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Along For the Ride: Year 3 at the Austin Film Festival

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October 26, 2012 by Steven

My AFF Bag-o-Swag!

My AFF Bag-o-Swag!

I’ll never forget the first time I attended the Austin Film Festival; the premier festival for writers in the United States. It reminded me a lot of the first time I visited Los Angeles. I was starry-eyed and in a euphoric buzz from start to finish. I wanted it all and I wanted to juice every moment to the last drop. I rushed to every panel, emptied three pens taking notes, watched every film I could get in line for, and spent every night at one party or mixer or another. I was finally in a place that would open doors; a gathering of people who proved that you could make a living as a writer.

It’s been three years and two Austin Film Festivals since. As B.B. King once said “the thrill is gone.”

But that is by no fault of the festival. I know it’s mostly my own fault. Mostly.

At AFF 2012 I had exactly zero more scripts under my belt than I did at AFF 2011. I had not finished a project in a year, and I had certainly done very little to advance my career as a screenwriter. Yes, I got married. Yes, I have a salaried job that takes most of my time. Yes, I have a long list of valid excuses and a year is hardly a reasonable amount of time for one to expect their “big break.” But at the end of the day I did choose to neglect writing in favor of many things, some worthy and some unworthy.

Writing is very much akin to rubbing sticks together. There is some technique involved, but what is most important is time spent with one stick in motion with the other. At a festival with five thousand people all hoping to make fire, the ones who have spent more time at practice will have much more heat behind them than someone who spent the last moments in a mad dash to get their sticks together. Just a spark is nice, but no one in the fire market will be impressed with a spark.

So when Liz and I approached this year’s Austin Film Festival, we did it with a much different approach than the giddy lad who scurried through the historic Driskill hotel three years earlier. We were no longer just going in the hopes that I would be discovered. We were going under the assumption that I was not. Harsh, but all play and no work makes Johnny a hard sell.

Once I accepted that I was there as a member of the audience and not a competitor, the whole game changed. We could choose our panels based on interest rather than potential use. We spent more time in films than last year. We also spent a good deal of time just wandering around downtown Austin. All in all, we maybe ended up attending 60% of the festival that we had originally hoped for. We missed some of the panels we were most excited about and even some of the exclusive parties and events that were a privilege of our all-access pass.

Then why does it feel like this might have been the best festival yet?

When an aspiring anything has the chance to go to a place where people are professionally doing what they aspire to do, there is a great deal of pressure. There is always that dream in the back of your mind that you’ll be one of those stories, one of the special few who have a chance encounter with someone who will give you that push to the top. You hope that every time you hand your card to someone they will hand it to the President of Show Business and you’ll win at everything forever!

But let’s face the numbers. There are thousands of people there, all exactly like you, all hoping to make that one key connection. There are “gatekeepers” there, agents and producers who might hold the key to your success, but they can be counted without needing more than one digit. Even among the panelists there are only two categories: 1. those who are old-guard, wise and romantic about the journey, but who fell from their prime decades ago, or 2. those who are new-guard, who are still fighting to keep their career on track in the tumultuous world of media and would much rather be at work then having to pretend they have much advice to give since they themselves aren’t very far in their own journey. They have stories and the occasional nugget of generalist wisdom, but none hold the key to success.

There are still plenty of winners at the festival, even among those who didn’t take first prize. Finalists in both the writing and pitch contests were given a large platform to present their ideas to interested parties. Even those who made the semi-finals had exclusive panels on how to specifically get in the door. Writers could meet with filmmakers who were there to promote their films and join to work on projects. There might even have been the lucky few who managed to schmooze their names into the ears of the right person, given the golden handshake and opened a door to fame and fortune.

But for us, this was the year of practicality. We could hope and dream, but while we were there our time would be better spent seeing some movies and meeting other like-minded folks.

And according to Liz, that was what she took away from the festival. Yes, it’s important to know how to talk to agents and managers, know how the system in LA works and what directors are hot or not. But it’s more important to make connections to your peers, to people at your age and stage. Ten years down the line, your friend who was an assistant might be a studio executive. Someone who you toss ideas with today might be someone who might be working for someone looking for such ideas down the road.

For the past two years I recall rushing from place to place and my futile effort to “work the room” at the crowded parties and panels. This year I remember sitting at Easy Tiger and sharing a drink in the lovely weather before we headed to see Hyde Park on Hudson. I remember getting a great bit of advice from Scott Z Burns about writing intrigue. I remember chatting with Boston writer Philip Landau about how his kids were getting into Buffy as we walked from the Texas History Museum across the Capital grounds back to the Paramount. I remember coming out of It’s a Disaster, a hilarious film made by a group of UT and TSTV alumni and then skipping the party that night so we could share a pint with an old classmate who was at TSTV during my time there. I remember getting home at 9pm one night and 2am another and both days having been equally satisfying.

The Austin Film Festival is still the best bet for emerging writers, but unless you’ve spent the better part of the previous year positioning yourself effectively then you would be best served just enjoying yourself. You might get your big break, but if that’s all you’re after you might end up passing up a chance to make a real connection to someone who could be more than just a contact.

Remember the Tao of Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

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