I’m super excited for the Austin Film Festival this year – for one, I’ll be a panelist, which should be fun (catch me Friday morning at 10:45 am on the Writing in Games panel, and Saturday at 9:00 am at the Roundtable), but also because the Live Scriptnotes panel is supposed to have some AMAZING guests, and I can already taste the BBQ. Yum!
Many of my friends and acquaintances have asked me questions about how the film festival works, what to do to prepare, and how to see what movies are available. Therefore, I want to delve deeper into the Austin Film Festival, for those of you with this question.
In general you should prepare to have fun and drink lots of coffee. The first time I went, I was exhausted! Of course, I stayed a mile away at the Super 8 (I think it was only $70 a night there). Regardless, you will be running around to different presentations, and in some of the smaller rooms (like the one where one of the Pixar presentations was held when I attended), you will be standing.
In the Driskill Bar and other networking locations, such as the special parties if you have the Conference or Producers badge, the celebrity writers seem totally cool with you approaching them. I think they look at this as the reason they are there. If they didn’t want to be approached, they would find their own spot with the other writers and ditch us wannabes. When you approach them, be friendly. Maybe just a “Hi, my name is X, and I appreciate your work. I just wanted to say hello. I am incredibly excited about your upcoming film Y. What are your thoughts on BLAH BLAH?” That could work, but what you should NOT do is try to pitch them your story ideas. Chat, be friendly, and politely dismiss yourself after 30 seconds or so, unless they seem to be having a blast and you think you might have just met your BFF. If you do meet your new BFF networking with a celebrity like this, introduce me and let’s go grab some drinks in that special secret bar somewhere!
For films, I recommend you go to the ones with filmmakers in attendance (as stated on the schedule). Otherwise, you might as well see the film at the theater back home or on Netflix, right? But here in Austin you get actors and directors to talk to you about the process, and maybe do the Q&A. That is awesome! But you must arrive at the theater 30 minutes or so in advance, because there are often lines. For the Vince Gilligan script reading with Will Ferrell, I was just at the cutoff point—and it was a two-hour line, if not longer. You will have to juggle your time between attending the presentations you really want to attend and getting to the theater in time. I had free time when I missed presentations I wanted to see, but my fellow attendees and I ended up making this free time our dinner or beer time, so it was not a total loss.
Presentations are the meat of the Austin Film Festival. Go to them, take notes, learn your craft, and introduce yourself to the person beside you. I would say you should not miss the following speakers if you see their names come up in any event descriptions: Craig Mazin, John August, Ashley Miller, and Terry Rossio (there are many more events you should attend, but I am highlighting some of my top picks). The schedule varies from year to year, but a good place to check is in the DoneDealPro forums. Someone will always be discussing the Austin Film Festival there.
The special parties are wonderful for networking, especially since the price of the beer is generally included with the badge. John August was the host of the first party I attended my first year, which meant he was hanging out talking to everyone. (He must have been so tired by the end of the night.) John was super friendly, and I am glad I got the special badge that allowed me to attend his party. That said, the Driskill bar is perfect for networking and does not require one of the more expensive badges to get in. You may find you want to stay the whole weekend on a couch in the bar, and I would not blame you. Some of the parties get way too crowded for my blood, so you will probably see me at the couch next to you if that is where you end up.
The roundtables are worth attending, because you sit at a table with just you and a few other wannabes and talk with professional writers almost one-on-one (taking turns). You sit at one table and the professionals rotate, so you are able to meet with three or so different professionals in the one hour you are in the room. One year I was able to talk with some folks from Pixar, and they were super helpful. Next I spoke with some television writers, which was educational even though I had never heard of them nor had I watched their shows. So there is that element of potentially not knowing who the experts are, but it cannot be avoided because you are not able to pick which professionals come to your table. You are allowed to sign up for just one of these sessions, but if you go to the others you may be able to get in to more. Furthermore, second-rounders and above in the screenplay contest are able to attend two roundtables (their special one and one regular roundtable event).
If you enter the screenplay contest and make it through to the second round or beyond, there are events just for you. From what I have seen, these events do not seem to differ too much from the regular events. A problem with them some years is that they are mostly or all on Friday, which is unfortunate for those of us just going for the weekend. If you can attend the “First Ten Pages” event with Lindsay Duran, do so. You will likely learn that, while you may have made the top 10% or higher, you and the others there still have a long way to go.
The Austin Film Festival pitch event made me a bit nervous at first, but after I was done it was quite fun. You sit in a small room with about thirty people and listen to them pitch. Then you get your turn, so you stand in front of them and a table with a couple of judges (one of mine didn’t show up), and get one minute to pitch. They are strict with that minute, but if you talk California-fast like I do, you do not have to worry about the timing, you just have to worry about sounding nervous. If you pass this round, you can compete in the pitch finale at a bar in front of many more people. Either way you should attend this party, and get there early. One year we even got to see John August and Ashley Miller, among others, perform a little pitch game.
The awards lunch will certainly inspire you, but beware—they seem to seat newbies in the back where you can’t see. My first year, I had pillars and waiters in my way for half the lunch, and even when my view was not obstructed I could not make out the faces of the presenters. Everyone at my table was a first-timer. I had to look at the program to see the name of the famous actor who was talking to me (it was Robert Patrick, the T-1000 in Terminator 2, by the way). The food was great, and they had a nice presentation in honor of Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption). I would consider going again for sure if I had the Conference or Producers badge so I could be sure to meet and mingle with even more great people.
Speaking of the great people you will meet there, my first year at the festival Richard Michael Lucas (a second-rounder in 2012) kind of served as my Austin Film Festival mentor. He has attended the CS Expo eight times (considered by some to be the Austin Film Festival’s competitor due to competing time slots), and this year will be his third time attending the Austin Film Festival. He had the following advice to pass on:
“I think for the first year/time, it’s good to get out of the hotel environment at night, go to the parties, explore a little of the city, and meet a ton of people. It’s good for balance. During the day, you will have plenty of time for seminars, panels, impromptu lunch meetings, and networking. After year one, this type of exposure makes it much easier to reevaluate your strategy, strengthen friendships made, plan, and focus on a narrower set of goals. Be polite, professional, and open to making connections on multiple levels; even professional writers. Honor the professionals’ time and efforts. They’re exposing themselves and sharing great info. Respecting them as people is important in keeping the overall vibe of Austin Film Festival positive. Focus on craft and relationships. Ninety-nine percent of the time, deals are not made at a festival by anyone. But long-lasting impressions are!”
In conclusion: go and have fun, but do not attend thinking that you are going to sell yourself or necessarily advance your career. That said, you might do both. It happens. And if you want to know what to bring, I recommend the following:
** Business Cards: Best for handing to other writers at your level, to keep in touch. Not so much for the experts—Craig Mazin may think you are a tool if you try to give him one.
** Comfortable shoes: For walking all over and standing long hours.
** Tylenol: In case you drink too much at the Driskill bar.
** Cool clothes: It was pretty warm last year (high 70s to low 80s, if I recall correctly).
** A prepared pitch, in case anyone asks. Make it conversational, so you don’t sound like a robot. And don’t try to pitch everyone. Instead, be ready to talk about your script if someone asks; because I’m pretty sure someone will (even if it is just me).
So that’s it! And what else excites me this year? Well, Elias Madias (Shadow of Mordor) will be on the same panel with me, and we interviewed him for theCreative Writing Career podcast! Be sure to check it out in preparation for the festival.
NOTE: This was taken from my book, CREATIVE WRITING CAREER,though revised and updated.