Hollins Takes Over the 2017 Austin Film Festival

That’s a wrap! Hollins Summer Graduate Student Ashley Stratton recounts her experiences at the Austin Film Festival with her classmates from Hollins University:

Every year hundreds of screenwriters, both those working in the industry and those who desperately wish they were, descend upon the city of Austin for the Austin Film Festival (AFF). AFF is known unofficially as “the writer’s film festival,” and it’s a great chance to pick the brains of some of the most prolific writers in the field, shake the hand of one of your heroes, or to find your voice in Austin’s famous Pitch Competition.

This year, a group of intrepid students from Hollins University’s Graduate Screenwriting & Film Studies program made the trip to Texas to learn as much as possible, party until the wee hours of the morning (it’s networking, okay?), and to sample some killer Voodoo donuts. Tim Albaugh, director of the program, encourages as many students as possible to go, because this festival is unique. “AFF is an investment in yourself. Not only as a writer, but also as a collaborator.” He continues, “There’s nothing like hanging out with like-minded folks that are passionate about the same thing you’re passionate about. It’s an investment that will pay dividends now and for years to come.”

Nick Leitzke, a Hollins alumnus who made the trek, absolutely agrees, “To be honest I was asking myself why I was going for the entire month before the trip. But as soon as I was in my first panel on Thursday I knew why I was there. If you want to see what it really takes to make it in Hollywood and to get inspired by the journey, Austin is where you want to be.” Not only is the festival a wonderful opportunity to get inspired, the city itself is a great place to spend a weekend. It’s super walkable, and downtown is chock full of dimly lit bars, cozy coffee shops, and fantastic restaurants. (There’s so much queso, everywhere!) There’s something for everyone in Austin. Half of the group landed downtown in an Airbnb close to the Driskill Hotel, where most of the Festival action was held, and smack in the middle of all of the Halloween Parties going on that weekend. Needless to say, there wasn’t much sleep to be had, but that was okay because there was always something new to do.

When most people hear film festival, they think of, well, films. And while there were a bunch of shorts and feature-length films–including Greta Gerwig’s excellent Lady Bird, that many of us saw opening night–the main attractions are the conference panels. This year’s panelists included Academy Award winner Kenneth Lonergan, Academy Award Nominee Eric Heisserer, Emmy-winning writer/director/producer Keenan Ivory Wayans, showrunner Misha Smith, and so many more. The panels were diverse and enthralling. You never knew if someone was going to tell a witty story or drop a piece of advice that changed your view of the craft. There were sessions on everything from overcoming common screenwriting issues, to writing well-crafted stories about social justice, to master classes in individual writer’s films and careers. When you got in line for a panel, you never knew exactly what you were going to get, but you knew it was going to be good.

A unique part of AFF is the roundtable sessions. Roundtables are a chance to sit down in small groups with working writers, producers, and showrunners to pick their collective brains about topics ranging from the business of film and television to one-hour dramas to the business of podcasting. Alumnus Tyler Gallimore found the entire experience unbelievable, saying, “The access you have to the writers at the roundtable sessions and the other writers at the festival is amazing. I was blown away and so glad I came. Any time you can get up close and personal with a working writer/producer/manager is something that we should all take advantage of.” At AFF there is always the potential for a random conversation to turn into a new idea or a new friendship. But, with world-class storytellers at your fingertips, you know it’s never going to be boring.

AFF is fascinating because it focuses on storytelling techniques of the future including podcasts and writing for virtual reality and video games. One panel was, itself, a podcast, and many of us enjoyed the madcap antics of Craig Mazin combined with the staid calm of John August in person instead of through our car speakers during a taping of their popular Scriptnotes podcast. (Seriously, if you’ve never listened to it before, give’em a try). Second-year student, Jami Scholl was particularly interested in the off-beaten path nature of some of AFF’s tracks saying, “I wanted to get the ‘lay of the land’ for subsequent years of creation and to find out more about the other options for writers outside of features and television.” For those looking to expand their content creation horizons, AFF is a goldmine of information.

AFF isn’t all sitting in the dark and frantic note-taking; there’re so many people to meet. If you aren’t chatting people up in line, you’re sharing tips at one of the many parties throughout the week, or congregating in the lobby or the bar of the Driskill. Everyone at AFF is passionate about film and storytelling, and so it’s easy to strike up a conversation with a perfect stranger. Purnesh Konathala, a second-year student, experienced the AFF social phenomenon and was blown away. “The thing that often weighs me down in my craft is the introvert in me. But, at AFF, I left that all behind, I couldn’t believe it, I ended up speaking to more than twenty strangers in those three days. And I have the business cards to prove it.” Making connections that last for years is all a part of the AFF experience.

