Picture this scene:
A group of “Second Rounders” share drinks around a table at the Driskill Hotel bar in downtown Austin. It’s Sunday night of the long conference weekend and the laughs and conversations amid rounds of beer seem to show that these are just a bunch of wannabe screenwriters shooting the breeze before they catch their flights home the next day.
But if you look closely, you’ll see a guy in a green flex-fit army cap who is clearly leading the discussion, with the rapt attention of the other table members. Meet Michael Arndt, Oscar winning writer of Little Miss Sunshine, Hunger Games, Toy Story 3 and many other films. The fact that Arndt has been sitting comfortably for the past two hours talking craft with these newbie screenwriters not only shows that he’s a really nice guy who wants to help other writers, but it also is a prime example of what the Austin Film Festival is all about: writers helping writers.
Over 9,000 scripts are submitted to AFF in an average year; and if your script was one of the 20% that made it to the Second Round or further, you received a special invite to attend this yearly writer’s conference and film festival. Of course, anyone can attend if they buy a badge, and many writers do, but to have that “Finalist” or “Semi-Finalist” or “Second Round” badge hanging around your neck, it’s simply the perfect conversation starter with the person next to you, who could just be an Oscar-nominated writer, producer or filmmaker.
The life of an un-produced screenwriter is a frustrating one. It’s not easy to break down that magic wall that turns one's script into an actual film. It’s difficult to sit at home and send out scripts to producers and agents who don’t read it, or to competitions that may or may not actually give feedback and encouragement. Maybe your script has had a high placement, but still the phone doesn’t ring. Much of the time, it’s simply a lonely life of waiting and wondering and staying optimistic that one day someone will understand what you’ve created. But to sit and hear Michael Arndt say that he went through exactly the same thing that everyone at that table is going through … it makes you see that the process is just that … a process, and you just need to keep writing and keep going, and enjoy the ride.
After attending several Austin Film Festivals as an educator and writer, I am here to say that the ride just gets better and better. AFF is a full blown celebration of the craft of screenwriting that is filled with generous film industry writers, producers and filmmakers sharing their expertise. Words simply can’t describe what it was like to listen to Terry Rossio (Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean) and Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Last Action Hero), talk about how it helps them to help other writers, to listen to Norman Lear (All in the Family, Good Times, Maude) describe his mom’s view on his career, to watch Robert Nelson Jacobs tell us, scene-by-scene, how he adapted his Oscar-nominated script for Chocolat. There are so many experiences and events that happened during this past festival, from meeting new and dynamic filmmakers to watching cream-of-the-crop shorts to sitting at “roundtables” and listening to industry insiders share their knowledge and expertise, to participating in John August and Craig Mazin’s Scriptnotes podcast as they show us first hand every week what helping writers is all about.
If there was any advice I would give a screenwriter, it would be to come to the Austin Film Festival, but don’t come expecting to sell your screenplay and sign a deal (although that has of course happened) … come to listen, and to share, and to learn … and believe me, you will learn the tools and perspective it takes to eventually do what you dream about. Talk to dreamers who dreamed, like Michael Arndt, and are now living the dream - it’s the best place to start living your own.
For more information on the Austin Film Festival, check out their website www.AustinFilmFestival.com, and while you are there, sign up for AFF 2018 ... if you are a writer or anyone who is into giving and receiving, you won't regret it.