|Left: Robert Rodriguez, Barbara Morgan, Marsha Milam and Oliver
Stone. Right: Austin attendees Robert Altman and Buck Henry.
So what makes Austin DIFFERENT from other film
festivals? For starters, it’s one of the only festivals in the U.S.
that primarily honors the role of the writer in the creation of
movies. Literary manager and former agent Gayla Nethercott says
Austin is the true “contrarian” festival—the only one that celebrates
the writer as the heart of the film.
“And what other festival,” Nethercott asks,
“provides the opportunity for a new or struggling writer to approach,
say, Oliver Stone or Buck Henry and have a dialogue over barbecue?”
Participants and attendees seem to agree that Austin,
more than any other festival, offers the opportunity not only to
listen to the famous and successful, but to interact with them.
Screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight)
says he returns to Austin year after year because it’s the only
festival where he can sit and exchange ideas with other writers—new
and seasoned—over a stein of Shiner Bock into the wee hours of the
night. He loves swapping stories with Scott Frank, James L. Brooks
and Steven Soderbergh, as well as discussing the joyful pain of
writing with writers who are just beginning their journeys out of
obscurity. According to Black, Austin is one fest where the creative
souls consistently outnumber the “schmoozers.”
The Austin Film Festival was created by Barbara Morgan
and Marsha Milam after they researched more than a thousand festivals
and found none which focused on the artists who are there when the
pages are blank and the can is empty—the writers! Ever since, Morgan
and Milam have been working to right an ancient industry wrong perhaps
best summed up by the studio mogul who once said “The most powerful
person in Hollywood is the writer—but don’t ever let him find out.”
Getting started on any great endeavor is never easy,
though. “Ignorance is bliss, Morgan says.” She and Milam began with
dozens of cold calls to every person who had any possibility of
offering assistance. Although both women were excited about the
responses received from local writers such as Bill Broyles (Apollo
13, Cast Away ) and Bill Wittliff (The Perfect Storm, The
Black Stallion), it was an uphill battle to find sponsorship
and financial backing for the first event—which took place primarily
in a high school gymnasium.
Six weeks before the first festival opened, 68 panelists
had signed up and 86 registrants. Fortunately—after many more calls
and lots of midnight oil—the list of attendees grew to a more palatable
300 by opening night.
In the nine years since that first event, the numbers
have grown considerably. Last year’s screenwriting competition saw
the entry of 3,500 screenplays, and this year that number increased
to 4,000. Competition Director B.J. Burrow (also a produced screenwriter
and novelist) points out that Austin not only offers a competition
but, in its dedication to promoting writers, provides readings of
winning scripts by professional actors in both Austin and LA.
A similar courtesy is extended to winners of the
film competition. The festival arranges screenings not only in Austin,
but also in LA after the festival’s conclusion. This year almost
900 films were entered—200 more than last year. Eighty films were
screened last year, and that number will increase to 100 for the
Because Austin is oriented toward the writer, it
is less populated with distributors, and studio executives. Matthew
Gross, President of Production for Kopelson Entertainment (U.S.
Marshals, A Perfect Murder), thinks that producers and executives
may be missing out by overlooking this festival, which is less about
economics and more about connecting with talented people.
“It isn’t easy to find a really good spec script,”
he says, “even with people employed for the purpose of finding material.”
Gross feels that making meaningful connections with writers is a
critical part of the business. He says he relishes the opportunity
to find a script with engaging characters that leap off the page
(shouting “buy me, buy me“).
Barry Josephson, formerly a studio executive associated
with movies such as Men in Black and Air Force One,
also acknowledges the importance of Austin as a forum for writers.
“All talent comes to a movie based on the script.
Yet executives too often don’t appreciate the role of writers,”
he says. “For six years I was a ‘suit’ in Hollywood. Until
I came to Austin, I never realized how much I was perceived that
way. This festival gave me the opportunity to drop that persona
and become more attuned with the creative side of moviemaking.”
Josephson, now an independent producer (responsible
for this summer’s hit Like Mike), has introduced other writers
to Austin, including Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) and
Ed Solomon (Charlie’s Angels), and has also purchased winning
screenplays such as Max Adams’ Excess Baggage, which eventually
starred Alicia Silverstone and Benicio Del Toro.
Writers entering the screenplay competition also
understand the auspicious nature of Austin’s access. Ron Peer, a
screenwriter who has been going to the festival for seven years,
was elated when a producer attending AFF picked up his script, Goodbye
Lover. The script was quickly given to director Roland Joffé
and soon became a theatrical release. As a result of meeting Joffé,
Peer landed a well-known manager, an agent and an entertainment
attorney. For him, Austin is a yearly reunion.
