Past AFF panelists share their favorite Festival & Conference moments…
Letter From Pamela Ribon
If you currently write for film or television, and especially if that’s your current dream, then by now I’m sure you’re used to people telling you about Austin Film Festival. “Oh, you HAVE to go,” they say. And I know they say it with this closed-eyed guru-face, reaching out to place a hand on your shoulder in a way that makes you think, “This person isn’t a real writer, or this person would know writers don’t like to be randomly touched.”
But this convert laying hands on you is trying to impart some truth. It needs overly-dramatic gestures and the closing of eyes. See, AFF isn’t something you can imagine on your own. Sure, yes, there are panels and lanyards and parties and films. And hell yeah, there’s so much cool stuff packed into the best little city on the planet. And oh, my gosh, there’s barbecue that makes you have to stop talking. (It’ll be the first moment you’ve stopped talking for hours, and you will hear angels sing and there you are brisket-weeping in front of people you just met, but it’s okay because you already know these hours-old friends are about to become life-long ones.)
AFF is part summer camp, part immersion therapy. It’s as friendly as it is passionate. It’s honest and charming, if a little overwhelming (introverts beware: it’s disarmingly inviting). It will inspire you, challenge you, exhaust you, and — depending on the panelist — possibly infuriate you. You will be surrounded in stories and storytellers, methods and processes. You will not get enough sleep and you truly won’t care until the flight home. You will find yourself in impromptu gatherings, surprise panels, afterparties, secret rooms, and midnight deals. You might ride a rickshaw. You will definitely see a bat.
There’s a lot to take in, from morning through the night. And if you’re the perfect combination of brave and savvy, you can get a phenomenal amount of information and inspiration. You can meet with agents and executives before sharing drinks and advice among peers who struggle with your same frustrations. You’ll have brutally honest conversations with staff writers, producers, showrunners, and filmmakers about what it’s like to do this to and with your life. You can test out a ninety-second version of your latest project while getting professional feedback on your pitching skills. Score a roundtable session, and you can ask advice from ten different industry insiders in just under an hour. There are parties and happy hour mixers, brunches and barbecues. Every day there’s another opportunity to hear from your favorite writers or discover new voices who will inspire you to brave new heights. It’s loud, it’s non-stop, it’s definitely too much, and somehow still not enough. You’ll walk away with new friends, a few good stories, and some priceless advice.
When it’s over, you’ll have that surreal disconnect like waking from a dream, where you’re simultaneously pretty sure you figured out how to solve your tricky midpoint problem, and extremely grateful you struck up that conversation in line for coffee with one of your idols.
This is me with my eyes closed, my hand on your shoulder. Oh, you have to go.
-Pamela Ribon, Writer Moana, Smurfs: The Lost Village, Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2 (2018)
Letter From Nicole Perlman
Before I ever attended the Austin Film Festival, I marveled at how virtually every professional screenwriter I knew joined the pilgrimage from LA to Texas each October. At first I assumed it was because Austin is a great tourist destination, and the only thing writers like better than procrastination disguised as work, is a vacation disguised as work. AFF appeared to be both. So three years ago I bowed to peer pressure and joined the exodus East.
As quickly as you can say “IRS please don’t audit my research trip to Maui” I learned that this festival wasn’t just an excuse to eat barbecue and party with Richard Linklater while catching some interesting films in between.
While it is all those things, it is also an unpretentious, professional-level screenwriters conference where writers from all over the world come to learn from other writers. It is serious business (ahem, IRS) as well as chance for all of us to come together to kvetch, swap notes, and inspire each other to something greater.
The fact that AFF attracts top-notch speakers and films should come as no surprise. But what I found refreshing was the quality of the audience. AFF’s attendees span multiple generations, each in varying stages of their careers, but united in their desire to hone their craft. Where else can you listen to Norman Lear describe his future writing ambitions (at 93!) while you sit flanked by Oscar winning writers on one side, and film-obsessed high school students on the other?
…And possibly, to see how Shane Black handles a nine a.m. lecture the morning after opening night festivities. (Answer: flawlessly. The man is a machine.)
One of my favorite things about Austin is that, unlike other world-class film festivals where filmmakers are separated from the audience by velvet ropes, AFF encourages their attendees and speakers to mingle and get to know each other. The festival’s social gatherings are how I’ve come to meet so many of the writers who have gone on to become close friends, mentees, and mentors.
