This year, the Austin Film Festival turns 25 years old. Those 25 years include hundreds of film screenings and thousands of attendees, directors, screenwriters and producers coming to Austin to yak about the craft of film, especially the screenwriting side.
“After 25 years, it’s still invigorating being in the midst of the creative stew of the festival,” festival executive director Barbara Morgan says. “Writing can be so solitary, so the energy flows when thousands of scribes get together to discuss craft and swap stories of the business. I’ve been pretty lucky to get to share in that experience so many times. Like tiger stripes, each festival is unique. I look forward every year to the jolt of inspiration the event delivers, which propels me forward the rest of the year.”
We asked people who have attended over the years to share some of their favorite memories from the fest; some answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Ed Solomon, writer (HBO’s “Mosaic,” “Men in Black,” “Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure”)
“The first time I’d ever felt as though I had 'made it' as a writer was when I got a call to attend the first annual Austin Heart of Film festival — and not as an attendee, but actually as a panelist. That was the first time I got to meet and hang out with writers of all ages and all levels of experience — many of whom I’d spent my entire life admiring. To me, the best part of the festival is that it contains the entire continuum of the writing experience, and I always leave proud of being part of the writing community. One can look in any direction — backward or forward — and feel inspired.”
Caroline Thompson, writer (“Welcome to Marwen,” “Edward Scissorhands”)
"The luckiest of us in life get at least one ‘pinch me, I’m dreaming’ moment. Mine was receiving the 2011 Distinguished Screenwriter Award at the Austin Film Festival. By far.”
Bill Wittliff, writer (“Lonesome Dove,” “The Black Stallion,” 1996 Distinguished Screenwriter Award recipient, founder of the Wittliff Collections archive at Texas State University)
“Twenty-five years ago, dear Barbara Morgan came a-knocking on my door. She said she wanted to start a film festival here in Austin — but not just any film festival. This one, she said, would celebrate screenwriters and recognize their contribution to the world of filmmaking. I was astonished. There was no such thing like that in all the world at the time — had never been, in fact. Now, thanks to Barb's original vision and her lockjawed determination to bring recognition to the art of screenwriting, there are many. Good for you, Barb — and good for all us screenwriters, too, because of you.”
(At 3 p.m. Oct. 28, Wittliff will discuss the origins of creativity and inspiration during the Heart of the Matter panel — which was the first panel at the first conference.)
Jason Reitman, writer/director (“The Front Runner,” “Up in the Air,” “Juno”)
“One of the great thrills I’ve had as a filmmaker is to see the title of my movie lit up on the Paramount Theatre marquee. The Austin Film Festival has been a part of my life since my short film played back in 2000. It’s a festival of storytellers in a city that thrives on creativity. I can’t help but think about AFF when I make my movies and ask myself, ‘But how will they respond in Austin?’”
(“The Front Runner” is this year’s closing-night film at the festival.)
Brian Helgeland, writer/director (“Legend,” “A Knight’s Tale,” "Payback," “L.A Confidential,” 2015 AFF Distinguished Screenwriter Award recipient)
“The AFF has many charms, one of which is bringing strata of screenwriters — from old to new — together. Writing is a lonely business, but never in Austin in late October.”
John Lee Hancock, writer/director (“The Alamo,” “The Blind Side” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”)
“From my first visit to the Austin Film Festival, I felt at home. Surrounded by storytellers in a setting and arena that not only encouraged us all, but lit creative fires that continued to burn long after we left Austin. After all these years, I still feel the same way.”
Anne Rapp, writer (“Dr. T and the Women,” “Cookie's Fortune”)
“The Austin Film Festival is an adrenaline rush. I’ve been on the advisory board for almost 20 years, and every year when the festival ends I experience the same adrenaline crash that I used to feel at the end of all the movies I worked on as a crew member. Except those movies usually ran for several months, and the festival only runs for a week. The idea that this film festival can pack that much thrill and industry punch into that short amount of time speaks for itself. And as it should be. It should feel like you’ve just been on a movie set. That’s exactly why it works, and why AFF is the best film festival in the universe. Even better than the one on Mars. I hear that one’s weird.”
