The Irish Film Television Network

The Irish Film Television Network

The Austin Film Festival is held in Austin, Texas, and its organisers seek to further the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and filmmaking by providing year round cultural events and services, enhancing public awareness and participation, and encouraging community partnerships. It ran this year from the 21st to the 28th of October. It starts with a four day conference comprising roundtables, panels and pitches, not to mention parties, with the odd film sprinkled in between. I attended Austin last year and had a good time but made plenty of rookie mistakes mainly because I did not have a clue what I was doing. And had only written three scripts. A year on, I’ve learned some lessons. With three more scripts and my first produced short under my belt, I’m ready to inflict my ability to talk for Ireland on some movie people.

I fixed my first couple of last year mistakes by arriving on the Wednesday before the festival to give time to get over jet lag, and staying at The Driskill, the centre of the action, instead of a motel miles away. The Driskill is a 5 star and doesn’t come cheap, but when it’s 4.30am and you can just crawl upstairs from the bar, it seems like a total bargain. Plus there is the old world Southern luxury it provides, not to mention the outstanding blueberry pancakes. I was up and about by midday on the Thursday, just in time for the festival’s opening panels.

First proper panel was one handily called, “The AFF Conference: How to Work It”, manned by veteran festival goers Julie O’Hora and Karl Williams. They gave some great advice on how to enjoy the festival go to all the parties, talk to people (even the VIPs) like normal folk, don’t forcefully pitch anyone, especially when they’re trying to eat/watch a movie/relax. Don’t get drunk! And maybe the best advice of all don’t expect anything other than a chance to meet some great people and make a handful of decent industry contacts. The less you expect, the more you’ll get out of it. This turned out to be weirdly true and it’s as true in life in general as it is at a movie festival.

I also did my first pitch on Thursday, in front of UTA agent Rebecca Ewing and RingTales creator Mike Fry. The script I was pitching (a family horror comedy called The Heartstoppers), is hard to get across in 90 seconds but it went better than I expected and both of the judges gave me really useful feedback.

The movie ‘Serious Moonlight’ was screened that evening, followed by a Q with the director, actress Cheryl Hines.

That night there was a chilled out opening party at a bar (everything in Austin is chilled out), followed by a late night welcome party hosted by the lovely Mr. Daniel Petrie Jnr. I was already starting to wear out my voice from talking and it was only going to get worse by Monday night I sounded like Marge Simpson. Acuna and producer/manager Jeff Graup. There were a lot of questions for this panel, who were discussing how to sell a spec script and they did not pull their punches. Someone asked about the recession and how badly it’s hit Hollywood and Barry Schwartz answered with, “The market’s always been bad. You agent is never, like, ‘Things are great!'”. Asked about reading screenplays, Jeff Graup said he has to be grabbed by page one of a script, or he won’t read any further. Another piece of the panel’s advice was, be nice to people’s assistants! They won’t be an assistant forever and they’ll remember who treated them well early on.

I went from there to a roundtable session with agents and managers. This was really informative and full of tales of roundabout ways people have gone to get representation. You have to give us something to work with”. A good agent will coach you in your pitch and make sure it works well. Herschel Weingrod admitted rather refreshingly that he still practices his pitches before meetings. The panel summed up pitching as, “Cracking jokes and distilling your story into a universal truth people can relate to.”

Last session of the day was another roundtable this time with a bunch of production executives. They were extremely open about what sort of projects they were (and weren’t) looking for. They also talked about projects they were currently working on the remake of ‘Tron’, for example, is looking so hot that a sequel may well be in the offing. The best advice? Submit the script that best shows off your style. Even if it isn’t what their company is looking for, it will show that you can write.

It was a gorgeous Texas evening by then and I scooted off to a barbecue in the grounds of the French Legion where I ate a lot of brisket and beans and talked some more. Then I eventually moved on to a festival happy hour where I met yet more people. Kasdan looked horrified and said he never talked about that. Then he vanished faster than I would have thought possible. Oh, me and my big mouth. She reminisced about working with the late Heath Ledger on ‘Ten Things I Hate About You’ (fans of that movie, there’s a DVD with behind the scenes extras finally being released soon). Other topics she covered were the highs and lows of writing with a partner and her advice on getting started as a script reader for a studio. Michael Keaton introduced Ron Howard, who still has a distinct touch of Richie Cunningham about him and may well be the world’s nicest man.

My second pitching session was interesting. I had only finished a first draft of my comedy ‘Star on the Run’ a week earlier and was looking for ways to improve the story. The two judges producers Leah Keith and Richard Bever, gave me some good tips on developing the story and on making the script stand out from the crowd. None of them were afraid to tell it like it is and none more so than the legendary Shane Black. He is someone who loves movies, and that comes across as soon as he starts talking.

He hosted the immensely fun conference wrap party that night, which took place after a jaw droppingly good final pitch contest in a bar. Imagine pitching your idea. Then imagine doing it in front of a bar of strangers who’ve had quite a few beers. Twenty brave finalists took up that challenge, and gave us all a masterclass in how to properly express your ideas. Well done, folks.

At the wrap party I was excited to meet the great Woody Harrelson (whose excellent new movie The Messenger was screened the following night). He’s a nice, chilled out dude.

Sunday arrived with bleary eyes and killer hangovers. Luckily the festival recognises this and puts on a hair of the dog brunch. With mimosas. And things like home fries. I scarfed down half a ton of fried food and made cheap jerseys it back to The Driskill for a session entitled, “What Gets Producers Excited?” Hilarious query letters apparently one producer has a noticeboard for especially bad ones. Steven Puri of Kurtzman/Orci (the guys behind Transformers, Star Trek et al) talked about their upcoming blockbuster ‘Cowboys and Aliens’.

Everyone was looking about a hundred years old at this point but we all soldiered on into a panel with Shane Black and Richard Linklater on “The Art of Storytelling”. Shane Black told us, “Don’t be afraid when pitching instead, talk passionately about what you do”. He also shared his tip on generating ideas keeping a shoebox where he puts pieces of paper with ideas whenever they occur to him and then taking the papers out every six months and going through them. They agree that you need to have several good scripts before you even start looking for an agent. Gayla Nethercott also addressed the current bleak Hollywood environment, which is a cup half full due to the number of young agents looking for clients. She remarks, “You have to believe that you’ll make it. What other choice do you have?”. What choice do we have? We love writing and we’ll do it as long as we have to for free until someone pays us.

The conference part of the festival was over at that point. That’s how hospitable Austin people are.

I heard stories I can never repeat, inside gossip I never thought I’d hear. The awful stumbling blocks and aimless driving or walking around, trying to clear a path through your story. I wrote notes on the back of business cards, keeping track of the people I met. 84 people in four days. Some big names, some total rookies, but a great group of talkers.

My last night was Monday. Someone looked sheepish and said, “Where I’m from, people often think I’m a bit weird because I spend so much time writing and get annoyed when my script isn’t going well. But four days a year, I get to spend time with people just like me”. That’s what a festival like Austin is all about. And that’s why I’ll be going back next year.