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How to Do the Austin Film Festival

Heather Hughes is a screenwriter and a screenwriting instructor at the Seattle Film Institute.

What is the focus of the Screenwriting Conference?

As John Arends said to me in an email, "The hallmark of the Austin Film Festival is that it's a WRITER'S festival. It celebrates screenwriters and scripts like no other film festival on the planet. And that's why it's so beloved by, and attended by, so many of our writer and writer-director heroes. And that's why everyone you meet will have something of value to say about the craft of screenwriting. That's right - EVERYBODY!"

Why should I go?

Aside from being the premiere screenwriting conference in the country, the best reason to go is that all the panelists - filmmakers, agents and big screenwriters - who are the very best in the world - can't go home at night (like they can at Pitch Fest and other LA based conferences). They usually attend most of the parties and sit around the Driskill bar at night. You can listen to their wisdom during the day and hang out with them in the evening. This conference gives you unprecedented access to amazing screenwriters and filmmakers.

Which badge should I get? How much are they?

I suggest everyone get a Producer's Badge. It is pricey, but it allows you to go to all the parties. The parties are a great place to meet people, and I wouldn't buy a lesser badge because of it. The Producer's Badge $675.

If you want to do the Festival on a budget, there are some other options. The Festival offers a Conference Badge that gets you into all four days of the Conference and all the films, but only 3 parties. The Lonestar Badge gives you access to Saturday panels, the Pitch Finale Party and all the films. If you've entered the contest and advance to the "Second Round" (Austin's term for quarter-finalist) you will get a discount. As you advance in the contest, the discount becomes larger. Even if you buy a badge before you go, they will refund the added expense if you advance in the contest. It's too late to enter now, but keep it in mind for next year.

Which days should I attend?

I always arrive Wednesday night and stay until the Hair of the Dog party on Sunday. This year I'm staying until late afternoon because I want to catch Michael's Arndt's amazing presentation, "Movie Endings, The Good the Bad and the Insanely Great". This will be my third time hearing this don't-miss presentation and I can't stress how valuable and insanely great it is. Stick around after the screening for an extended Q&A with Arndt.

Where does all the action happen? Where should I stay?

I love to stay at the Driskill, and this is one reason we buy our badges early. The conference helps you book discounted rooms at the Driskill and the Stephen F. Austin hotels, and the Driskill usually sells out first. The Driskill is a beautiful old hotel and it truly is where everything happens. If you can't get a room, the Stephen F. is right across the street and is very nice, and nothing prevents you from hanging out at the Driskill. The Driskill and the Stephen F are my first choices, but AFF offers a variety of discounts at downtown hotels. Check out the website for prices that best fit your budget. As I mentioned, the Driskill Bar is the place to hang out in the afternoon and evening before and after the parties.

Which events are a "must attend"?

The Conference: I wouldn't miss it.

This year I'm most excited about:

  • Michael Arendt's "Endings" talk Sunday at 4:00 - go early, the fire marshal has had to limit access in the past it is so popular.
  • Lindsay Doran, producer of Stranger Than Fiction, Sense and Sensibility, Nanny McPheea and Dead Again to name a few, is giving her amazing talk on "The Psychology of Screenwriting" where she teaches the secrets of creating an emotionally satisfying script. Saturday, October 28 o 4:30pm - 6:00pm
  • Jim Hart's (Hook, Contact, Bram Stoker's Dracula) "HartChart" explores how to develop characters and stories by getting to the "heart" of the script. Thursday, October 26 o 2:45pm - 4:15pm. I adore Jim's presentations and will never forget his panel "A Shot of Courage" at my first visit to AFF when he and the late, delightful, Polly Platt (Paper Moon, What's Up Doc?, Last Picture Show) and Dan Petrie served a shot of whiskey to get their panel started.

Festival: Screenwriters from Seattle tell me that when the buzz of the conference is over it felt a little lonely when they stayed to see movies. I haven't stayed for it, so I can't speak from my own experience. I have heard that if you want to stay and explore Austin that week is a perfect time to do it and watch movies starting in the afternoon. The movies during the week tend to be films that get Oscar buzz later and you never know what screenwriter will be in attendance with their film.

Parties: I love the parties, and that's saying a lot since I usually stay far away from parties. The bar-b-q is fantastic. It's outside and lots of fun. The Hair of the Dog party is at a little diner and is really great. All of them are wonderful.

Awards Luncheon: Most panelists don't think to shell out the extra $45 for the luncheon, but I've made some amazing contacts and friends there. The conference arranges that each table has at least one panelist, industry executive, filmmaker or screenwriter, so it's another great way to casually network while the screenwriters and filmmakers are receiving awards for their work. The awards luncheon is where you meet the festival's honorees. Last year Award recipients included Oliver Stone, John Milius and Glenn Gordon Caron.

How does the pitch competition work? How should I prepare?

The pitch competition is $20 per ticket. Judges who are AFF panelists listen to pitches and pick a winner from each round. The top 8 winners go on to pitch at the Pitch Competition Party on Saturday evening.

How do the roundtables work? How should I prepare?

The roundtables are my favorite part of the conference. There is a conference room set up with about six round tables. When you enter you choose a seat at one of the tables. Each table has a chair with a little sign that says "speaker (or something like that, can't quite remember). When everyone is seated the speakers come in and take seats at each table. They do their spiel about their companies and what their interests are, and then there's usually time for questions. After 10 minutes or so, the moderator rings a bell and all the speakers switch tables. You don't change places, but you have each speaker come to your table. This is not a time for you to pitch your script, but often producers will say what they're looking for.

How to sign up: When you get to the conference, you must go to the second floor of the Driskill and sign up for the round-tables. You will get your pick of one roundtable and it pays to have studied the bios of the speakers. You will be given a colored dot to put on you badge and that will let you get into the round table you picked.

The round table topics can range from agents, producers to entertainment lawyers.

Any tips for making the most of the conference?

  1. Don't just gather numbers and contact info for yourself - keep your friends in mind too. You may not be interested in a producer looking for rom coms, but your friend might be. They can gather cards for you as well. Get twice as much bang for the buck.
  2. Hydrate. There are lots of parties and most of them are sponsored by alcohol companies. Pace yourself and drink lots of water. Nobody likes a sloppy writer.
  3. Be sure to check out the Driskill bar late at night. There have been some incredible, impromptu, chat sessions that are the most magical part of AFF. I once sat with a small group of writers, listening agog, while Terry Rossio, Shane Black and Danny Rubin talked about the art of screenwriting until 4:00 in the morning. These are unscheduled, magical sessions, so keep your eyes open.
  4. I like to keep any business cards I get between the paper conference badge inside the plastic cover. That keeps them tidily in the same place. Don't forget to scribble any relevant notes on the back of the cards, so you'll remember why you took them in the first place.

Any "don'ts" for attending the conference?

This goes for any conference, but DON'T hang out (too much) with your friends. You'll have paid a lot to get to the conference and you should treat it like the costly business expense that it is. You can hang out with your friends at home. Cultivate your own relationships at the conference.

To register for the Austin Film Festival call 1-800-310-FEST (3378) or visit

Conference schedule is here -

(Posted: 10/19/2017)


MovieBytes Proprietor Frederick Mensch will be a panelist at this year's conference, participating in Thursday's Art, Craft and Business of Film Roundtable, as well as Saturday's Singular Settings panel. He'd love to meet you!