James V. Hart, writer (“Hook,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “Contact”)
“Barbara has provided so many defining moments for this writer and many like me over my 25-year romance with AFF. I first attended in 1994 ... I found myself sitting onstage at the Paramount with legends, my mentor Frank Pierson, Robert Towne, Bill Wittliff, Mardik Martin and Janet Roach, sharing our experiences with that first AFF-to-be audience. (What) was I doing with these giants in the screen trade onstage at the Paramount? Twenty-five years later I got my answer when I sat in the audience at the Paramount and watched my daughter, Julia, on the same stage introducing her second feature film as writer/director and the mother of our grandson. Thank you, AFF, thank you, Barbara, for including me all these years, and thank you Austin, Texas.”
William Broyles, writer (“Cast Away,” “Apollo 13”)
“AFF is the best film festival in the world, not to mention the most fun. I've been coming since the beginning, and every year I'm blown away by the magic alchemy that happens when Academy Award winners mingle with writers working on their first screenplay. It's a 24-hour master class that recharges my creativity, challenges my assumptions and renews my faith in this crazy business. Every year I meet someone or hear someone or see a film that changes how I write and how I think about film. And every year I thank my lucky stars and Barbara Morgan that I get to come.”
Tyler Russell, writer/director (“Texas Cotton,” “Shilo”)
“AFF is like a supreme pizza; you get everything. Whether you’re a producer (the dough), writer (sauce), director (cheese), an actor (pepperoni), crew (veggies), or a film fanatic (Parmesan cheese), once you put it in your mouth, it somehow, some way all works together.”
Phil Rosenthal, writer/producer (“Everybody Loves Raymond," “Somebody Feed Phil”)
“In 2011, the Austin Film Festival chose my first movie, a documentary called 'Exporting Raymond,' to open the festival that year. There was a big premiere at the glorious Paramount Theatre, with a Q&A after. The setting, the staff, the audience, the response to the movie was overwhelming for me. It remains one of the happiest nights of my life. I’ll always love Austin and especially everyone at AFF.”
Frank Stiefel, director ( “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405”)
"My trip to the Academy Award stage (for 'Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405') began in Austin. AFF was the first festival anywhere to recognize 'Heaven Is. ...' While I’m proud of the film's execution, I was most proud to be honored by a festival that celebrates stories.”
Scott Rosenberg, writer (“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” “Venom,” “Con Air”)
"One splendid October, I happened to be in production on something, shooting in Austin when the circus came to town in the guise of the Austin Film Festival. And I was asked to participate. That was over 10 years ago. And it was revelatory. After that first one, I made it very clear to them that they can have me anytime. Writers are, by their very nature, an odd, wary, truculent bunch. Yet after a few days in Austin, the 'wary' and 'truculent' parts seem to recede, allowing the 'odd' to flourish, leaving all of us with the most important parting gift of all: the inspiration to write our asses off once we get back home."
Pamela Ribon, writer (“Moana,” “Smurfs: The Lost Village,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2”)
"Austin Film Festival is part summer camp, part immersion therapy. It’s as friendly as it is passionate. It’s honest and charming, if a little overwhelming (introverts beware: It’s disarmingly inviting). It will inspire you, challenge you, exhaust you and — depending on the panelist — possibly infuriate you. You will be surrounded in stories and storytellers, methods and processes. You will not get enough sleep, and you truly won’t care until the flight home. You will find yourself in impromptu gatherings, surprise panels, after-parties, secret rooms and midnight deals. You might ride a rickshaw. You will definitely see a bat.
"There’s a lot to take in, from morning through the night. And if you’re the perfect combination of brave and savvy, you can get a phenomenal amount of information and inspiration. You can meet with agents and executives before sharing drinks and advice among peers who struggle with your same frustrations. You'll have brutally honest conversations with staff writers, producers, showrunners and filmmakers about what it's like to do this to and with your life. You can test out a 90-second version of your latest project while getting professional feedback on your pitching skills. It’s loud, it’s nonstop, it’s definitely too much and somehow still not enough. You’ll walk away with new friends, a few good stories and some priceless advice."