Our own Hollins AFF time was wrapped up nicely at a low-key get-together on Saturday night. Our little band of adventurers took over the back room of the Gingerman, a great Austin bar, and spent hours inhaling gallons of mac and cheese, drinking enough beer to float home on, and regaling each other with our festival adventures. For a film lover and screenwriter, AFF is a magical experience, but it was made even better by being able to experience it all with our Hollins fam.

Every one of us came away with some insight or important chance encounter over the course of the weekend, but Jamie Hoover, staring down her thesis project, had one of the best takeaways when she considered how the festival might affect her in the long run. “I realized that I can’t be scared to create. I think too often we as writers can get into our heads about the logistics and merits of our work and it can stop us before we even start. If we start at all, we can rework the weaker components; we can’t fix what isn’t there to begin with.”

The pursuit of screenwriting can sometimes feel like soloing a mountain. Breaking an act or even just writing a single scene can feel like a cold, exhausting, climb where one slip in concentration can send you free-falling into the bowels of the internet, or worse. Much like the Hollins University’s six-week summer residencies for the Screenwriting and Film program, the Austin Film Festival is a welcome respite from that lonely journey. Both Hollins and the Austin Film Festival are opportunities to go all in, to set your heart on creation, and to remember that there are so many amazing writers toiling right alongside you that, if need be, are willing to reach out and provide a steadying hand.  

If you find yourself in need of climbing partners in your screenwriting journey, check out Hollins University’s kick-ass M.F.A. in Screenwriting program. It meets every summer in gorgeous Roanoke, Virginia and offers classes from some of the most compelling writers working today. Or even if you just find yourself at AFF looking for a great gang to connect with, come find us. We’ll be in the back, hoarding the craft beer. We’ve got a cold one saved for you.

Resource Map for Women Filmmakers

Ladies, this one is for you! The folks at the Sundance Institute compiled a list of resources and tools specifically for women in the film industry. I hope you find this helpful. Enjoy!


The Festival Circuit

Hello my fellow writers, cinephiles, and artists:

It looks like I’m becoming one of those people who is beginning to hit the festival circuit. Within the past few months, I have had the opportunity to learn more about this side of the film industry from the perspectives as a participant and as a volunteer. The reason I began embarking on such an endeavor is that I want to learn everything I possibly can about the film industry. So I’m trying to absorb everything I can and get my hands into everything I can. In fact, I’m even taking an acting class right now. Since I am in between jobs and job hunting like a madwoman, I have some time on my hands until I find my next place to land. So I figured I’d make the most of it and take advantage of some opportunities out there and share a little about my experiences thus far.

This January, I had the opportunity to travel to Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. The festival is held in Park City, the festival’s main base, and Salt Lake City for ten days in January. I attended the second week of the festival and stayed in Salt Lake City. Many of the films screen in both locations, but all of the extra events such as filmmaker discussions, panels, and formally organized networking opportunities were in Park City.

The features I saw were To The Bone, Landline, The Nile Hilton Incident, L.A. Times, and Band Aid. I did get to see a number of documentaries: Winnie, about Winnie Mandela and her leadership in the fight against apartheid in South Africa; The Good Postman, about a mayoral election in a disappearing Eastern European town struggling with how to handle refugees; and Long Strange Trip about the Grateful Dead. There is seriously no better title for a four-hour Grateful Dead documentary. I’ve always been a nerd about music (my family’s favorite pastime is quizzing me on my rock & roll knowledge), so it was the last film I saw at the festival and my favorite.

I did manage to squeeze in an afternoon in the gorgeous Park City, which was about a 45-minute drive from Salt Lake City. I spent some time in the Sundance TV lounge, learned more about Sundance Now – a new streaming service similar to Netflix, but exclusively for projects affiliated with the Sundance Institute. I even got a pair of Sundance Now socks for signing up 🙂  I did catch one of the Filmmaker Lodge discussions. Which was fantastic.

