Austin Film Festival Shines a Spotlight on Screenwriters

It’s wild to think that someone who had never attended a film festival went on to create a fest that has held over two decades of screenings. That someone happens to be Barbara Morgan, founder of the Austin Film Festival. She recalls the surge of production happening in the Austin, Texas, area in the early 1990s, but noticed there was no showcase for all the work being made. Morgan says she saw a void in the market and wanted the creators to be heard.

“There’s a lot of film happening here, a lot of film being shot here, a lot of people coming through, there was an actual industry made for TV and movies,” Morgan says. “So there was always production going on in this town. We had what seemed like all the elements of great creative culture and people who loved film.”

Morgan describes what she saw as a lack of “content for the indie world,” so she helped corral screenwriters from the Austin area and took action. Now, more than two decades later, the 23rd annual AFF will be held Oct. 13-20, in addition to a four-day conference featuring 200 panels of screenwriters talking about writing and craft for film, television, and webisodes.

Being in such a small town back then made it easy to get acquainted with other advocates for the festival. Morgan’s idea was eventually pitched to Texas’ film-loving governor, Ann Richards, who jumped behind the project. What came to set the Austin fest apart was the number of screenwriters who are invited and showcased, something that isn’t frequent at other film festivals. Morgan says screenwriters weren’t getting the recognition they deserved, so when they were given the opportunity they leaped behind it.

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“The first year I think we had five or six Academy Award-winning writers,” Morgan says, recalling such luminaries as Kurt Luedtke (“Out of Africa”) and Robert Towne (“Chinatown”) being in attendance.

Since the film festival focuses on writers, Morgan says when the idea was being conceptualized they didn’t want any areas off-limit or VIP only. For her it was important for the crowds to be able to mix and mingle, and the screenwriters were happy to share the nuances about their work. Morgan describes them as “doers of television before it was cool.”

“They’re actually the people who have the ideas and are articulate and smart and funny. They are the people that write the funny dialogue, not the people who say the funny dialogue. They’re really inspiring. It’s rejuvenating every year being around so many of them because they’re just people who are electric with ideas.”

Calling it the “summer-camp for writers,” the Austin fest is a place for writers to come together and share ideas and stories, and be inspired by other scribes. Morgan says the culture of the event requires attendees to leave any egos at the door and come with an open-mind. The festival usually goes without a particular theme, but this year’s line-up is heavily weighted toward comedy.

Some of the standout screenings that have gained recognition from other festivals include Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land”; Alastair Siddons’ “Trespass Against Us,” ; and the upcoming “Wakefield” starring Jennifer Garner and Bryan Cranston, written by Robin Swincord. Producer Frank Marshall and director Ryan Suffern will have their documentary “Finding Oscar” screened as well.

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