Lastly, everyone knows that the bar at the Driskill Hotel is where you go to slake your thirst after speaking on back-to-back panels, or to shake out your hand-cramps from taking copious notes. But what I love most about AFF is that I get to enjoy both sides of the festival experience in a single day — for even the speakers are there to learn.
…And eat barbecue.
– Nicole Perlman
Letter From Michael Brandt and Derek Haas
Over the last ten years, each October means a trip to Austin for the Austin Film Festival, the no-bullshit best screenwriting conference in the world.
What makes it great? For one thing, it’s the style of the conference: laid back yet well organized. Topics are based on what participants actually care about and the list of screenwriters looks like someone stole Warner Brother’s secret rolodex. Best of all is an atmosphere that doesn’t allow for any of the typical Hollywood crap.
Over the years at AFF we’ve met: Elliott & Rossio, Shane Black, John August, John Lee Hancock, Randall Wallace, Robert Rodriguez, Craig Mazin, Rita Hsiao, Lucas & Moore, Matt Olmstead, Jessica Bendinger, Nancy Pimental, Jeff Lowell, Hay & Manfredi, the Weitz Brothers… and the list goes on and on. And that’s just the screenwriters who attend… there are a host of huge executives and producers and agents who come in each year to talk about the craft as well.
There is a genuine love of the writing process in Austin, probably because Austin is such a great music town where the writer is still king! And here’s the kicker: everyone is excited to be there. We’ve always called it a spring break for writers… a weekend long party where all the participants and the speakers mingle all night long, talking movies.
We can’t recommend it enough. Look for us late at night at the Driskill… we’ll be the ones on the deck, smoking cigars, drinking whiskey, telling lies and maybe a few truths about screenwriting. Come pull up a chair…
– Michael Brandt and Derek Haas
Letter From Lindsay Doran
I’m so glad I took part in the Austin Film Festival. It’s so important to connect with all those writers who are trying to break into the business and to encourage them to take lots of risks and write what no one else is writing and trust themselves and write from the heart.
Of course we “professionals” also give the writers lots of tips and rules about how to write, and we might end up telling them that this kind of story, or that kind of protagonist, is a hard sell. But then we remember that there actually are no rules, and that lots of terrific and successful movies get made that were previously regarded as hard sells, so we go back to telling them that they should take lots of risks and write what no one else is writing and trust themselves and write from the heart.
In other words, the writers who come to Austin get to experience the same contradictions and frustrations that confound professionals on a daily basis. (I spoke with a studio chairman just after I returned and told him about all the writers I met in Austin who were desperate to find out what Hollywood wants to make. “As if we know,” was his reply.)
Finally, I was humbled and inspired by the speakers at the Awards Luncheon. I was especially moved hearing John Lasseter talk about the debt he owed to Steve Jobs, and Caroline Thompson talk about the debt she owed to Johnny Depp, and Johnny Depp talk about the debt he owed to Caroline Thompson and about his desire to make the crew whisper a stunned “Wow” when his character (in any movie) speaks for the first time. I thought I came to Austin to inspire others but I can’t imagine anyone came away more inspired than I was.
– Lindsay Doran
Letter From Paul Feig
Ah, the best laid plans …
I was going to try and be very clever with this letter. I wanted to be impressive and sound worldly and slam other film festivals I’ve attended, making them all sound terrible. But they weren’t. Many of them were pretty nice. Some were not. One in particular was so terrible I vowed to never attend another festival after it and didn’t for many years.
But not the Austin Film Festival.
To be honest, I find the term “film festival” to be an underachiever. Sure, films at AFF are shown in a festival-like manner, with independent and studio movies alike sharing the screen with short subjects, experimental films and documentaries. Which I guess makes the term “film festival” pretty accurate. Oh well, so much for that clever way into this letter.
Cripes, why did I agree to write this? I’m pretty sure Terry Rossio was available.
Okay, bear with me. I have a point, I swear. The reason I don’t like calling Austin a “Film Festival” is because films are only a part of it. They’re an important part, granted, but even thought there’s a lot to be learned from sitting and watching other people’s movies (and there’s probably the most to be learned by sitting and watching your own film with an audience – “Oh, god, why didn’t I cut when he got out of the car and not let him walk all the way across the lawn to the front door!”), there’s nothing more educational than the good ol’ act of talking to and interacting with other filmmakers. (Especially if you booze us up.)
