You might call it the storytellers’ festival.
The 26th edition of the Austin Film Festival, which runs Oct. 24-31, is known for its focus on screenwriters at all levels of success. As the form of the film world continues to expand, the festival week is a beehive of activity.
Festival staff points out that over the last decade, screenwriters moving between mediums — indie movies, streaming services, podcasts, TV, stage plays and so forth — has become an increasingly important part of the industry. A Saturday conference at this year’s fest titled "New Media Track" focuses on this topic.
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"We’re really trying to expand our overall programming spectrum," says festival senior program director Casey Baron. "Folks certainly know us for highlighting a lot of high-caliber narrative storytelling films, and we certainly still have that this year, a variety of facets from short films to feature films, as well as marquee titles. But this year, we have a lot more genre content."
In the psychological horror genre: "Rattlesnake," from Australian writer and director Zak Hilditch, premieres at the festival Oct. 24, a day before its release on Netflix. Genre films are "something our audience isn’t used to seeing from us," Baron says. "The proliferation of avenues folks have to share their content is another thing that is aiding in this burst of content in the industry.
"Everyone has a podcast that they want to turn into a series or a feature," he adds. "Or in some cases, that podcast, the original idea of it, was a series or a feature and (due to) financial constraints, for a lot of creators it was more convenient to take it to the podcast realm. Just look at the success of ‘Limetown.’ Even going back four or five years ago, when we started our digital series competition through our film department, web series were certainly starting to gain a lot of momentum, but they’ve only skyrocketed ever since."
One point of interest is a 20th-anniversary screening of "The Blair Witch Project" (yes, it’s been that long) with co-writer and co-director Daniel Myrick in attendance, followed the next day by the world premiere of Myrick’s new film, "Skyman," about UFOs and alien abduction. When "Blair Witch" first came out, it was widely noted for innovation, but these days it seems like every other creator is making something analogous, often on a shoestring budget that new technologies sometimes allow for.
"I would say Daniel Myrick is one of those, along with his co-writer/director (Eduardo Sánchez), who helped usher in this new age of filmmakers (using) all these different techniques and ideas," Baron says, "but it really is effective and emotional storytelling that grabs ahold of an audience. I think that’s still the most important thing. Through our competition, we see people who make films across a wide spectrum of budget options, but at the end of the day the films we end up gravitating towards are those with the stronger stories, stronger narratives."
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As usual, there are plenty of Texas connections at Austin Film Festival. "Waves," written and directed by Houston native Trey Edward Shults (who will be at the festival), won raves at the recent Telluride Film Festival. "Yellow Rose," set in Austin, depicts a Filipino family fighting deportation by ICE; it stars Lea Salonga and features Austin musician Dale Watson. Austinite Terrence Malick’s newest film, "A Hidden Life," tells the story of an Austrian conscientious objector during World War II who was later beatified by the Catholic Church. "Just Mercy," which screens on the festival’s closing night, was co-written by Andrew Lanham, a graduate of the University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers and a previous Austin Film Festival awardee. And the documentary "Cowboys," co-directed and co-produced by Austin photographer (and ex-cowboy) John Langmore, examines the lives of modern working cowboys on large cattle ranches across ten Western states.
The festival isn’t shying away from heavy and/or controversial topics this year. Police violence and racial issues meet "Groundhog Day" in the opening night film, "The Obituary of Tunde Johnson," a time-loop fantasy involving a closeted Nigerian American teenage boy who is shot to death by police at the end of an eventful day, which he’s forced to relive over and over. "The Report," starring Adam Driver, Annette Bening and Jon Hamm, is a political thriller based on a real-life investigation into the CIA and post-9/11 torture. "The Witness," originally released in Europe in 2016 and making its North American premiere, is another kind of political thriller from Macedonian director Mitko Panov, about the quest for a witness against a Balkan war criminal.
Other screenings of note: "Motherless Brooklyn," a 1950s noir-crime drama and a passion project of Edward Norton; "Marriage Story," the buzzed-about Noah Baumbach film starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson; and "Harriet," Kasi Lemmons’ biopic of Harriet Tubman starring Cynthia Erivo. And director/screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan ("Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Empire Strikes Back," "The Big Chill," etc.) stops by for a chat Oct. 26; he and his wife, the actress/writer Meg Kasdan, are premiering a short film, "Last Week at Ed’s," about the closing of a venerable West Hollywood diner.
Check the full slate of films for 2019 at austinfilmfestival.com.