We Survived The Austin Film Festival-and You Can Too!
by Mandi Harrison
I first heard about the Austin Film Festival in an article about the best film festivals for your money. AFF is tailored for filmmakers, specifically writers. In addition to showcasing movies, there are panels to learn from people in the industry and opportunities to connect with fellow writers. This year was the 25th anniversary of the Austin Film Festival, and Chris and I were able to attend most of the festival. We came last year, for a weekend, and had gotten so much from the experience that we wanted to go again.
There are plenty of festivals that highlight the finished product, but AFF embraces all aspects of writing and content creating- makers of film, television and even web series and podcasts all have a place to come together and learn and celebrate their craft.
Austin is a unique town, and it really embraces the arts, in all forms. In addition to the Austin Film Festival, there is the South by SouthWest Festival and many, many other ways to celebrate art and cultures. The community and AFF really embrace each other and there are options for people aren’t interested in the panels to purchase a film pass. When we were in line, there were many locals that were there just to support the art scene.
We just had the weekend badge last year, as we were only attending a few days. This year, we got the conference badge, which allowed us to attend all four days of panels and all the films during the festival. We were there for 6 days, and we got to take in 12 panels and 8 movies, and still got to explore Austin. Here are some of our takeaways:
It’s all about the story
This should be a given, considering it’s a writer’s festival, but…
In order to have a great movie or show, there has to be a great story to start, something worth telling. A number of the films that we saw, for me anyway, were just made up of moments or points that the writer wanted to make and then a “story” was crafted around them. (I’m not going to rip on any of them- that’s not what I’m trying to do here; they were able to make their movie and get it out into the world and that’s awesome for them.) But I just have to wonder what would have appeared on the screen if a little more effort into story crafting was made. (This wasn’t just smaller movies- it was studio films as well.) What is the message that they were trying to tell? Why did they need to make this movie? One of the panelists said that he likes to end his movies with a sense of ambiguity, to make the audience keep talking. He wants to avoid the Etch-a-Sketch effect, where your mind is wiped clear of the movie after you watch it. And that is exactly what happened with most of the movies I watched. There were a few that I keep thinking about.
The first movie is called Shoplifters, a Japanese film that won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s about a family that relies on shoplifting to survive a life of poverty and what happens when they come across a mistreated young girl. This movie has really left a mark on me; it’s in limited release, if you can see it, I highly recommend it. The second film is The Favourite, by Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It stars Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz as cousins fighting for the favor of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in the 1700’s. The power struggle and backstabbing are just delicious. Chris and I love watching anything involving the monarchy and this movie just exceeded our high expectations, between the subject matter, the actors and the filmmaker. The Favourite is being released in theaters later this month and I plan on watching it several more times. The reason that these movies made such an impact is that they took a simple theme, formed the story and let the actors work.
Listen…. and observe.
The panels are my favorite part. They take place over four days, touching on many different topics. We attended panels on topics ranging from how to put together a team, running a television program, creative development at Pixar, Nora Ephron, Science fact vs Science fiction, and horror films. My two favorite panels were The Quagmire of the Female Character and A Conversation with Linda Woolverton.
The Quagmire of the Female Character was hosted by Lindsay Doran, producer of Sense & Sensibility, Nanny McPhee, and The Firm. Lindsay was on a panel we attended last year, The Psychology of Storytelling, and it was one of our favorites. This year, she brought up the question: in a push to get more female characters on screen, are we doing a disservice to feminism in only portraying “strong“ women? Why is a woman who cries not considered strong? There was a lot of audience participation. To me what was interesting was that the most of the questions/thoughts/scenarios were being brought up by men. Most of the women just seemed to be complaining just to vent and the men were truly trying trying to seek solutions. Just my observation.
The Conversation with Linda Woolverton was my favorite this year. Linda was the first female writer hired by Disney. She wrote Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Mulan, Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, among others. When asked about her films having feminist undertones, she said that she never announced her feminist agenda, she just wrote the stories and worked it in. It wasn’t until Alice was released that Disney realized “Oh- movies about women will make money!”. She started at Disney at the beginning of Jeffery Katzenberg’s reign, and he changed the way animation was done, starting with a script like live action, instead of starting with the animation process. Everyone in the animation department was agreeable to Jeffery but gave pushback to Linda. She said that there were many times that she wanted to quit, but she kept pushing through. She also has worked on the musical version of Beauty and the Beast, as well as Aida with Elton John and Tim Rice. When asked about having messages or agendas in your stories and whether to hide them, she gave the best advice: BE BOLD. Now is the time. Be bold and courageous. Write the story.
A great thing about a number of the panels is that they are recorded for a series called On Story, which has a podcast or you can watch on YouTube. There were a several panels that we wanted to see but missed due to scheduling, but we can go back and watch them at a later date. If you are at all able to, I would highly recommend watching/listening. There are tons of interesting tips and behind-the-scene gossip to be had. There is a wealth of knowledge out there.
When in Rome… or rather, Austin
Keep Austin Weird…this is the unofficial town motto and boy is it accurate. Austin is probably the most eclectic place I have ever visited, but it has a lot to offer. This is a town that loves art in all shapes and forms. We stayed primarily downtown, the hub of the artsiness. The town is a Instagram dream. There are murals and statues everywhere, interesting architecture, music, art museums, vintage and quirky shops and theaters all around. And food. Lots of food. It’s all about local businesses in the downtown area, and we supported quite a few. (Although we did have a Target and Olive Garden night. One can only go so long without the comforts of home!)
*DISCLAIMER* When we went last year, there was a Starbucks just a block away, so we were constantly caffeinated and content, so we weren’t concerned. At the time of this visit, there was a ban on drinking the water, due to excessive rainfall and contamination- there was only bottled water. Living in Phoenix, WE only drink bottled water, but this affected all the restaurants in Austin and kept all the Starbucks closed until Monday. Being ridiculously privileged, we were dragging. We finally found a place that was able to make coffee on Saturday. Once we were caffeinated, all was well again. This was the only thing that threw off our visit.
What I have taken away from this visit is that we are on the right path. Being in a environment filled with other filmmakers, we’ve learned from their triumphs and even more from their setbacks. Sometimes you get so stuck inside your own head that it’s difficult to look at things clearly. Even though some of the information is repetitious, hearing it from multiple sources is validation that it works. And being in a room with others who are going though the same process is reassuring. This trip was an opportunity to get a fresh perspective; now I’m ready to go!
HOW TO SURVIVE THE AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL
Plan Ahead- you’ll want to stay near the main hub of the festival so you can walk or take a Lyft- parking in Austin is exorbitant. There are tons of places to stay within walking distance, but they get booked fast.
Know what you want ahead of time: The festival releases the schedule a month ahead of time. It’s best to have a game plan of what you want to do, and where you need to go.
Be Flexible: Always look at the daily schedule once you get to the festival. The venues for the panels often change. The panels themselves can be canceled. Sometimes they’ll add new panels. Always take a minute to look at where you need to go. This year, half the panels we wanted to attend changed days or locations.
Stay Hydrated: Drink lots of water. You’ll be walking around a lot and your body needs to stay hydrated. You’ll also want to eat lots and take time to sleep. Waiting in line and watching movies can be draining.
Dress accordingly: You’re going to walking, standing in line and sitting for long periods of time. Wear comfortable shoes. The weather fluctuates a lot that time of year, so bring a jacket, but know you’ll be hot at some point in the day. Most of the theatres won’t allow big purses anymore, and you won’t be allowed in if you have one.