See You At The Driskill: A Look At The Austin Film Festival

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Sorry it’s been a while with a written blog dear reader but I’ve been too busy interviewing industry professionals for your listening pleasure. Thanks again to everyone who’s listened, shared and spread the word about the podcast. It’s very much appreciated and as long as people are tuning in, I’m going to keep recording.

The next two week’s shows are scheduled despite the fact that I’ll be taking a trip to the most liberal part of the Lone Star state for arguably the best festival for screenwriters in the country. How liberal is Austin? There are streets where it’s legal for women to be topless in public. For real. I think you can figure out how I found that out.

Don’t get excited, this blog isn’t about public displays of bosom. Get excited, this blog is about the Austin Film Festival. Now, it’s not meant to be a foolproof guide and I don’t claim to know everything about the festival. I should also point out this blog is not authorized or under the auspices by the AFF, it’s just me talking about it. Last year, I was fortunate enough to place 2 of my scripts into the Second Round of the 2013 Festival and it was an amazing, even career-changing experience. It was also the Festival that validated me as a writer and industry professional in ways I didn’t realize.

The AFF opened my eyes to new ways of looking at writing. This blog and podcast are actually the direct result from a panel with “You’re The Worst” (GREAT show) showrunner and writer extraordinaire Stephen Falk. I met some people whom I like, admire and look forward to years of friendship with. I got to shake hands with some great writers who wrote some of my favorite movies. I even get a tutorial on Westerns from this gentleman:

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With the festival coming up next week, I figured this was a good time to share some do’s & don’ts I learned from my experiences last year.  Take all this with a grain of salt but I dare say these are some pertinent suggestions from myself and others.

FOR THOSE TRAVELING:

The Festival can actually start before you get to Austin. Last year for me it started on the plane as my slumber was awakened by folks in neighboring seats talking about the movies they were showing at the Festival. An hour of friendly conversation later, business cards were exchanged and the networking was underway – 35,000 above Arizona.

Don’t accost people in the airport of course but chances are you’re flying with fellow festival goers. And they’re probably just as scared and nervous of the festival as you are. After all, we wouldn’t be writers if we were great with people. If the opportunity presents itself to talk to folks, take it. The filmmakers I spoke to on the plane (unless they read this) have no idea how much they put me at ease. It was a relief to meet folks who were excited, friendly and nice while still in the air. My nervousness about the festival went way down.

(More on those films at the bottom of the page. They’re great, check ’em out)

THAT MAGIC AGENT

Speaking of nerves, if you’re a 2nd Rounder or above, the spotlight is a bit on you. You’re now a recognized writer and hopefully at the festival you’ll meet that one agent or manager who can open all of Hollywood’s doors for you to finally make it as a professional screenwriter. Only one problem – that person doesn’t exist. There is no agent or manager who can magically do that. Sorry. Keep reading though and keep writing because there’s actually better (if slower) solutions.

Ed Solomon, the screenwriter of “Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure”, “Men In Black” among many others, brought this home in the very first panel I went to. He was at the very first AFF and reminded us all it’s not about finding the agent who will help you leapfrog above everyone else. It’s actually about meeting everyone else, working with them, making connections with other creative people to ultimately improve your craft and become the hot commodity that all the managers and agents chase. I can’t remember his exact words but he was almost like a football coach telling us how to play the game right and smart as opposed to just rushing the field, trying to kill the other team.

As screenwriters, we’re in competition for jobs and work sure, but we’re all in it together. We’re all on the same team.

TALK TO EVERYONE

Talk to everyone. Everyone. Every. One. Talk to directors. Talk to filmmakers. Talk to writers who write the same stuff. Talk to writers who write different stuff. Talk to writers who’ve written 30 scripts. Talk to writers who’ve not even finished their first screenplay. Make sure you say Thank You to the staff who are working tirelessly to make this happen and love movies as much as we do. Talk to everyone. 

No, that magic agent isn’t there. Probably isn’t there 😉 But that long lost writing soulmate might be. The Paul Schrader to your Martin Scorsese. The Larry David to your Jerry Seinfeld. The Stone Cold Steve Austin to your Vince McMahon may be standing next to you in line.  Talk to them.

If you talk to someone and you don’t like each other or it’s awkward, who cares? Wasn’t meant to be. Move on.

