Austin Film Festival 2017: Inside the City Limits, the 24-Year-Old Fest Grows in Stature Each Year

On May of 2013, after an intense “writing” day of accomplishing nothing but staring blankly at my computer screen and hating myself (as writers tend to do), I decided to enter my Don’t Talk to Irene screenplay into the comedy category at the Austin Film Festival. Five months later, I was standing on a stage at the awards brunch at AFF, holding a heavy bronze typewriter award and trying not to sound like a nitwit in front of the film and television industry.

As I sat back down, I knew I had just experienced one of those moments I’d always remember. I told myself, “don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.” And then I started weeping. Not only was I in a room sharing oxygen with Susan Sarandon, I got the chance to meet Callie Khouri (I repeatedly watch Thelma and Louise as if it’s a religion) and Jonathan Demme, with whom I was able to have a conversation about Talking Heads and New Order… a brief chat I’m so glad I had before he left us.

One never feels very accomplished during the writing stage—at least I don’t. And that’s what’s special about AFF. I can’t think of any other film festival that honors the writing as they do. Every writer knows it’s the hardest and least celebrated part of the filmmaking process. Winning the screenplay award brought making our little underdog of a teen movie closer to reality.

Walter Hill, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Kenneth Lonergan at the Austin Film Festival Awards Luncheon. Photograph Courtesy of Austin Film Festival.

After premiering Don’t Talk to Irene at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, it made perfect sense to have our American premiere at Austin (I’m a big fan of the full circle). I wasn’t expecting what came next. Once again, I found myself holding that heavy bronze typewriter as the film won the Comedy Vanguard Feature award. The Austin audience was so generous and wonderful. When a teenaged girl stood up and clapped after the sold out premiere and thanked me for making the movie, it made my life make a little bit of sense. A few weeks later when I found out we also won the audience award, I figured I should just move to Austin, maybe move in with the bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge.

AFF gets screenwriters out of their heads and gives them a place get inspired by fantastic panels, workshops, screenings, Q&As, and each other. The charming staff keeps attendees happy: Each event is well organized and guests are well fed. The AFF team also makes an effort to keep in touch with filmmakers after the festival, which is a rarity.

The hub of all activity at AFF is the Driskill Hotel, which gives the impression that it could be haunted (if it isn’t, it should be). There’s an incredible energy with passionate writers everywhere, pounding every pavement to get their screenplays and teleplays to the next level. It’s like everyone has the key and trying to find the right door. Since writers love to drink (for obvious reasons), most attendees mingle in the hotel bar, which provides rare networking opportunities. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with an agent or the writer of one of your favorite films—and none of it feels like work. It’s also an A-plus place to meet fellow filmmakers and begin new friendships, which we all need, especially if we spend a good part of our professional lives staring at our computer screens and hating ourselves.

If the bats will take me, I’ll be there in a heartbeat. MM

Pat Mills is a Canadian writer/director of Don’t Talk to Irene and Guidance.

Featured Image Courtesy of Jack Plunkett.

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