This year, we found ourselves at the Austin Film Festival (AFF), which is known for being the “writer’s festival.” With hundreds of panels on the craft and business of screenwriting, we’d always heard that AFF was a Shangri-la for writers, a magical event where you might find yourself reaching for the same piece of barbecue as your favorite showrunner or spilling your drink on an Oscar-winning screenwriter.
Mere minutes after arriving at the conference, as we listened to Elaine May tell dirty jokes and share anecdotes about writing Tootsie, we knew the trip to Austin was going to be well worth it.
The list of incredible speakers was overwhelming and some of our toughest decisions were deciding which panels to attend (Rob Thomas’s Veronica Mars panel at the same time as Jenji Kohan’s on Orange Is The New Black and a live Scriptnotes podcast?). Surreal barely begins to describe how it felt to be around so many of our writing heroes. Along with all the great stories from the front lines, it was also comforting to hear that each and every one of them struggles with the blank page, feels like a failure ninety-nine percent of the time, and the only solution for writer’s block is slogging through it.
Even the biggest names there were refreshingly down to earth and approachable. Everyone wanted to see the craft elevated, to share their battle secrets, and celebrate great writing. We got the feeling they used the festival as a creative reboot, a break from the loneliness of their writing caves, from the daily grind of notes calls and studio meetings.
If this article is starting to sound like a plug for the festival, we apologize, but we can’t recommend it highly enough. One of the things Vince Gilligan said during an interview was that he had just as much fun filming his first indie movie in Austin as he did riding the post-Breaking Bad roller coaster of adoration this year – that the journey is way more gratifying than the destination. That’s something we hear a lot but have yet to internalize because it’s just so much easier to wallow in wanting to be there, to have attained that dream level, lottery winning height of success. But hearing the man who created Walter White say he’s enjoyed all his creative triumphs, great and small, really helped it hit home.
While awkwardly – so, so awkwardly – shaking hands with showrunners and gushing about how their shows changed our lives was awesome, one of the coolest perks of the festival was meeting other up-and-coming writers. Being notoriously inept at networking, we still managed to stumble upon really great folks that were a blast to hang out with as we explored Austin together. Unlike a lot of screenwriting events, there was no competitive undertone, and everyone seemed genuinely interested in connecting.
That said, every once in awhile we did stumble upon someone who seemed out of sync with the spirit of the festival. While there weren’t many, there were a few people wandering around solely focused on finding people who could do them career-making favors, and one of our biggest pet peeves were people using question and answer sessions to sell themselves or hear their own voice instead of asking legitimate questions that would be useful to everyone.
AFF was a festival for writers, so if you do end up going, expect to meet a ton of great folks, learn a whole lot about writing, get no sleep for a week straight, start every day with a hangover and yet somehow leave feeling rejuvenated and inspired. While they are in attendance, we didn’t stumble upon too many producers or executives or agents, so it probably isn’t the festival to go to if you’re most interesting in making those connections. But these guys also might have been hanging out in a different bar. There are a lot of bars in Austin.
And the films! From brilliant shorts to the premiere of the new Coen brothers’ film, watching great movies in Austin’s many art-house theaters (including some that serve you fried pickles right at your seat!) was a welcome break from panel fatigue and a great reminder of what the end goal is for each script – to reach an actual audience. Each screening was followed by a talk-back giving even more context to what we’d just seen, and illuminating some of the most difficult parts of the journey. A personal favorite was the sc-fi film OXV: THE MANUAL which won Austin’s new “Dark Matters” award and which we haven’t been able to stop thinking about since the festival. Look for it next spring, and give it your money!
In terms of advice, ours is practical bordering on obvious. Wear comfortable shoes. Bring snacks. Drink lots of water. Arrive early for the panels you’re dying to see (we missed a couple cause they reached capacity and everything Mr. Gilligan touched was mobbed). Check out Austin. Talk to the locals. Jump in the swimming holes. Go line dancing.
When we bought our tickets, we submitted a couple of scripts to AFF’s screenplay and teleplay competition on the off-chance that we’d place and get the price of our badges covered. We were then thrilled to find out that we were finalists for a spec TV script and would get to attend the awards luncheon, too. While the festival itself felt like a gift, our biggest surprise was winning our category. Having met other hilarious people we were competing against in the TV comedy spec category, we were very prepared to cheer them on, so we hadn’t written an acceptance speech and ended up babbling incoherently to the crowd of industry titans as we accepted our surprisingly heavy bronze typewriter. Luckily, we weren’t alone because most writers are so used to failure and rejection that actually winning something seems completely out of left field, and there were a lot of “Crap, I wasn’t expecting this” speeches.
So if we had any advice to add to the practical, apply to the writing competition and think of a few clever, humble things to say just in case so you don’t end up mumbling in front of your heroes. Being a finalist granted us access to some special panels, but the vast majority of the events were open to everyone attending the festival, so go either way.
Bottom line: Go to Austin. Be a sponge. Soak it all up.
Then, when you return home to the blank page, it might seem a little less scary because at least you know you’re in the same boat as all the writers you adore.
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