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Austin Film Festival's leading lady

Barbara Morgan runs the Austin Film Festival & Conference. Maybe some day she'll be able to enjoy it.

Patrick Beach

Funny thing about festivals and things like that. The person at the top of the event's organizational structure is often the least capable of really enjoying it.

Take Barbara Morgan, executive director of the Austin Film Festival & Conference. All these cool people come to town for panels and screening and schmoozing and getting their picture made with Leslie, and she's sweating the details. That's what she'll be doing Thursday through Oct. 28.

"I have this dream that one day, before I'm too old, I can go and not say, 'That table is out of place,'" she says. "Sometimes I wonder what it's like outside the registration room."

Well, if it weren't for her and co-founder Marsha Milam, who established AFF to showcase screenwriters in 1994, there wouldn't even be a festival for her to not have quite as much fun as everyone else.

It started as a simple idea: "'Hey, let's start a film festival!' It was just like that," she recalls. "Neither Marsha nor I had been to a film festival when we started it."

And just a couple of years before, she'd put together a tour of Austin singer-songwriters and she figured a festival couldn't be as complicated as that. So they started booking speakers and screenings because nobody said they couldn't. The first year, the fest was held at Willie Nelson's old Austin Opera House off South Congress Avenue. Morgan remembers it rained all weekend, the roof leaked, there were buckets everywhere and the pay phone — this being a time when cell phones weren't universally brandished — was in the john.

Austin writer Bill Wittliff ("Lonesome Dove") doesn't remember it as a particularly miserable affair. Quite the opposite.

"I thought it was wonderful, largely because it centered on writing," Wittliff says. "That's Barbara's genius. She was the first one, to my knowledge, who created a festival that centered on screenwriting. I don't think anybody was affected by the rain. It was a dandy deal."

She was sure nobody would come for a sophomore effort, but the next year they moved to the Driskill Hotel, which had a less problematic roof. Things have been better ever since. The conference now runs four days, the film program eight. The screenplay competition — regarded as one of the most prestigious in the world — got almost 5,000 submissions this year.

Along the way, the festival has maintained its laid-back vibe and proved that there's room in this town for more than one film festival.

SXSW Film also launched in 1994, and SXSW has a history of arguably being what's sometimes regarded as proprietary. Asked to describe AFF's relationship with SXSW, Morgan says carefully, "I would say we have not a negative relationship. \u2026 Our biggest competition is not SXSW. It's music."

Having moved three times over the course of its existence, AFF's command center is now a house with loads of movie posters and other memorabilia just east of Interstate 35.

"We're sort of not office building people," she says from her desk, opposite her favorite piece, a poster of "Conan the Barbarian" signed by screenwriter Oliver Stone. "A house is great for this crew, for a team atmosphere, especially when they're working 12- to 15-hour days."

From here she supervises a full-time staff of about 10, some 25 or 30 interns and about 350 volunteers.

Let's back up; this was not the trajectory Morgan expected her life to take. She grew up in Philadelphia and attended a small Quaker school. Her father worked in a high-risk business —

bars and restaurants. When it came time for Morgan to pick a college, she was told nobody in the history of her school had gone to the University of Texas at Austin.

She got here in 1979. Her graduating class back home had 36 people. When she walked into her first class at UT, there were maybe 500. But Austin was, she says, "such a small town. You really had to work hard not to meet people."

She worked in finance, bought a condo downtown in 1985 (Clifford Antone was her neighbor) and got to know Milam, who was working for Chuy's. The two of them were having drinks at Romeo's one night, and Morgan went to the pay phone to call Al Reinert ("Apollo 13 ") to ask if he'd come to this crazy festival they were planning. "Whatever you girls are planning, I'll be there."

Other things fell into place. Morgan wrote a business plan — she's been executive director since 1999 — the Texas Film Commission offered support, and then there was a story in this newspaper about the plan. So they had to do it then.

A list of past participants in addition to Stone includes Robert Altman, UT alum Wes Anderson, Joel and Ethan Coen, Russell Crowe, Lawrence Kasdan and Owen Wilson. This year, one of the big draws is expected to be David Simon, creator of "The Wire" and "Treme."

Randall Wallace ("Braveheart" ) will be coming to his third AFF this month.

"My experience is that the festival is like Barb — down to earth; it's fun and it gets to the heart of the matter," Wallace says. "You run into people who care and who are excited about the crowd."

It helps that writers and writer-directors usually don't have egos of galactic size. These are often people who work alone. They're happy when the phone rings with the offer of networking and breakfast tacos.

"We rarely have difficult people," Morgan says. "We're bringing in mostly writers who may direct ... They're funny and interesting."

And so are the films. Edwin "Bud" Shrake's strange "acid Western" "Kid Blue" with Dennis Hopper screened in 1999 at the Paramount Theatre, with Shrake and longtime sweetheart Ann Richards in the house. This year she's looking forward to seeing the reaction "Exporting Raymond" gets. It's "Everybody Loves Raymond" creator Philip Rosenthal's "hysterical" efforts to launch a Russian version of the show.

People might think Morgan and her staff will hibernate until next year's festival, but she points out they're busy year-round with events, averaging roughly one a week.

If that's not enough, Morgan also has a 5-year-old, Hannah, and a husband she cheerfully reports isn't much interested in the film business. In 2005, she co-produced "Antone's: Home of the Blues," a documentary about her former neighbor . She was working with Shrake on his play "The Friends of Carlos Monzon" at the time of Shrake's death and helped put on a staged reading at the Long Center for the Performing Arts. And she's co-producing "Portrait of Wally," a film directed, co-produced and co-written by Andrew Shea of UT's Radio, Television and Film Department. The film, about Austrian artist Egon Schiele's famously stolen painting and its travels from 1939 to this summer, should be done early next year.

Do you have time for that? If you did, could you remember to be nice, too, and to tell people "no" in a way that people thanked you when you said it? People who know Morgan say that's just her.

"She's an absolute treasure, not only to the local community but to writers from all over," Wittliff said.

pbeach@statesman.com