(Ribon's short film "Standby" screens as part of "Shorts Program 1: A Lingering Presence" on Oct. 25)
Paul Feig, writer/director (“Freaks and Geeks,” “Spy,” “Bridesmaids,” 2016 Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking recipient)
“The reason I don’t like calling AFF a 'film festival' is because films are only a part of it. They’re an important part, granted, but even though there’s a lot to be learned from sitting and watching other people’s movies, there’s nothing more educational than the good ol’ act of talking to and interacting with other filmmakers.
"The Austin Film Festival gets it. They figured out 20 years ago that discussing writing with working writers and talking about directing with working directors and asking about production with real producers is as good as any film school. To sit in a room with people who are making their livings doing what you hope to do one day is inspiring. It makes everything real. I’m honored to have shown films here, I’m honored to have spoken on its panels, and I’m honored to have let it put me up in the city’s finest hotels. The movie business is a collaboration, whether the auteurs among us want to admit it or not. And the AFF realizes that.”
Nicole Perlman, writer (“Guardians of the Galaxy,” 2019's “Captain Marvel”)
“The fact that AFF attracts top-notch speakers and films should come as no surprise. But what I found refreshing was the quality of the audience. AFF’s attendees span multiple generations, each in varying stages of their careers but united in their desire to hone their craft. Where else can you listen to Norman Lear describe his future writing ambitions (at 93!) while you sit flanked by Oscar-winning writers on one side and film-obsessed high school students on the other?
"One of my favorite things about Austin is that, unlike other world-class film festivals where filmmakers are separated from the audience by velvet ropes, AFF encourages their attendees and speakers to mingle and get to know each other. The festival’s social gatherings are how I’ve come to meet so many of the writers who have gone on to become close friends, mentees and mentors.”
Peter Hedges, writer/director ("Ben Is Back," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?")
"I have so many fond memories from my multiple visits to the Austin Film Festival. One year I loved the festival T-shirt so much I bought multiple shirts in every color and for years wore them to every gym workout that I attended in New York. Then there was the festival where I sat next to Cheryl Hines and shared popcorn while we watched her wonderful film 'Serious Moonlight,' which was written by Adrienne Shelly. I've made lasting friendships with fellow writers that I met at the festival, but my favorite memory goes something like this:
“Some years back I was on two panels. One was a panel with the big guns, very sexy, in a big room, with big-name people, big crowd. I don't remember much about that one.
"The other panel was tucked away in a small room, and of the three panelists, I came to the event feeling the most qualified, and therefore the wisest.
"I couldn't have been more wrong. One of the other panelists had just made his first film and was about to film his second. He was shy, modest, and described the act of writing as pure hell. I did my best to encourage him to find the joy in 'the process.'
"The young writer/director was a pre-'Take Shelter'/'Mud'/'Loving' Jeff Nichols, one of my favorite and one of our finest filmmakers working today. Fortunately, as the panel went on, I stopped hogging the microphone and decided to shut up and listen because it was clear he — and certainly not me — was the smartest person in that room that day.
"Or I should say, the second smartest.
"You see, at the conclusion of the discussion, I looked up, and leaning against the wall near the door was the incomparable screenwriting legend Stewart Stern. Stewart wrote 'Rebel Without a Cause' and many other important films. I'd met him years ago when we were both creative advisers at Sundance. I hadn't seen him years.
"It would be understatement to say Stewart was a giant. He was one of the kindest, wisest, most generous writers I have ever known. It would be the last time I spoke with Stewart in person.
"And that's the Austin Film Festival — the fierce future in Jeff Nichols collides with the glorious cinematic past in Stewart Stern and someone like me wanders around in the vast hopeful middle of it all. Magic happens here — and for me, it most often comes after I stop talking and simply listen."
("Ben Is Back" screens Oct. 28.)