Austin Film Festival gets it. They figured out 20 years ago that discussing writing with working writers and talking about directing with working directors and asking about production with real producers is as good as any film school. Reading books about these skills is fine but you can’t ask a book questions and you can’t have a dialogue with a book and you can’t tell a book you think it’s full of shit. I mean, I guess you can, but the people around you will just look at you weird and there’s always the threat of arrest. But to sit in a room with people who are making their livings doing what you hope to do one day is inspiring. It makes everything real. And it shows you it can be done, even if it’s occasionally through the realization of “Wow, if those idiots can make movies, I sure as hell can.”
Uh oh. Personal anecdote alert. Be warned.
When I was fresh out of film school and living in Los Angeles, I worked as a script reader for the producer Michael Phillips, who produced Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My job was to read about 15-20 scripts a week from the top writers in Hollywood. A lot of these scripts were terrible. A few were great. Many were just okay. But I learned from them all. And then I learned more when I would discuss these scripts with Michael and the other producers in his company to hear which ones they thought worked and which ones didn’t. I started to befriend people in the industry and would hang out in coffee shops with them, peppering them with questions and hearing their experiences and taking their advice. And by doing this, I learned more than I ever learned in film school.
So why do I bother you with this personal tale from a hundred years ago?
Because AFF is those coffee shops. It’s that job with Michael Phillips. It’s those late night cigarette and booze-fueled discussions, sometimes enlightening, sometimes insufferable, but seldom without worth. It’s high-level meetings you couldn’t normally get into. It’s show biz dinners you normally wouldn’t be invited to, and it’s Hollywood cocktail parties you might normally get thrown out of. (I still do but that may have something to do with gin martinis and cheap red wine.) AFF is there for you to use and abuse and squeeze the juice out of and learn from and engage with. It’s put together by people who love film, and peopled by professionals who are there because they want to tell you things. We enjoy it, those of us in the film industry who aren’t total assholes. You put up with our stories, the ones our spouses and families have forbidden us from telling anymore because they’ve heard them way too many times. You sit and indulge us and wait patiently for our one or two kernels of wisdom. And you make us feel great, even though we probably think we gave you more meaningful advice than we actually did. But we tried, and you took what you needed, and we all felt good enough to share a drink at the Driskill Bar afterwards and trash the latest batch of Oscar contenders that we in the entertainment business resent every year even though we all wish we had made them.
No, friends, the Austin Film Festival is the best, hands down. I’m honored to have shown films here, I’m honored to have spoken on its panels, and I’m honored to have let it put me up in the city’s finest hotels. The movie business is a collaboration, whether the auteurs among us want to admit it or not. And AFF realizes that. Which is why they bring us all together every year. To learn, to share, and to hopefully enjoy each other’s company.
Looking forward to seeing you all soon …
– Paul Feig
Letter From Scott Rosenberg
When I was first starting out; when my career was, truly, in diapers, I would often attend various screenwriting seminars, conventions, revival meetings, what-have-you. The desire was simple; the need profound: the writers’ journey is a lonely one. Especially before anyone has actually paid you. Or even given you the slightest murmur of encouragement. Thus these convocations, these gatherings of like-minded dreamers and aspirants were catnip to me; a chance to wallow in the communal pool of anxiety and dread, hope and faith. I attended many. Sadly, the best, most could offer, by way of speakers/panelists/guests was the odd ornery fellow who wrote an episode of “THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO” way back in the day. But still. It was enough. It provided a wee bit of shelter from the storm, as it were.
So when I, at long last, got to the place where I was now asked to be a panelist, I jumped at the chance. Delighted to, as they say in more altruistic circles, “give back”. I attended many. For a few years. Kissed a lot of frogs. And found most of them to be lacking. Primarily because, well, they felt like school. We’d speak to the attendees – at various seminars scheduled throughout the day – and never see them again. No, rather, we’d be hustled to dinners and events peopled with only those in charge of the event; or those who sponsored the event. Or those who were friends of those in charge and those who sponsored. It all felt vaguely old-school Soviet Union.
And then one splendid October, I happened to be in production on something, shooting in Austin. When the circus came to town. In the guise of Austin Film Festival. And I was asked to participate. That was over ten years ago. And it was revelatory. After that first one, I made it very clear to them: they can have me anytime.
