When Barbara Morgan launched the Austin Film Festival & Conference back in 1993, she had an inkling she’d created a strange beast. After all, hers was a festival centered entirely around screenwriting, that pointedly eschewed any sort of VIP treatment or market elements, taking place in a city whose film culture was still very much in gestation.
But perhaps she didn’t know how strange. Not only had she never organized a film festival before, but she’d never even been to one. “I wasn’t even sure we were going to do a second festival, to be blunt,” remembers Morgan, now the AFF’s executive director. But at the behest of early festival supporter and then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards, Columbia Pictures prexy Barry Josephson attended that inaugural year, and in the process, helped define its mission.
“That first year, Barry said, ‘Next time you’re in L.A., come see me.’ So I did, and when I was walking out of his office, he asked me, ‘Have you ever been to film festival before?’ I thought it would be a bad time to lie, so I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Well don’t go. Because you just did everything you’re not supposed to do, and you should keep doing that.’ ”
Now in its 22nd year, this year’s AFF certainly has the appearance of a festival that’s doing what it’s supposed to do. Taking place Oct. 29 to Nov. 4, the fest will be the first place Texas audiences can get a glimpse of festival favorites like Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” Brian Helgeland’s “Legend” and Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth,” as well as the world premiere of Matthew McDuffie’s “Burning Bodhi.” The likes of Norman Lear, John Singleton, Helgeland and Chris Cooper will be on hand to receive honors, as well as to conduct some of the 175 panels that will be presented during the first four days of the fest. Over eight days, the festival will screen 180 films.
Morgan emphasizes that keeping Austin weird is still very much part of the guiding philosophy, with the screenwriting-oriented panels driving the festival programming, rather than the other way around.
“We have an interesting audience compared to a lot of other festivals,” she says. “We fill out 30-some-thousand movie seats, but the conference is a huge draw. And there are a lot of people who come to the festival for the conference who may not go to a single film. Because they’re in panels, networking, trying to get their next job. And that’s really what drives us. We don’t have a market. We’re nothing like Cannes or Toronto. We’re not at all like Sundance. We’re very much a place where the capital is people.”
And appropriately for Austin, these events aren’t exactly black-tie affairs.
“There’s a bar” — namely, the one in the Driskell Hotel lobby — “that tends to be a big hangout after the panels. Everybody goes to the bar, whether it’s the Coen brothers or Oliver Stone. You never know who you’re standing next to, because there isn’t another place to go. And that’s what people are really here to do, to meet like-minded people who can give them a leg up.”
When Morgan started the festival, Austin still might as well have been the Wild West for many on the coastal industry hubs; SXSW had yet to add a film component, Fantastic Fest was a decade away, and as she remembers, “in California particularly, there was still the idea that Texans were all just crazy people with guns.” Focusing on screenwriting gave AFF an early identity, and Morgan was impressed at how well the experiment took.
“We took a group of people who weren’t used to being invited to the party, which is the screenwriter, and we threw them all into a room together,” she says. “And you know, even all being members of the Writers Guild, none of them really knew each other, because they’re not bumping into each other all the time. They’re rewriting each other, but they’re not necessarily bumping into each other.”
Key to maintaining that focus is the festival’s annual screenwriting competition, which drew 9,000 submissions this year. Recent years’ winners have parlayed the attention into jobs on the writing staffs of “Empire,” “Silicon Valley,” “Justified” and “Halt and Catch Fire.” Predictably, Morgan cites the explosion of aspiring TV writers as the biggest shift she’s seen in her years of reading submissions. The AFF recently added a TV pilot competition, and just this year, they’re bowing a scripted digital series competition.
New this year: Global specialist insurer Hiscox is not only a fest sponsor but launching the Hiscox Courage Award, which recognizes the festival film and filmmaker that best represents courage, voted on by the audience.
Considering the festival’s continued success and the preponderance of screenwriter-driven new media, Morgan says she’s surprised that no other festival has followed its lead.
“If you want to hang out with the cool kids, the cool kids to me are the screenwriters,” she says. “And I just can’t imagine why anyone else hasn’t done it. But I hope they don’t. I hope we keep it ours.”