I decided to check out this year’s Austin Film Festival at the last minute. I had originally planned on saving my money for the SXSW Film Festival, but got some advice from Charles Ealy, the movies editor for the Austin American-Statesman. He said that if you’re a writer, there’s no better festival than AFF. When he said that, I felt a burning deep inside me. It turned out to have more to do with some bad Mexican food than anything he was saying, but I went ahead and bought an AFF badge that night anyway.
While the film festival ran from October 22-29, the highlight for me was definitely the conference, which ran through the 25th. It’s held at the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin. The important thing to remember about the Driskill is that just walking through it makes you an important person. That morning, after some short opening remarks from the AFF directors and staff (who really do an incredible job putting the entire thing together), I went to my first panel. “The AFF Conference: How to Work It,” led by screenwriters Julie O’Hora and Karl Williams. These sorts of panels on how to network can be hit or miss, but Julie and Karl had some great advice to give, the best piece of which was to try and relax and just get to know people. The level of access you have at the festival is kind of crazy, and the last thing you want to do is ruin it by shoving scripts into people’s hands. I ran into Julie several times over the next few days and was able to talk to her about her experiences in screenwriting. You can check out her blog here.
Next up was “The Art of the Pitch,” with Jessica Julius (Vice President of Production at Paramount), and Ashley Brucks (Creative Executive of Development at Walt Disney Animation Studios, and agent Jeff Graup. Although they talked a lot about pitching yourself rather than your ideas, they did give a lot of good advice on pitching your own material. They talked about writers they knew, some who had pitched their ideas in character or used props and things like that. The main point they hit over and over was to try and set yourself apart from the pack as much as you could. Jeff’s a great guy, and probably the most “Hollywood” person I met my entire time there. He doesn’t pull any punches, but I think he likes watching people squirm a bit. He got big laughs when he pulled out his Blackberry and started reading off bad pitches people had sent him. No matter how bad a writer you may think you are, just trust in the fact that there are people who are worse.
The day was a little light on panels, so afterward I went to the Festival’s Opening Night Movie Serious Moonlight. In it, Meg Ryan plays a work-obsessed wife who finds out that her husband (Timothy Hutton) is leaving her for a younger woman (Kristen Bell). I’ll have a full review of the movie closer to its release, but for now I’ll say that it was a lot funnier than I was expecting it to be. It was written by the late Adrienne Shelley, and to be honest, I’m only a so-so fan of her earlier work. Director Cheryl Hines was there to introduce the film and do a short Q&A afterward.
After the movie, I had some time to kill before that night’s Welcoming Party. I hung out in the Driskill Bar and met some people who were in town for the Festival. One of them was Eilis Mernagh, who had come all the way from Dublin, Ireland. At the party, Eilis introduced me to some of her friends, and they all sort of turned into my home base over the next few days. People I went to panels and hung out with. One of the great things about hanging out with such a large group of writers is how fast you all become friends.
During the party I tried to make the rounds and talk to as many people as I could. Eilis is better at it than I am, although it all got a lot easier as the night went on and everyone had the chance to unwind (or drink). Now for some shameless name-dropping. The highlight of the night was getting to talk to Lawrence Kasdan. Among other things, he wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. He was talking to Julie, so I went over with Eilis and we introduced ourselves, and we ended up hanging out with the same group of people for a while that night. After flipping over my badge and asking who I was, he asked me how I knew Julie. I told him that we had only met that morning at the panel she had done. He then asked what the panel was on, how she did, and what I took away from it. I was just happy not to do one of those things where I answer all of his questions and then make a funny, witty joke right before farting in front of everyone. So, chalk one up for me.
It was about 2:00 in the morning when the good folks at Buffalo Billiards started shoeing people out the door. I had to be back at the Driskill at 9:00 for the next day’s panels, so I said my goodbyes and headed home.
Coming soon: Day 2!