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Austin Film Festival Wrap Up 2018: The Panelists

December 12, 2018

We’ve heard writers and filmmakers rave about attending Austin Film Festival and its jam-packed screenwriter conference in What I Did at AFF 2018. One of the core attractions is that AFF features some of the biggest writer superheroes in the business.

But what do our heroes get out of AFF? What entices them to take time out of their crammed schedules, famously fighting through tornadoes and flight cancellations to get to this quirky town halfway across the country from the hub of Hollywood?

“AFF is the kind of festival professional screenwriters attend in order to share knowledge, not just with aspiring filmmakers, but with each other,” says Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel). “Every year I walk away inspired and invigorated by some new tip or trick I’d never thought of before.” A frequent panelist at the festival, Perlman discussed feature writers rooms with Christina Hodson (Bumblebee, Shut In) and led a science fiction panel comprised of both scientists and genre writers.

Scott Neustadter, nominated for an Oscar along with writing partner Michael H. Weber for The Disaster Artist, shared his wisdom on panels about third act structure and legendary writer-director Nora Ephron. “My wife turned me on to the festival years ago, saying it was a great way to meet other writers, share stories, etc., something screenwriters rarely do here in L.A., for some reason. Been going for several years now and there’s always someone new and interesting to meet and talk with.”

Former Austinite Kat Candler (Queen Sugar, Hellion) helmed several roundtables, AFF’s speed-dating setup that seats an industry pro directly with a handful of attendees to answer their questions for about 25 minutes. “I think I met 10, 18 budding screenwriters, established screenwriters. And it’s just such an energizing experience to hear their questions, try and inspire and ignite them. It’s inspiring for me to come home, be surrounded by creatives, and get inspired myself.”

“It’s the only film festival I’ve been to where writers are actually a focus and put at the center,” adds Stephany Folsom (Toy Story 4). Folsom talked heroes and villains with Jason Fuchs (Wonder Woman) and Peter Craig (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Parts I & II).

The festival’s fabled social atmosphere, lauded by introverted newbies who would rather do anything but make conversation with actual humans, is also a boon for power duo Marianne and Cormac Wibberley (National Treasure movies, G-Force). “Since we’re writers, we spend most of our time isolated in our writing cave, so AFF is our chance each year to connect with the screenwriting community in real life (and also eat great food).” The Wibbs, as they are affectionately known, shared advice on breaking in and contributed to the aptly titled “Sleeping With Your Writing Partner” panel.

Scott Myers, easily the most active screenwriting blogger around as the creator of the Black List’s revered “Go Into the Story,” holds up the social element as one of AFF’s most important draws. “It’s a great venue to catch up with friends and make new ones.” The writer of K-9 and Alaska moderated a number of panels on spec scripts, structure (including Neustadter’s), and DIY filmmaking.

First-time AFF panelist Carly Wray (Westworld, Mad Men) wishes she had attended years ago when one of her scripts made the Second Round of the festival’s screenplay competition. She suggests that AFF will help aspiring writers “feel less alone as a writer who’s trying to break into the business.” Wray talked research, pilots, and period stories and also joined AFF’s wildly popular – and brutally candid – “Women in the Room” panel.

In terms of capitalizing on their festival time, Wray advises attendees to “step outside of your comfort zone while you’re here and talk to as many people as you can. Talk about what you’re working on. Ask people what they’re working on. Be a little bit bolder than you might naturally be.” It’s not about selling yourself, but “just making yourself known, making yourself available.”

Candler seconds this. “It’s the community that you build. It’s the people that you sit next to in a theatre or stand with in line, that you strike up a conversation with and that you meet from a different city.” These organic connections, she contends, lead to writers groups, more connections, lasting friendships, and eventually “the jobs that you get hired for because of those connections that you made two or three years ago.”

And, yes, it’s okay to talk to the panelists as well. Just be sure to respect boundaries, Wray cautions. Don’t ask to be read, and don’t ask for a job. But questions about the way things work or what roadblocks one might encounter are welcome. “When I was coming up in the business, that was very helpful for me to be able to ask those questions or just express frustrations or fears,” says Wray. “And this feels like a community where it’s safe to do that. But you’ve got to walk up to that person first, which can be a huge step.”

Of course, Austin Film Festival is an endless treasure trove of inspiration and information. Candler first attended after moving to Austin years ago and remembers “being so excited to sit in a room filled with other artists and filmmakers and being inspired by cinema.”

“As far as attendees are concerned,” Myers observes, “I hear over and over from them how the entire experience supercharges them creatively. From the plethora of educational panels to the dozens of daily conversations about the craft with other writers, the Austin Film Festival offers participants a unique opportunity to dive into the extended screenwriting community and come away inspired to do what we need to do: WRITE!”

“Plus, some of the panels are incredible,” marvels Neustadter. “I got to see P. T. Anderson interview Jonathan Demme once. I mean, amazing!”

On top of everything, Folsom says that finding other writers who have struggled with similar issues in their work is an invaluable benefit of the AFF experience. “It makes the journey of writing a little bit easier to know that you’re not alone in your journey. Because so often you’re just sitting there with you and your computer and your self-hatred,” she laughs. Bonding with colleagues who assure you that “‘you’re on the same road I am, too, and we can be on that road together’ is really great.”

Tune in to Final Draft’s podcast, Write On: Austin Film Festival Wrap Up, for a more in-depth chat with some of this year’s AFF panelists.

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