The venerable Austin Screenwriting Conference and Film Festival makes its return to the Driskill, the Paramount and various theatre spread throughout Austin this weekend and beyond (October 23rd-30th). This industry institution stepping into its third decade boasts an unheard of collection of Hollywood insiders who descend upon the capital city to share war stories and craft tips for a legion of hungry screenwriters from all over the world (I met one from Australia a few years ago). Also, they show movies. Let me state the obvious first, there is absolutely no way for me to write a completely unbiased preview of this festival, I’ve been going to the festival since 2003 (longer than everyone on staff there save the founder) and for the last two years served as the Director of Programming. I love the festival down to the depth of my soul; I’ve screened films there, been a semi-finalist in the screenplay competition, a finalist in the pitch competition, and a reader for the competition under three different directors. I’m probably going to hold it to a much higher standard than is fair, but that’s only because I know what it is capable of.
Any discussion of the Austin Screenwriting Conference and Film Festival would be remiss to mention the amazing conference that covers every facet of the industry from brainstorming your idea to crowdfunding your release. Erin Hallagan, former Conference Director now Artistic Director, has for the third straight year brought together an unbelievable assembly of screenwriters and producers and people on the fringe of the industry to create basically a mini-film school for screenwriters. Returning are sessions like Script-to-Screen, where panelists take apart a classic film and discuss its importance to writers and filmmakers using specific scenes from the film, and several Conversations, where a filmmaker talks in depth about their career but also their beliefs about the writing and filmmaking process. Script-to-Screens include CONTAGION (dangerously timely right now) and GROUNDHOG DAY, possibly the greatest comedy of all time. Conversations include Cary Fukunaga, a hot item after True Detective has reached near universal acclaim, and Whit Stillman, who modernized the old Comedy of Manners with a trio of films in the 80s/90s and can possibly be called a patron saint of mumblecore. Stillman returned a few years ago with the excellent DAMSELS IN DISTRESS and has a new project in the works with Amazon Studios, The Cosmopolitans. There are sessions about agents, about managers, about contracts, about the writer’s room, and about ‘Writing Relatable Space Raccoons.’ There is also an Independent Filmmaking Track with sessions such as Directing Your Own Script, Marketing & Distribution and the Writer/Director/Actor Relationship. These panels often feature filmmakers actually showing films at the festival, so their experience can be a little more useful to attendees rather than hearing about RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, an experience you only get after working in the industry for ten years. In fact, that’s always my biggest issue with the conference, and it has more to do with the attendee than the offerings. This is not a comic-con experience where you are trying to get a script signed by your favorite screenwriter (people do this, but it’s a waste of energy). You know where you are in your career, so select the sessions that will be the most helpful to reaching that next stage. A vast majority of attendees are going to get more out of “Keeping the Reader’s Attention: The Gatekeepers” than “The Ten Hour Movie: Anthology Television.” The Producer’s Badge will set you back a giant chunk of change but if you don’t care about going to the over-crowded parties where you can barely move, then grab the cheaper Conference Badge, which also puts you in the first line to see films. Even the Weekend Badge (less than half the price of the Producer’s Badge) gets you into all the Saturday and Sunday panels, which include plenty of the best ones. You even get a few parties with both.
Over the years, the festival has been known to show a number of films that end up competing in the next Oscar race. In 2012, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK took home the Audience Award then swept the Oscars. Last year screenings included 12 YEARS A SLAVE, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, NEBRASKA, PHILOMENA, and DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. It’s of course hard to predict which films are going to be contenders this early, but there a few you might check out (THE IMITATION GAME being my top bet). Both THE HUMBLING and THE LAST FIVE YEARS are films I thought would play well at the festival, so it’s great to see them in the mix. In addition, the festival is awarding Edward Zwick the Excellence in Filmmaking award, which I also suggested, and his PAWN SACRIFICE is notably absent in the line-up, could this be the just announced mystery screening for Friday night? I hope so; it would be a shame to have Zwick without his film, something that happened last year when Jonathan Demme came and a work-in-progress screening of his FEAR OF FALLING was announced and then disappeared before the festival (my lips are sealed). In general, the Marquee Schedule (mostly playing the Paramount but some next door at the State) looks solid, but absent of stars. No Al Pacino, Ana Kendrick, Reese Witherspoon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Benicio Del Toro, or even James Franco. I realize that that goal of the festival is that the writer is the star, but usually there is someone whose face people recognize for at least one screening a day.
