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Austin Film Festival Sticks to the Script

As Austin, Texas, continues to flaunt its clout as a filmmaking destination, its festival calendar grows ever more crowded, with newer events striving to carve out their own corners of the scene. But one of the city’s more idiosyncratic annual fests is also one of its oldest, and the 24th Austin Film Festival, taking place from Oct. 26-Nov. 2, has remained true to its initial mission — moving the spotlight from actors and directors to screenwriters.

This year, the fest has no shortage of Oscar-contending films scheduled to make their Lone Star debuts, from “Darkest Hour” to “Call Me by Your Name” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” as well as an opening night gala for “Lady Bird” with writer-director Greta Gerwig in attendance, and a closing night presentation of “Chappaquiddick” with screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan. Texas native Dan Rather will be on hand to discuss higher-ed documentary “Fail State,” and the festival’s four-day screenwriters conference will corral the likes of Kenneth Lonergan, David Simon, Michael Arndt, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Gale Anne Hurd, Misha Green, Noah Hawley and Lindsay Doran.

Yet for festival executive director and founder Barbara Morgan, perhaps the biggest get is writer-director Walter Hill, who will be in town to present his cult-classic “The Warriors,” while frequent fest guest Shane Black will host a retrospective of “Predator.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s a theme, but with Keenen Ivory Wayans and Walter Hill and Shane Black and some of the people who were clearly influenced by them, that crazy 1970s-’80s world of cinema is certainly represented heavily this year,” she says.

Founded in 1994, the Austin Film Festival has long maintained a screenwriting competition, and this year, a previous winner will return to screen his first feature, whose screenplay was first acknowledged by the fest in 2013: Pat Mills’ “Don’t Talk to Irene,” which premiered at last month’s Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

“This has happened quite a few times, and it feels great,” Morgan says. “We got roughly 10,000 screenplays submitted this year, and in 2013, we probably had 7,500 or 8,000, so it’s really cool to be able to know that we actually recognized something that was good, and it’s heartening to think that the process does, to some extent, work.

“That’s what we do, it’s what we’re about.”

The festival expanded into television back in the late-’90s — “we had David Chase here when ‘The Sopranos’ first came out, back when film writers wanted nothing to do with TV” — and has since broadened further into other emerging types of digital media, as have most festivals. An intriguing new wrinkle at AFF this year, however, is a competition for narrative-fiction podcasts, part of what Morgan describes as the fest’s mission to “represent all forms of storytelling that people can consume outside of books.”

Yet Morgan insists that no matter what changes might come down the pike, the focus has to remain on the writer, and she strives to keep up the fest’s egalitarian vibe, where VIP treatment is verboten and young aspirants can freely mingle with established names at the Driskill Hotel bar after the day’s panels.

“Over the last 24 years there have been times where people have encouraged us to stray into other areas for a variety of reasons, and we didn’t, mainly because the feedback we got was that the writers who came loved that it felt like summer camp,” she says. “They loved that we didn’t care whether somebody was a star. That it could just come and share their ideas and their stories and not feel like they’re getting judged. That’s really what, each year, we try to boil down even more.”

AFF predated many of the institutions that have come to represent film culture in Austin, some of which have come under fire due to sexual misconduct scandals in recent months, from the Alamo Drafthouse and its attendant Fantastic Fest, to Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News. While Morgan acknowledges the scandals have affected the city’s filmmaking culture, she sees Austin quickly rising above them.

“I think everybody still looks at this as a small town, but it’s not anymore,” she says. “And this problem doesn’t just exist in film, it’s everywhere. Before I was in film, I saw it in the finance industry, it’s ubiquitous. So I really don’t think it’s something that’s endemic to a certain group here, and I don’t think that’s the way people in Austin look at it. It’s a crazy town, and an open culture of people who just want to make film and be involved in the creative arts. I don’t see it as something that’s going to hurt the community, and if anything makes people look at themselves more introspectively, that’s a good thing.”

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