours, you might get invited up for a room party. Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) is especially known for hosting these.
When you meet people in one context (e.g., at a party) it’s OK to join them when they’re talking with people in another context (e.g., waiting in line to get into another party).
Slots for the pitch fest fill up before the Conference starts, but some people get cold feet and drop out, so you can get on the waiting list.
The roundtables are events where one industry pro at a table takes questions from seven attendees. You also need to sign up for these in advance – and they tend to fill up within the first hour of the Conference.
Work social media. Attend a panel and tag the people there.
Twitter is a good way to stalk panelists and see where they are.
Have a website and put the first acts of your scripts on it. Send people you meet to your website.
Be personable and don’t be shy. But don’t dump 15 scripts on Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) and ask him to call you when Daniel Day-Lewis is attached.
So what’s the etiquette for approaching reps and producers?
If you’re inquisitive, you’ll get more mileage. They get pitched all the time; they get scripts all the time. If you have questions, that’s a way to connect with them. For example, you can tell them what your idea is and ask them if it’s marketable. Do a little research beforehand – if it’s a rep who handles thriller writers, don’t pitch them a rom-com.
Say you make a connection with someone. You get their business card. Then you go back home. What’s next?
Drop them a line. Keep in touch. When you have something to pitch to them, they’ll know you. Make a spreadsheet with the names and contact info and an action column. Did I send them an email? Did they respond? When will I follow up? What if you meet the guy with the Canadian production company who makes $5 to $10 million horror movies, and a year later you have a script and you can’t remember who you walked to?
Should you meet with someone who doesn’t do your genre?
Yes, because they might introduce you to someone who does.
24 Hours in Austin
Wednesday, October 22
I arrive a day early, to help with jet lag, and have dinner with friends and family at Sway, an upscale Thai place with valet parking, Ferraris out front, shared tables, and “drinking vinegar” on the menu. A bit full of itself, but the food is awesome.
Thursday, October 23
10 a.m. I pick up my registration packet at the Driskill lobby, snag a free bagel and coffee in the press room, and stake out a table in the Driskill Bar to go through the 106-page Conference schedule. (The AFF website also has a nifty feature that lets you prepare a personalized program in advance and print it or synch it to your phone.)
I inventory the contents of the swag bag:
- A bottle of neuro BLISS, a “functional beverage” that promises reduce my stress, enhance my mood, and provide me with focused concentration
- A Luna bar (Luna sponsors Lunafest, a traveling film festival of short films by and about women)
- Gift cards for tacos and guac at Chipotle, one of the AFF sponsors
From the next table over, I meet Kevin Ott, communications director of the Writer’s Guild Foundation. The WGF’s hosting an exhibit where you can peruse holy icons like Lawrence Kasdan’s handwritten draft of The Empire Strikes Back. They’re also sponsoring a “Scribble to Screen” series where writers talk about their process. All of the writers are women, Ott points out, but they’re not making a big deal out of that. He tips me off that Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) will be the WGF’s wine reception.
I meet my first screenwriter in attendance – Dr. Ron Dalrymple. He’s made up a glossy one-sheet for his Bourne-style thriller script and put it in 4,000 of the conference bags.
I also meet a table-full of 10 members of the Cinema Society at Glendale Community College. The students and their professor made a 15-hour road trip from Arizona in a 15-seat van to get to Austin. The group includes screenwriters, directors, a sound designer, and a costume designer – all guys. (There are women in the club too, but they decided not to make the trek.)
12 noon. The line at Chipotle is out the door – all those screenwriters getting their freebies. So I pick up a slice at Cozzoli’s across from the Intercontinental Hotel – voted Austin’s best pizza since 1984 and a bargain at $3.15.
1:00 p.m. My first panel: “How to Work the Conference.” The temperature outside is a steamy 87 degrees. Inside it’s more like 67. I resolve to wear layers tomorrow.
2:45 p.m. “Writing and Producing a Web Series.” The room’s so crowded people are sitting on the floor. I’ve never even seen a web series so I feel desperately un-hip.
5:00 p.m. My first party: the Austin Film Commission Opening Night Reception. There’s no line at the multiple bars, and the drinks are free, but the line for the one food station snakes around the room. I eat my Luna bar and chat with people in line until I get to the potato salad.
10:00 p.m. The Driskill Bar is crowded and VERY VERY LOUD. The dress code ranges from t-shirts and jeans to business casual. Cowboy boots and sneakers are worn by both sexes. Some women have switched to short skirts and high heels. I’m reminded of the old joke about the starlet and the screenwriter.
According to a British writer who covered the Conference for the Spectator,
… there’s certainly a degree of sexual activity that goes on, as I learned from one tired, unrepentant writer who showed me some intriguing pictures on his iPhone. Why wouldn’t there be? We all have so much in common. It was like the gathering of dwarf actors before the filming of The Wizard of Oz in 1939, which swiftly devolved into a mass dwarf orgy.
11:00 p.m. WGA West Late Night Welcome Party. After an hour, I’m catatonic from jet lag and call it a night.
The four days and nights pass quickly – more panels, more parties… and more lines.
I wait 45 minutes for the bus to the Film TX BBQ Supper – then finally make the 15 minute walk and kick myself for not doing that earlier. The BBQ is the best party of the weekend, so it’s good to get there as soon as it starts. It’s outdoors, everyone goes, and you can actually hear the people you’re talking to. I have a lovely chat with Nicole Perlman and am thrilled to discover that we both want to adapt the same book (The King Must Die by Mary Renault). I suspect she will have first dibs.
Another highlight – hearing Linda Woolverton talking about how she fought for Belle in Beauty and the Beast – the first feminist Disney princess.
I end the weekend with 54 pages of notes and 23 business cards. But I haven’t started on my spreadsheet yet…
Next Year in Austin
If you want to plan ahead, the next AFF has already been scheduled for October 29 to November 5, 2015.