IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS Cannes, and it was good. Then came New York in the sixties, Toronto in the seventies, and Sundance in the eighties. Each of these film festivals purported to be the mystical embodiment of uncompromised artistic vision, but like everything else that’s original, they got co-opted by the mainstream. They got too big and too popular too fast, leaving in their wake a void, a hole in the soul of the indie film world.
At the moment, that void is being filled by two upstart gatherings in Austin, the South by Southwest Film Festival and Conference (SXSW) and the Austin Film Festival (AFF), which have generated electricity because of the women who run them: Nancy Schafer, SXSW’s executive producer, and Barbara Morgan and Marsha Milam, AFF’s co-founders. Not that there aren’t other festivals in Texas; WorldFest-Houston and Dallas’ USA Film Festival, for instance, have been around for 31 and 25 years, respectively. But until SXSW and AFF were created in 1994, no festival had so successfully fulfilled the import-export aspect of its mission: bringing major films and filmmakers from elsewhere to Texas and exposing Texas talent—and Texas itself—to the rest of the world.
How does Austin support two nationally respected film festivals when many comparable cities don’t even have one? Good question. From the beginning, SXSW and AFF have eyed each other warily. But by taking different tacks, they’ve managed to coexist. SXSW comes off in March and focuses on filmmaking. AFF hits in October and is devoted solely to film writing.
SXSW, which has grown in attendance each year—around 350 in ’94, more than 1,800 in ’98—has often been likened to Sundance in its early days. That’s largely because of the boundless energy of 29-year-old Schafer, who books the nearly 150 films that are shown multiple times over nine days and pulls together four days of panels and seminars featuring industry bigwigs like Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, and Robert Rodriguez. Two years ago, SXSW premiered John Sayles’ critically acclaimed Lone Star (Sayles was on hand to introduce it). This year’s special guests included Academy award—winner Jonathan Demme, Academy award—nominee Atom Egoyan, and favorite son Linklater, who premiered his big-budget western The Newton Boys. “In the years before we had a reputation, I had to convince people it was great to launch their film here,” says Schafer. “I don’t have to do that so much anymore.”
Morgan, 36, and Milam, 41, would doubtless agree. When they got together to plan their own festival, they decided to focus on the perennially underappreciated screenwriter. “The initial response to our idea showed us that there was this incredible need for a screenwriter’s community,” says Morgan. Their survival was ensured when several finalists in AFF’s screenplay competition saw their scripts sold and made into films; last summer’s Alicia Silverstone thriller Excess Baggage, for example, was an AFF entry. That sort of impact, along with more than eighty films and four days of panels, helps attract some 1,600 registrants each year, including heavyweights like Dennis Hopper, Oliver Stone, Columbia Pictures president Barry Josephson, and such acclaimed screenwriters as Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), Andrew Marlowe (Air Force One), and Ed Solomon (Men in Black).
Such success begs the question of when, not whether, Austin will turn into another Park City, Utah, where Sundance is held—or, as Austin writer Bud Shrake glumly predicts, another L.A. Not surprisingly, the femmes festivales think the laid-back karma of Texas’ movie mecca is too vital to change. “Everyone who comes to Austin falls in love with it,” says Schafer.
“Getting the president of Columbia Pictures here is one thing,” Milam says, “but we had him for four days. In L.A., you’re lucky to get that person at all. Here he talks to people at the bar. Here he relaxes.”