Texans Do Film Bigger-Austin Film Festival Celebrates 30 years

Austin 30th Film Festival
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I was pleasantly surprised when I received a phone call mid-September that had become a second-rounder at the Austin Film Festival in late October. As a second-rounder for my historical pilot about the Clifford’s Tower Jewish massacre in York, England, I was eligible for a discounted Producer or Conference Badge that gave me entrance into numerous special networking events.

I hadn’t been to Austin yet, but I knew that this competition was highly rated. Many of my friends had been there and made great contacts – some finding managers and agents or connected with producers.

The Austin Film Festival has become one of the “go-to” events for writers and filmmakers.  There are only a few highly respected competitions – Page Awards, Nickelodeon, Big Break and the Austin Film Festival.

But how did all start…and why here in Austin, Texas?

Aaron and Robert Weiss directors of SONG OF THE CICADA with star Dale Carterjpg
photo by Jack Plunkett

Nevertheless, Barbara persisted. At a party, she spoke to the then Governor Ann Richards and suggested that something be created. With the Governor’s blessing, Barbara and her friend, Marsha Milam, got to work. They didn’t think it would be hard to do and Barbara had a background in finance, but she soon realized that this, despite the effort, would be a work of love. Together, until 2000, they build the Austin Film Festival from a pocket dream to a world-wide acknowledged premiere competition and festival.

Panelists Marc Bernardin and Beau DeMayo – photo Jack Plunkett

1994. Barbara Morgan, a lover of movies and good literature, had been to several film festivals and realized that there was nothing in Austin. After all, it was thought that the movie industry was in Los Angeles and plays and some television in New York. Production companies were scattered in a few other states as Georgia and New Mexico but if you really wanted to be in the entertainment industry, you stayed on the coasts.

Barbara persisted. At a party, she spoke to the then Governor Ann Richard’s new film commissioner and suggested that something be created. With the Governor’s blessing, Barbara and her friend, Marsha Milam, got to work. They didn’t think it would be hard to do and Barbara had a background in finance, but she soon realized that this, despite the effort, would be a work of love. Austin, Texas, was then a small but comfortable place but there were several filmmakers who had made it their home. A local producer suggested they focus the Festival on screenwriting. The first year they put on the first writers’ conference and had only a few films.

Austin, Texas, was then a small but comfortable place but there were several filmmakers who had made it their home. The first year they had only films, and no one seemed to care about the writers. And without the writers, you couldn’t have a good film. When that was brought to Barbara’s attention, she included a writer’s competition for the second year.

Several major executives and filmmakers like Barry Josephson, Elizabeth Avellan, Matthew Gross, John Lee Hancock, Lawrence Kasdan, Phil Rosenthal, Dan Petrie Jr., and Randall Wallace attended and helped grow the Austin Film Festival. Over the years many other stars, executives, and producers have spoken and helped the upcoming writers.

As the writers came and shared their craft, the festival grew with a speed that astonished many. The Austin Film Festival became one of the first of its kind to focus on the writer’s role in film and television.

Sean Collins-Smith Janene Lin Hussain Pirani speaking on panel at 2022 AFF

There are two distinct sections of the festival. While the first four days concentrate on writers, it also exposes those who have made their own films some of which can be seen during the conference. The last few days are solely for the film screenings.

Austin also highlights the writers at the films after the conference is over.

Roadmapwriters CEO Joey Tuccio and the Road Crew talked about pitching to help those there perfect their pitches during the next few days.

The festival hosts numerous script and film competitions with craft panels at a variety of levels, workshops so that one can learn to produce their own film, pitch sessions, and networking events.

The film section focuses on narrative, animated, and documentary features and shorts.

Both parts of the festival have the aim of promoting aspiring writers and filmmakers to the attention of audiences and help them move up the ladder of the entertainment industry. Barbara says that she focuses on narrative films even in documentary categories. The feature or short must be story based.

Telling someone that you have become a second-rounder (aka Quarter finalist) at Austin is a badge of honor. Those who make that level or beyond – semifinalist, finalist – are treated to advanced networking groups and parties and have a chance to pitch to executives, as well.

All the judges are executives, producers, or award-winning writers/directors. Those judging the films are also in distribution. Even for those who do not win, the production and development people often see a spark in someone’s work and they will often reach out to them. Josephson took one of the winning feature drama scripts and read it on the plane going home. He made the movie.

David Valdez, a producer working with Clint Eastwood, told Barbara that he wanted to talk to the person who wrote one of the scripts. She wouldn’t let him until after the festival was over.

In fact, a number of films have been made from the scripts in the competitions and writers have been staffed in television writing rooms. A variety of awards are given out.

Five years ago, they added podcasts and plays.

All of this became a foot in the door for the writers as they mingled with other writers, executives, managers, agents, and showrunners.  This year because the writer’s strike just ended, many agents were absent but I’m told agents usually flock to this.

Sarah Polley with Dee Gardner – Photo by Jack Plunkett

Winners from semifinalists and above are listed in a booklet that the festival sends around to 600 agents and managers. Second-rounders are listed on their website.

“We love to connect people with projects and as a valid conduit, the studios trust us. They know if the script reaches one of our higher levels then it must be good.

AFF has been a place for many premiere screenings as well including LA LA LAND, SALTBURN,127 HOURS, SLUM DOG MILLIONAIRE KISS KISS BANG BANG, SILVER LINING PLAYBOOK, and many more. Producers as Robert Altman, Greta Gerwig, David Chase, Wes Anderson, Ron Howard, Susan Sarandon, Natalie Portman and many others have been lectured at the festival.

This year I met showrunners, managers, producers, and a variety of executives that I plan to follow up with again. My only problem was all the walking that had to be done between venues and it’s easy to get lost there  Bring good walking shoes!

If you go to their website you will see how they encourage young writers and filmmakers as well as how they work with script writers during the year.

Check out the Austin Film Festival for next year and maybe you’ll be among those with the honors.

About Serita Stevens 66 Articles
An award winning writer of books, scripts, adaptations and teacher of writing I am also a forensic nurse and assist writers, producers, and attorneys with their medical, forensic, poison and investigative scenes in their stories or cases.

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