Austin Film Festival and Writer’s Conference for Virgins: Get the Most Out of Your Experience

The four-day Writer’s Conference at the Austin Film Festival, held every October since 1993, is for many the social, networking, educational and inspirational event of the screenwriting year.

The schedule is an overloaded buffet of screenwriting goodness, with up to a dozen events in any time slot. These include panels (on topics like “How to Give and Take Constructive Feedback”), “script-to-screen” analyses, and rounds of the pitch competition. The popular roundtables work on the speed-dating model: A table full of amateurs meet a series of pros for 10 minutes each and pepper them with questions. The first pro might be a young writer-director who’s just produced her first web series, the next might be a studio exec, and the third might be Mike Smith, writer of The Revenant.

Unlike at some other screenwriting conferences, the motivational rah-rah is kept to a minimum at Austin. In fact, you’re more likely to get a cold dose of reality. Here’s a sample from this edition. Identity Thief writer Craig Mazin, on a panel called “The Writer/Producer Dynamic: A Case Study,” on hooking up with the wrong producer when you’re desperate for your first gig: “You don’t question the nature of the person throwing you a life preserver when you’re drowning… And a year later you realize you’re a galley slave.” Or, more bluntly, Shane Black at “Black to the Future: Closing Remarks:” “Most of you don’t have talent.”

But there are also bursts of insight from people like This Is Spinal Tap and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off producer Lindsay Doran, in her talk on “The Psychology of Storytelling:” “Audiences don’t care about accomplishments. They care about the moment when a character shares the accomplishment with the person they love.”

At the concurrent film festival, there are the movies, of course: 2016 saw fresh titles like Robin Swicord’s Wakefield, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, Ben Younger’s Bleed for This, and repertory screenings like Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc?

My tips for doing the festival and conference right:

  • If you want to stay at The Driskill (the reputedly haunted hotel that’s the heart of the conference), reserve your room at least six months in advance. Book your flight at least three months early.
  • Save money and avoid long registration lines by paying for your badge several months in advance. Check the website and get on the mailing list to see when prices go up. Sign up for roundtables right after you pick up your badge; some fill up fast. Sign up for pitching slots as soon as registration opens.
  • Pick your panels by speakers, not topic. If you have a chance to hear the panelists quoted above, go early to get a seat. Ask conference veterans for other recommendations. Bring a notebook and a pen, and take notes. (Yes, you can do it on your phone, but it looks rude.)
  • Bus transport to far-flung party locations is a perennial weak point. Get the Fasten app (Austin is currently Uber-free) or share a cab. On the other hand, being stuck in a bus line can be a great excuse to talk to the people next to you. So don’t spend your wait time staring at your phone.
  • If you have nowhere else to go, hang out at the bar at the Driskill. In general, expect to have access to too much free alcohol and too little free food. Plan accordingly. MM

Lauri Donahue is an award-winning screenwriter and script consultant (lauridonahue.com).

Austin Film Festival 2016 ran October 12-20, 2016. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2017 issue. Photograph of Craig Mazin by Bobby Longoria.