For three simple reasons:
1) Austin is the greatest place in the world. The food, the music, the people, all conspire to make it a destination you are guaranteed to leave happier than when you arrived. Because of this, A.F.F. is able to attract the best and the brightest in the Hollywood game. Not only the coolest and smartest and most accessible screenwriters. But also the execs, agents, producers and directors who deign to come are the hippest, smartest, most relevant in the biz today. Whether they be 24-year-old Flavors-Of-The-Month or cagey veterans having already achieved icon status. I will confess to being star-struck many a night at the old Driskill Bar.
2) The Mingle. Everyone talks about it. Everyone knows. It’s A.F.F’s Super Power: for the entire time you are there, you are “on the Mingle”. Everyone is encouraged, cajoled, urged to mix-it-up. Panelists and attendees; an Oscar-winning scribe and a housewife from Ohio who has just completed the first twenty pages of her maiden feature; Me and Lawrence Kasdan! In the bars and the lobbies; at the barbecues and the panels and the parties. We all get to meet, mull and marinate over our love of writing for the screen. It is sublime.
3) The staff. The folks that run it share our passion. I have witnessed their genuine excitement when coming face to face with a scribe whose films they adored. They are, for the most part, fellow writers. Which is, of course, why they are so damn adept at crafting a conference that manages to satisfy the needs and desires of all of us attending.
Writers are, by their very nature, an odd, wary, truculent bunch. Yet after a few days in Austin, the “wary” and “truculent” parts seem to recede. Allowing the “odd” to flourish. Leaving all of us with the most important parting gift of all:
The inspiration to write our asses off once we get back home!!
– Scott Rosenberg
Letter From Terry Rossio
I know that feeling you want.
Not success, money, fame, all that. Oh you want those things too, maybe, but I’m talking about that feeling, that experiential sensation you crave —
Backstage at a play on opening night. The first time an animated character goes into motion across the page. Driving onto a studio lot and you see the extra in the Gladiator suit walk past. Premiere searchlights and glittering gowns. When the second A.D. yells ‘settle!’ and the first A.D yells ‘roll camera!’ and some small bit of imagination gets locked forever onto film.
Which movie set of the past would you choose to visit, if you could? Paul Le Mat in his hot rod rumbling down main street in a Central California town? Termite Terrace, laughing your ass off with Chuck Jones and Fritz Freleng? See Judy Garland click her heels together on soundstage 27 at MGM in Culver City?
That feeling. That Hollywood tinseltown Cinema Paradisio irrational love of movies feeling. Electricity in the air, movie pixie dust swirling, history in the making, the imagination factory at work.
I forget that feeling, sometimes, I lose track of that feeling.
At Austin Film Festival, I get that feeling back.
Look at the guest list. My god. Everywhere you turn, heroes of creativity. How many Academy Award winners can you fit into the Driskill Bar, how many billion dollar writers, directors, producers and animators, all at the top of their game? (Hey, is that Andrew Stanton over there talking to Dan Petrie Jr.?)
Are the panels great and informative, sure they are. The presentations, top notch. Special awards, pitch contest, screenwriting competition, best in the world. Screenings and premieres, got those in spades, hey, Slumdog Millionaire before anyone knew what it was, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the Artist, there’s just more to see that can ever be seen more to do that can ever be done.
And it’s more than that.
It’s making a clever reference to the character Ned Racine on a panel and looking out into the audience and getting a smile and a nod from Lawrence Kasdan. Lawrence Kasdan! It’s getting kicked out of my conference room for some up and coming writer by the unlikely name of Diablo Cody. It’s being able to thank Michael Arndt in person for his insanely great endings.
It’s making the trek our to Salt Lick for barbecue, it’s racing to find that hidden Victorian Room Balcony to hear Ed Solomon speak, it’s learning that Linda Woolverton shares my love for Watership Down and Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
It’s Robert Rodriquez walking by with his improbable height and presence and black cowboy hat. It’s Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar, it’s late night debates on writing with Shane Black following a group of mini-bar hopping writers from room to room. (What is it they say, ‘never follow a hippie to a second location.’) It’s a gathering, it’s a pilgrimage, it’s a circus, it’s a party, it’s fist fights and flirtations, drunken truth or dare, beers in ice in the bathroom tub and getting flashed while speaking on a panel by a Texas woman sitting in the front row.
