Asmara Bhattacharya is a produced screenwriter and playwright with multiple placements in the Nicholl Fellowships, Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition, and other contests. She wrote and directed her first short “Hard” in 2011 and will direct “Stone” next year. Check out her website, DickFlicks.net, tweet her at @hotpinkstreak, or find her at one of her panels at Austin Film Festival 2015.
Austin Film Festival’s roundtables are quite the craze, and for good reason – they allow otherwise unconnected hopefuls to solicit advice directly from industry professionals. Like most panels, most Roundtables are open to anyone attending the conference. A couple of sessions may be limited to writers who advance in AFF’s Screenplay Competition, but, as with limited-access panels, you can wait in line anyway in case they have extra room.
The AFF roundtables are like speed-dating with industry pros. There are ten to twelve tables in the room with maybe eight attendees (us) at each. AFF sits one industry pro at each table and gives the group about twenty-five minutes together. When the timer dings, it’s musical chairs, and the pros all rotate to the next table. Each table gets time with three pros total.
During each speed date, the pro tells you about themselves and then opens the table up for ANY QUESTION YOU WANT. This is your chance, and your tablemates’ chances, to ask about anything: tips on breaking in, writing techniques, how to query or pitch, how the panelist achieved a goal, etc.
Certain roundtables have advance signup before AFF begins. Once the conference starts, a signup table is also open every day for all roundtables if you want a guaranteed spot. You’re limited to signing up for only one or two. But don’t despair: you can wait outside the room ahead of time and possibly get in if the session does not fill up. An acquaintance of mine did nothing but roundtables this way one year.
A roundtable session is easily well worth your time, but know these major points:
- It’s a crapshoot in terms of panelists. You can look at the listed panelists ahead of time, but you have no idea which three you’ll get. So if you go because Jenny Lumet is listed, you’ve got about a 3 in 10 chance of getting her.
- You get out of it what you put into it. Don’t go in wide-eyed and silent, expecting an oracle to lead you to an option or an agent. Sketch out the questions you might want to ask and actively engage the panelist.
- Go in prepared, and you can get a heck of a lot out of it. Some of the best advice I got was from people I’d never heard of. I also walked away with a couple of lifelong friends.
Preparation and behavior tips (applicable in most festival situations):
- DO NOT PITCH. DO NOT ASK THEM REPRESENT YOU OR READ YOUR SCRIPT. The roundtables are advice sessions, not executive meetings. Ask questions, yes. Pitch your idea to the panelist, NO.
- If you’re able to, research ahead of time. Who are your potential panelists? Some sessions are designed around representation, some around writing, some around production. What might be good questions for different types of panelists?
- List your questions ahead of time, then adapt in the session. If you get a manager, ask that “what do reps look for” question, not the “how do you beat writer’s block” one.
- Don’t hog the time, and don’t expect to ask all of your questions. Remember that your tablemates also have questions. Pick a good question, be succinct, then let someone else go. You may get another turn.
- Be considerate of your tablemates in how you phrase questions, if possible. If you’ve got a specific question about yourself, can you generalize it for the benefit of others? Instead of “Who will buy my [over-detailed 10-minute synopsis] script?”, try “How should I market a zany female-led period comedy?”
- By the same token, listen to the other Q&A’s at your table. Someone might ask your top question first, allowing you to ask a different one. Or they might ask something you didn’t realize you needed to know.
- If you do have a really you-specific question, this is your chance to ask. Again, just be considerate of everyone’s time.
- Try not to get starstruck and go all fangirl with your questions (unless that’s really all you want out of it). The panelists came to HELP YOU – let them!
You will not sell your script at an AFF roundtable. But you may get a few answers that steer you onto that elusive path toward your first deal.
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