Other Austin contenders have met with success in
Hollywood. Last year’s short film winner, The Accountant,
directed by Ray McKinnon, won an Academy Award, while the Audience
Award winner, Johannes Kiefer’s Gregor’s Greatest Invention,
also received an Oscar nod.
Despite Austin’s success, Polly Platt laments that
more is warranted. Platt, self-described as a “confused careerist,”
is a writer herself (A Map of the World, Pretty Baby). She
is also a producer associated with such films as The Last Picture
Show, Paper Moon, Broadcast News, The War of the Roses and,
as she puts it, “the very disliked and misunderstood but wonderful
film, Bottle Rocket .”
As a person who has discovered talent herself (including
Luke and Owen Wilson), she wishes the festival could provide more
help to writers in getting their scripts sold and produced. She’d
like to see greater attendance by agents and producers. At the same,
time she recognizes that many award-winning, well-crafted scripts
aren’t the cutting-edge violence or action-adventure genre pieces
which Hollywood pursues so ardently.
Whatever limitations may beset the Austin Film Festival,
it has been successful enough to warrant the creation of several
festivals with similar themes. One which has taken a page from Austin’s
format is Words Into Pictures, sponsored by the Writers Guild. But
Austin’s atmosphere and the accessibility it affords are difficult,
if not impossible, to replicate.
As Matthew Gross puts it, “Austin can’t really be
copied because what is unique about it is the vibrancy of a town
full of art and music. Where else you can put on your jeans and
sit in the bar at the old Driskill Hotel and exchange views with
some of the most interesting writers in the film world?”
It might be worth the trip to talk to Shane Black
over a beer and hear him say, “An important thing to remember as
a writer is to take counsel from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the
Galaxy: Don’t panic. Writing is painful and difficult. As you
try to go deeper and better, it doesn’t get easier. But you have
to have faith and a routine. If you sit in your office for seven
hours and come up with nothing, you have to do it again the next
day and the next. If you don’t panic, eventually your mind finds
something more interesting than your fear.”
Not the usual film festival conversation. Not the
usual film festival. —Karen Holly
Labor Day weekend is more than just summer’s last
hurrah to the people of Telluride, Colorado. It’s the weekend when
thousands of movie buffs and moviemakers annually flock to this
tiny town in the southwestern part of the state. Set inside a remote
box canyon in the gorgeous San Juan Mountains, audiences are able
to screen some of the best independent cinema available anywhere.
|The cast and crew of I’ll Bury You
Tomorrow celebrate their world premiere in Telluride.
Michael Carr, founder and director of the Telluride
IndieFest, prides himself on showcasing a selection of the indie
world’s most promising new talent. By coinciding with the famed
Telluride Film Festival (now in its 29th year), his event allows
IndieFest attendees the added exposure that only comes with having
the Hollywood scene in town. With 12 feature films, two dozen shorts
collections and eight documentaries on the line-up for the 6th annual
event in 2002, Carr’s eclectic program usually doesn’t fail to entertain.
The IndieFest’s documentaries were not to be missed.
Win Wittaker’s Sherpa: Unsung Heroes follows the lives of
a group of determined women from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute
who are training to become the world’s best high-altitude climbers.
The film reveals that the famed Sherpas guides, while critical during
expeditions, are often taken for granted. Quartzite’s Fall: A
Wilderness Tale from Kristin Atwell, is an exciting film that
explores the criminal destruction of Arizona’s most perilous rapid
in the Salt River Canyon. Susan Kirr and Rusty Martin presented Bike Like U Mean It, an alternative vision of future transportation
dreamed up by members of Austin’s famously outspoken biking community.
The short programs had, as they say, something for
everyone. Gayle Knutson’s Grandfather’s Birthday is a poignant
film that reveals the anticipation and emotions of a man entering
his 79th year. Trailer: The Movie!, from Douglas Horn, is
based on the true story of two moviemakers who slapped together
a hilariously misleading trailer for their new release when they
realized the film was going to be a flop.
Claiming a prime screening spot on Saturday night
was the world premiere screening of Alan Rowe Kelly’s horror flick I’ll Bury You Tomorrow, an entertaining mixture of tongue-in-cheek
humor combined with a not-so-subtle nod to The Texas Chainsaw
Massacre. Jeff Howard and Laura Caulfield’s feature film Face
the Music drew plenty of laughs from the audience with its hilarious
tale of a lead singer in a faltering rock band who fakes his own
death to increase record sales.
Telluride over Labor Day weekend is a film fanatic’s
dream: breathtaking views, friendly locals and fabulous films. Even
Hollywood would have a tough time conjuring up a concoction so magical. —Julie A. Wood