Did you miss the San Diego Comic Con when it was intimate and cool? Did you miss Burning Man when it was wild anarchy? Did you miss the Paris cafes in the 1920s? You’ve still got a chance to do Austin.
It has that feeling you want.
Exactly the feeling that comes when the lights go down, the audience gets quiet, the curtains part, revealing the silver screen, and anything can happen.
See you there.
– Terry Rossio
Letter From Ed Solomon
I always wanted to write. But growing up where I did, there were no role models. Just people Out There – people you’d hear about who seemed to have been given a mystical map to some magical place called “A Career in Writing.” When I came to LA in my late teens, I desperately wanted to find that place. So I went to several “writing conferences,” thinking I’d find some secret – any secret – that would unlock this great mystery. And how did that work for me?
In fact, it did the opposite.
Every panel I went to seemed as though it was being conducted from an unapproachably high dais. An impenetrable fortress on a faraway mountain. Always. There were the speakers: the “working professionals” – the esteemed and privileged “us’s.” And then there was the audience: the murky sea of indistinguishable “thems.” It was a caste system. And it seemed hopeless. I always returned home feeling like the finish line – no, actually, the starting line – had receded further into the horizon.
Then – somehow – over the next few years, I managed to put together the beginnings of a professional life. And I stopped going to conferences, focusing instead on managing the inner and outer process of what I was hoping would be a career in writing. But I never felt as though I’d “arrived.” It always seemed like I was barely dangling from the bottom rung of a very high ladder.
And then someone named Barbara Morgan called and invited me to Austin.
It was the first in what they were calling the “Austin Heart of Film Festival.” The idea, as they explained it, was that the writer was the “heart” of a movie. They said they wanted it to be different than other festivals. They wanted the panelists to be approachable, accessible. And in an industry where writers were often second-class citizens, they wanted to respect – and thereby dignify – both the panelists as well as the guests. They wanted it to be enlightening, inspiring, and super fun for everyone who attended.
And it was.
But – for me – it was also something more.
I had thought – ignorantly – that my life would change when I was on panels with actual working professionals (the very kind I used to go and see!). I’d thought I might finally know in my gut that I had “arrived.” That I was one of the esteemed and privileged “us’s.” That I’d “made it.” Finally.
But instead, I realized something profoundly different.
Because within the very DNA of this conference was a crucial ingredient that you can find nowhere else: no one – not for a moment – ever differentiated between those on the panel and those in the “audience.” The way the Festival was organized – from the “official” time (the panels, the Q&A’s, the workshops) to the “unofficial” time (the mingling in the halls, the hanging out in the bars, the constant path-crossing) – reinforced one very simple notion that has stayed with me to this day:
We are all on exactly the same path.
All of us.
There’s no starting line or finish line. There never was. There’s no “us” and “them.” There’s no “arriving.” There’s no “making it.”
There’s just one long continuum. Of struggles and joys and successes and failures. And everyone who was in Austin that year – working writers, aspiring writers, and everyone in between – was on it. There was a kinship. A camaraderie. I saw myself in everyone there. The whole thing – the whole “life as a writer” thing – was suddenly humanized for me. I made lasting friendships. With panelists and with registrants. And I had a ton of fun.
Twenty years later. June. I’ve been a so-called “working writer” now for more than 30 years. 30 years! (Even typing this is INSANE to me!) And what happens?
Barbara Morgan calls and invites me to Austin.
Though I’d been a few times in that first decade, I hadn’t been there since it had blown up into the giant festival/conference it had become. I wondered if it had been ruined by its own success. When I was there 2 decades ago, it was 20-odd panelists and a couple hundred registrants. What would it be like now that there were 200 panelists and close to 5,000 registrants?
It was amazing.
It had grown in scope, for sure. But it was every bit as intimate. The care, the respect, the dignity afforded to everyone in the room was moving to me. Again, I met writers I’d been dying to meet. I got to listen to – and did panels with – people I’d admired for years. I saw old friends. I even saw a fellow panelist I’d met years ago when he was in Austin as a registrant! And I was reminded – again – just how lucky I am to be doing this – still – now.
I arrived feeling tired and stressed about two separate scripts that were both overdue. And I left three days later feeling energized and inspired and proud to be a member of a community of like-minded creative souls.
– Ed Solomon