For many folks outside of LA, it’s hard to find other writers or people who understand the life & struggles of screenwriter. The AFF is your chance to be in the room with like minded people. Talk to them.

I collected something like 160 business cards last year. For real. I counted. I handed out well over 250. Again, I counted. You’re not going to stay in touch with everyone. Just the way it is. And not everyone is going to stay in touch with you. Life happens. (Stupid life) But you will strike up real connections and friendships the wider net you cast.

I’ve probably stayed in touch with about two dozen or so people from last year’s AFF. Over the past year, they’ve been friends and colleagues and we’ve helped each other stay sane in the good fight of screenwriting. This year, we’ve already get plans to reunite and catch up at some of the events.

DON’T GET MAD ABOUT THE LINES

One of the bad news about Austin is there’s a fair amount of lines. Lines to get into the big panels with the wicked famous guests, lines to get into the movies, lines at the BBQ. Lines. Lines. Lines.

Here’s the good news. Lines are a great place to meet people. Some of the best conversations I had last year were in lines. No one likes lines. Everyone’s exhausted. Everyone is a writer. Ice is broken. Get talking. About your favorite movies, about your favorite scripts, about your favorite BBQ joint you’ve found. If the person you try talking to is unreceptive. No worries. There are THOUSANDS of other writers to meet and connect with. But lines in Austin are not an annoyance, they are an opportunity.

FIRST DATE BEHAVIOR

My friend and colleague Stephen Scaia used this line to describe the festival to me. He won the festival overall a few years back and on next week’s show talks about how that launched his career.

What does this mean? Be yourself, be cool and comfortable but remember you are trying to make a good impression. I have a T-shirt collection that is such that I could wear a different T-Shirt every day of the year. I only wore T’s on my travel days. The rest of the time, button downs and suits. In other words, what I would wear to a meeting or interview.

In some ways the festival is one giant meeting. Yes, it’s wicked fun but it’s also intensive. For screenwriters, the AFF is like graduate writing programme crammed into a weekend. You’re doing panels, taking notes, sitting under the learning tree all day long. (Some days, yeah no lunch – eat later or bring a granola bar to munch on during lines.)  You’re going to be getting schooled by award-winning screenwriters, directors and producers. The very best in our field is going to be at the front of the room telling us what’s what. Dress accordingly.

IT’S OK TO BE A GOOD WRITER

Promote yourself. It’s OK. Doesn’t mean you should walk around handing out your script but it’s OK to tell people that you are in fact not just a writer, but a good one. We get so self-conscious about our writing, don’t we? It’s actually easier for us to promote other writers as opposed to ourselves sometimes. Pretend you are another writer. Be confident in the work you are doing. You are telling a story. People out there want to hear it.

AFF validated me more than I can say. You will hear professional writers talk about the same problems you face when writing. Listen to their process and how to solve some of those problems. Sure, they may be running shows on TV and may have written 50 movies. But in Austin, they’re not on the mountaintop. They’re side by side with you and they’re there to tell you to “Keep Writing.”

Chances are as you listen to them describe their struggles and problems, they will be sending you the message that you are in fact, doing it right.

DON’T BE THAT GUY

Don’t hog all the questions during one of the roundtables. At the roundtables, you may only get 20 minutes with one of the industry pro’s. Don’t do all the talking so that no one else gets in. I had to block some guy last year who asked like 20 questions and  kept cutting off someone else who had only 1.

Don’t hog all the time with one of the big celebrities. There’s a fair amount of accessibility at the AFF. Some of the celebrities are happy to talk to everyone. But don’t hog all their time and not let anyone else in. It’s rude, it’s ugly and it’s unprofessional. Here’s the other thing. If you really are truly making a connection with that celebrity and they want to work with you and hire you, that’s all the more reason to get out of the way. You’ll get to talk to them all year. Some of us may only get a few minutes at the BBQ or in the bar. It’s a lot more impressive to be gracious and generous than snobby and inconsiderate.

Unfortunately, even at the best events with great people, it happens. Don’t be that guy.

THE FILM & FOOD PARTY

DO IT!  Oh my God. Sooooo Good.  There’s a sampling from a ton of Austin restaurants. So yeah, you get to walk around talking movies with folks while professional chefs shove lobster mac & cheese, smoked salmon and authentic Texas BBQ at you.

