If you happen to call the offices of the Austin Film Festival and Conference and are placed on hold, take comfort: you will not be subjected to hummable pop Muzak or an automated voice repeatedly telling you that your party will be with you in a moment.
Instead, you can listen to recordings of the writer-director Lawrence Kasdan and the omnipresent actor-director James Franco talking about the art of screenwriting. (In his audio clip, Franco advises budding filmmakers not to pay too much heed to “notes” from Hollywood executives.) These recordings are a quirky touch that is all of a piece with a two-decade-old event that has long extolled writers as the true stars of the entertainment industry.
Yet despite regularly attracting Oscar-winning writers like Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump)—and despite its early embrace of widely praised (but then relatively unknown) television writers like David Chase (The Sopranos) and David Milch (Deadwood)—the Austin Film Festival has remained an under-the-radar affair, especially compared with the town’s South by Southwest Film Festival and Conference and the genre-oriented Fantastic Fest.
“It certainly gets local coverage, but it has never quite gotten that blogger buzz, and I’m not entirely sure why,” said Jette Kernion, the founder of Slackerwood, a blog that focuses on the Austin film scene. “But at least you can find a place to park the car. During South by Southwest, that’s a very dicey proposition.”
The Austin Film Festival and Conference, which will kick off its twentieth installment on Thursday, was created in the early nineties by Barbara Morgan, a former music promoter, and Marsha Milam, who was working in public relations for a restaurant chain. Despite the presence of emerging talent like Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater, Austin did not have a large-scale film festival for the general public. Around the same time, South by Southwest decided to begin its own film festival to complement its successful music conference, which resulted in considerable tension between the two organizations.
“That became a good old American competition,” Morgan recalled. “It raised the stakes and made us make our game better.”
Morgan, who is now the festival’s executive director, credits a local producer, Fred Miller, who had worked with the screenwriter Al Reinert on For All Mankind, with first suggesting that the festival focus on writers, as a means of distinguishing it from countless other film festivals that were then popping up around the country. A screenwriting competition and a conference for budding writers were organized, with film screenings.
The festival’s early interest in television—at a time when most film festivals still regarded it as a lesser art form—showed remarkable foresight. This year numerous television writers, including Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black), Beau Willimon (House of Cards), and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), are speaking on panels.
“If we had started it five years later, even three years later, we probably wouldn’t be here now,” Morgan said. “We could do things so cheaply, and we got away with a lot of mistakes.”
According to Morgan, the event has drawn steady attendance; this year, 4,000 people are expected to attend the conference and 15,000 are expected at the film festival. And revenue has grown every year, even during the recent recession. (The festival operates as a nonprofit, with a $1.5 million annual budget.) A significant part of its allure, she said, is that conference participants are able to interact closely with the participating writers. She pointed to an incident at one of the early editions of the festival, in the mid-nineties, when the screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) sat on the floor of the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin offering advice to young writers and then accepted an impromptu invitation to join them for lunch.
“At most festivals, that would be equivalent to Susan Sarandon going to eat with a registrant,” Morgan said. “I can’t tell you what a pivotal moment that was. It became the big buzz. You could come to our festival and ask a panelist to lunch, and he’d say yes.” (As it turns out, Sarandon will be honored by the festival at its awards luncheon this year. No word yet on whether she plans to grab drinks afterward with audience members.)
Writers who have appeared at the festival describe an almost summer-camp-like atmosphere. “It’s all of these talented people—some established, some newer to the game—and everybody saying, ‘Let’s all get together and help others,’.” said Ric Roman Waugh, the writer and director of Snitch. Last year, Mr. Waugh directed a staged script reading of an unproduced episode of Luck, Roth and Milch’s canceled HBO series.
Still, Morgan suspects that much like the writers it celebrates, the event may always struggle for respect. “Writers are sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of the entertainment industry,” she said. “The festival tended to do things before they were cool, and so we didn’t get much credit for it.”
Instead, credit has gone to the city’s other, more celebrated film festivals, “I don’t think we’ll ever get that kind of attention,” Morgan acknowledged. “But we have our place.”