Another thing noticeably down this year are World Premieres. Whereas last year’s festival boasted a record 28 World Premieres, this year, according to press releases, clocks in at 15. Part of this may be that there just seem to be fewer films in general, as several venues, especially in the second half of the week, are only showing one screening when last year they showed two or even three. One thing I’m particularly disappointed to see is the loss of last year’s Write/Rec section, a collection of films (7 of 8 that made their World Premiere at the festival) that emphasized story over budget and represented some of the most adventurous and fresh filmmaking in the festival. In fact, there seems to be a movement this year away from taking chances on new filmmakers and instead programming more retrospectives or television previews or films that already have distribution lined up or a clear path to it. I honestly had a difficult time putting together 10 non-marquee, non-retrospective films I was excited about seeing, which is just another way of saying maybe this year’s schedule is not aiming for my demographic in the way SXSW and Fantastic Fest does. If the line-up feels different than the last few years, it is not surprising as none of the film programmers from last year are back. In addition, much of the screening team from the last few years (the so-called gatekeepers for submissions) were not brought back (I still talk to most of them), so it seems like there was a concerted effort to move in a new direction. As a fan of the festival’s programming going back to Kelly Williams and David Gill and Stephen Jannise, this year seems markedly different in tone, so it will interesting to see if this is a dramatic rebranding or a submission-driven anomaly. Anyway, there is a still lot to discover at the festival, even if you only have a film pass. When you put together your schedule for the Austin Screenwriting Conference and Film Festival, I encourage you to seek out some of the smaller films and support indie filmmaking. As one of the most important regional festivals in the country, Austin’s stalwart conference and film festival often serves as the leaping off place for many new films. Last year, seven films received distribution within a week of the festival.
Can’t miss picks for the 21st Austin Screenwriting Conference and Film Festival:
DAWN PATROL (10/25 7pm) For the second year in a row the festival gets the opportunity to world premiere a film that started its journey to screen in the screenplay competition. The one-of-kind nice guy/shrewd director Daniel Petrie Jr. (writer, BEVERLY HILLS COP, writer/director TOY SOLDIERS) brings together a cast that includes Scott Eastwood, Rita Wilson, and Jeff Fahey. The follows a surfer-turned-marine (Eastwood) trying to stall his execution by retelling his tragic revenge-gone-wrong story. Petrie and Rick Dugdale produced the film for Enderby Entertainment, their production company that sponsors one of the screenplay competitions, and they discovered this Rachel Long/Brian Pittman script in 2008. Even though this film is playing at the Paramount, it stands out from the rest of the films that normally grace that screen. This is a true success story, and like last year’s CAVEMEN and COFFEE, KILL BOSS, it’s great to see the film make its debut ‘where it all began’ for the screenwriters.
ROSEWATER (10/30 8:30pm) Daily Show’s Jon Stewart makes his directorial (and scriptorial) debut with a film adapted from the New York Times best-selling memoir Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival, written by the BBC journalist Maziar Bahari (who will also be in attendance). Stewart’s film premiered last month at TIFF and reactions were mixed as to whether it was a comedy or a drama, but in general extremely positive. With Stewart hosting a week of shows over at the Zach Scott, you can expect this one to be a hot ticket. However, remember, the paramount has 1100 seats, so even if the line wraps around the block and back a few, you are still more than likely to get in. This goes for all Paramount Screenings, don’t be discouraged by long lines. Last year there was one Paramount sell-out, the year before none, despite what looked like endless lines. Soldier on and see this film with one of the few celebrities that actually matter.
MORPHINE: JOURNEY OF DREAMS (10/25 9:45pm 10/29 7:15pm) One of the most underrated bands of all time, Morphine blended saxophone, drums, bass and beat poetry-esque lyrics into one of the most original sounds in rock, a sort of slacker jazz. The band provided the soundtrack for one of the great indie movies of all time, Spanking the Monkey, and just when they appeared to be on the brink of breaking, the band met a sudden and tragic end. The film makes its world premiere at the fest with band members and managers in attendance. Music docs are normally the fare of SXSW so expect this one to be especially narratively driven and expect some amazing music.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE presented by Matthew Weiner (10/24, 1:00pm) Of all the retrospectives the festival is offering this year, this is the one that I would not miss. First of all, filmmakers often talkmore freely about films they love rather than their own work, plus this is a rare opportunity to see one of the greatest television shows of all time blown up on the big screen. Weiner, being honored at the fest for his television work and who follows this screening up with a Mad Men screening, has selected “It’s A Good Life” & “A Stop At Willoughby.” First season episode Willoughby is about (surprise!) an ad exec, who falls asleep on his daily commute and wakes up back in 1888, away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Third season episode Good Life involves another town cut off from the real world, Peaksville. In this case, a six-year-old boy holds the town hostage. No one knows if the rest of the world even still exists or if they are just removed from it. All they know is that if they displease the boy they will find themselves in a cornfield from which there is no return. Two tickets to the Twilight Zone, with Matthew Weiner as your tour guide.