Honestly, I can’t imagine going to AFF and not going to this event. And fortunately, the actual festival starts in earnest at noon the next day so don’t worry, have another glass of wine.

LET’S TALK ABOUT DRINKING

We’re all adults and I’m not trying to lecture. There’s a lot of meeting, chatting, networking that happens at the parties and in the bars. And if you’re like me, you like a glass of beer. By all means, imbibe but bear in mind this is still a professional event. Share a beer with your favorite writer. Don’t get frat house drunk and puke on his shoes. Don’t be remembered for all the wrong reasons. A few people last year got the wrong kind of drunk at a few of the parties. Trust me, people notice. Have some beers. Don’t have all of them.

GET SOME BBQ

SERIOUSLY

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DON’T JUDGE

Last year I met some folks who wrote two dozen screenplays. I also met some folks who either hadn’t finished their script or felt their script wasn’t ready for the festival. I actually admired those folks more because they’re taking the time to sit under the learning tree and are striving for excellence.

Some people, though, don’t agree. Megan’s scripts weren’t in the festival last year but she came with me for the experience and the education. Yes, we did run into a few folks who actually looked down on her for assuming she didn’t place. That’s not cool. Festivals are subjective and not the only way one’s writing is endorsed or noticed.

We ran into a guy who ignored Megan but would only talk to me because I was a second rounder. Then a few minutes later he met a finalist and completely ignored me. I consider this “Wrong Festival Etiquette 101.”

Because here’s the thing – this year, Megan is a twice 2nd Rounder. We both have won various contests this past year. And for AFF this year, I’m going with Megan for the experience and education. Just another writer there to enjoy myself. But I know I will bump into at least one person who will think I’m not a qualified writer.

GO TO THE MOVIES

You’ll meet a lot of filmmakers. You probably won’t be able to go to the all of their movies which sucks but there’s only so many hours in the day. But GO. Make sure you see some of the films there. Yes, there’s marquee premieres but with all due respect to the big guns, there’s some real gems in the various competitions. Great stories that studios or more commercial production companies can’t/won’t tell. Also, if you’re thinking of making a short or an independent feature someday, definitely make the time to hit at least movie a night. Take notes at the Q & A. Put the Q in Q & A. Talk to the filmmakers and learn from their mistakes and ingenuity.

And quite frankly, screenwriters, even if you’re not going to direct one day – talking to directors only helps us to look at our scripts in new and inventive ways.

DON’T FORGET TO ENJOY EVERY SECOND

Don’t let any of the above mentioned don’ts affect your good time. Last year I flew back to LA thinking “There was my career before Austin and then there’s my career after Austin.”  What’s happened to me since?

-Completed Three Pilots in the past year.

-One of those pilots won The Chicago Screenplay Contest and The Hollywood Screenplay Contest.

-That same pilot also has ratings of  7,8 & 8 on The Black List. I got an email saying I’m in the top 5%. 

-Also finished a feature script from scratch.

-Launched this blog & podcast.

-The networking skills I learned tripled my contacts.

-Those same networking skills have led to consultation employment in that field.

-I remain unsigned but as I write to you my work is with several management companies with meetings scheduled for the next few weeks.

So, yeah, the Austin Film Festival was very very good for me and if you’ve not entered a script yet, I highly recommend making it the best you possibly can, enter it into the festival and save up for the trip. Because I believe immersing yourself into a weekend with some of the very best screenwriters and filmmakers is worth going whether you place or not. 

And of course, you might want to walk up the street to Gordoughs: http://gourdoughs.com/

Because:  

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Keep your eyes, ears and mind open. Take in all the knowledge from the pros. Learn from people who write different stuff from you. Use everything you see and hear to arm yourself for coming year as you keep writing, keep producing and keep fighting the good fight.

If you are at AFF and would like to meet, I’ll be in the Driskill bar. You can’t miss me, I’ll be the guy with the pens.

For more on the AFF Experience, check out my interview with Mike Sundy:

Thanks to the filmmakers I met on the plane. Check out their great movies:

http://www.findingneighborsmovie.com/

and

http://aleadingman.com/v2/

The Handsome Timmy D Express is proud to be a part of:

The Dan & Travis Show Podcast: An Awesome Thing

http://thedanandtravisshow.libsyn.com/

and 

The Chronic Rift: A series of podcasts that attempt to “find the culture in pop culture.”

http://www.chronicrift.com/

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