Set up shop at the Hideout and catch some shorts programs. Honestly, the most creative filmmaking at most fests is being done by shorts filmmakers where they can examine a dangerous topic in depth without tiring out the audience. And hold your breath, if you hate a film, it’ll be over soon and you’ll have an entirely different film to watch. I’ve found the schedule online extremely difficult to navigate from film to film, but be sure not to miss THIS IS NORMAL, which I saw at Phoenix and is one of the best shorts I’ve seen this festival cycle. The film plays in program 5 (10/26 5:00pm, 10/28 2:30pm) with UNDER from writer/director Dean Loxton, who did one of my favorite shorts I got to program back in 2012. The programs seem to be structured by theme rather than genre, which I love, although animation and documentary shorts get ‘quarantined.’ Also one program is Texas Shorts, which I’d expect to be pretty packed with friends and family.
THE LIVING (10/25 8:30pm, 10/30 9:30pm) Part of the Dark Matters section, this thriller from writer/director Jack Bryan comes to Austin after heavy praise from screenings ar Las Vegas Film Festival, Manhattan Film Festival, Tallgrass Film Festival and Woods Hole Film Festival. Structured as two separate, but interlinking stories – one a quest for redemption and the other a self-corrupting voyage – The Living begins as Teddy awakens from a blackout only to discover he has severely beaten his wife. As he tries to win her back, her brother is busy hiring an ex-con to kill Teddy. In a ballsy interview (and I love ballsy), Bryan told Film Fatale Magazine “every two years or so a project comes out that kind of redefines what can be done on a low budget, and this is going to be that film.” I hope so.
LISTOPAD (10/24 6:00pm, 10/26 5:30pm) Making its World Premiere at the festival is this Czech Republic/USA co-production from writer/director Gary Keith Griffin about an unlikely trio of friends – an artist, a music trader, and a hockey player – in communist Czechoslovakia. Drinking beer, chasing girls, and listening to underground music, their desire for freedom binds them together as they face the world as they’ve known it crumbling around them. Relative newcomer to Austin, producer Jeffery Brown has certainly wasted no time becoming an important part of the local film scene, having screened doc PUNK IN AFRICA at Austin in 2012 and doc NO NO: A DOCKUMENTARY at SXSW this year, both of which he produced. By the way Jeffrey Radice’s NO NO is out on VOD now. Have you seen it? What are you waiting for? My article from SXSW.
BLACK MOUNTAIN SIDE (10/26 9:30pm, 10/29 10:00pm) Another Dark Matters selection, this paranoid Canadian horror flick that premiered at Fantasia this summer makes its US premiere at Austin. The film follows a group of archaeologists after they uncover a strange structure in Northern Canada, dating over ten thousand years before the present. The team finds themselves isolated when their communication systems fail and it is not long before they begin to feel the effects of the solitude. The film received a glowing review from Bloody-Disgusting.com which makes this a surprising entry in the festival’s line-up. For more gore, you can always head over to Housecore Horror Film Festival, playing simultaneously.
THE HISTORY OF TIME TRAVEL (10/25 3:15pm, 10/29 4:00pm) Not a documentary at all, but a clever feature about a history in which the subjects can go back and rewrite the facts as it moves along. Writer/director Ricky Kennedy made this film as a graduate thesis project at Stephen F. Austin State University imagining a world where Russia is able to develop a machine allowing them to travel back to the 1950s and win the space race. The film appears to have already played a couple of tiny festivals (Florida SuperCon, Roswell CosmicCon) but makes its Texas premiere here. Of course, I’m totally biased on this one, I do run a SciFi festival after all, but this one I wouldn’t miss to see if he can pull off the crazy hook. File under: sure to make my head hurt.
FLUTTER (10/25 7:00pm, 10/28 4:00pm) I will admit that it’s sort of strange the festival is playing this one as it not only played Dallas in April, but also screened already in Austin (twice – once as a narratives-in-progress with Austin Film Society, and once as part of the Texas Spotlight Film Series at the Violet Crown in May). HOWEVER, it still looks like an amazing film and lead Lindsay Pulsipher (who you may recognize from True Blood, Justified or Hatfields & McCoys) is one of the best actresses working today that you don’t already know. Get to know her in this drama about a single, poverty-stricken mother forced to care for her nine-year-old son on the verge of blindness by growing her own hydroponic weed, cooking it into brownies and feeding them to him in secret. The Grand Prize Jury Winner at Dallas, Flutter promises to be one of the more unforgiving films of the festival, a flat-out indie drama. Writer/director Eric Hueber and Pulsipher will both be in attendance at the screenings.
Follow my on Twitter @bearsfonte for my reactions to screenings at Austin and Housecore Horror Film Festival this week!