The ticketing process was fairly easy and explained in elaborate detail. The site was set up as if you were shopping online, so it was very easy to navigate. I chose the 10-ticket package that came with two credentials. After being given a time slot by the Sundance staff (probably so thousands of people didn’t log on at the same time and crash the site – smart idea), you got to go onto the website and select which films you’d like to see, and then selected the box office where you’d like to pick them up. You have to pick up the good old-fashioned paper tickets in person. The title of each film printed on each one; which I actually prefer to an emailed or electronic ticket. Ticket packages are not mailed or emailed. That made everything much easier.

This festival clearly runs like a well-oiled machine. There were lots of staff and volunteers in yellow or black Kenneth Cole jackets and all of them were incredibly helpful, friendly, and enthusiastic about being apart of the festival. Most of the screenings were scheduled in the evening, so I got to spend my days exploring the city and trudging through snow for good places to eat and shop. There was more snow and less heat than I am accustomed to having as a Virginian, and some people quipped that the festival should be called “Snowdance” instead of Sundance. But the amount of frozen precipitation never put a damper on my experience. Everyone I met, whether or not they were involved with Sundance, was incredibly friendly. I was also happy that Reshma, one of my good friends from Hollins, was also in attendance. There was some overlap on our screening schedules so we got to attend some movies together and play a bit of catch up. So final verdict: if you ever get the chance to go to Sundance in any capacity – do it. It is worth every penny.  If life allows it, I’d probably go again next year.

Since I got the opportunity to experience a film festival as an attendee, I figured it was about time I learned what film festivals are like from the other side as a volunteer. The film industry has been growing and drawing more attention in Virginia, especially with historically inspired films. Many strides are being taken to open up Virginia and make it a more appealing and competitive place for the film industry to thrive as Virginia becomes a more sought-out location. One of the many ways Virginia is working to increase its appeal to filmmakers is by hosting the Richmond International Film Festival (RIFF). This year was the sixth year of the festival. So it’s still young, growing, and evolving. The most recent phase of evolution was creating an SXSW type of vibe with film screenings and musical performances. This year was the first time at creating this type of atmosphere for RIFF. As both a volunteer and spectator, I think it’s a direction worth exploring and maintaining. Richmond has a rich and growing arts scene, the festival just needs time to grow.

Like any prospective volunteer, I sent an inquiry in response to an email requesting volunteers that came out of the Virginia Production Alliance listserv. I introduced myself as a Hollins University graduate student and recent Sundance attendee. This evidently made an impression since the result was an invitation to join the small group of volunteers that worked closely with the event producers. Which was cool. I got to help put together the RIFF website, add RIFF events to local online calendars, and work the RIFF table at the State of the Industry event.

During RIFF itself, I worked ticket tables for a lot of music events. My first night I worked a hip-hop/rap event with performances from Supa Soop, Ace of Spades, Prince La’kid, KingTay, and Chance Fischer. The next night was a music video showcase and live music mixer with a variety of music. Performances ranged from hometown talent – like Rodney the Soul Singer and Noah-O, to musicians from around the country like Just B. Polo, and Smoothe da Hustler and Trigger tha Gambler from New York. Residents and guests of the River City also got a special treat with performances from international musicians Sparky Quano from Japan and Naomi Achu from Cameroon. Another night I worked an event called “Women in the Round” which showcased several female singer/songwriters: Susan Greenbaum – a Richmond favorite, The Belle of the Fall, Violet Dulaney, and Mary Bragg. I befriended Mary Bragg, a country/Americana musician. I gave her drink tickets so she later gave me a copy of one of her albums – which I’ve enjoyed listening to. It was tremendous fun and all of the musicians put on incredible performances, but it required many long nights that lasted until the early morning hours. I did work the ticket table one of the movie theaters one afternoon. But I think the music events were more fun to work. Most of the movies I wanted to see conflicted with times I had to work, so, unfortunately, I didn’t get to see many films. The documentary about the 611 steam engine was fascinating.

I was elated to see some Hollins friends make the trek to RVA. Although the visit was brief, I enjoyed and appreciated it immensely. Tim, Amber, Tyler, Jamie, Allen, and Alva: thank you for making your way to Richmond. I hope y’all enjoyed it!

I did work the ticket table for one event that I was really hoping to get to: the Flow Collective panel discussions. There were five panels lasting about an hour each. So like any studious individual, I took notes with the pen and notebook I keep in my purse. Because it’s not every day you get to sit in on panel discussions for free (well, in exchange for working the ticket table) 🙂 I was in the back of the room and the speakers didn’t have microphones, so it was a bit hard to hear them at times, so I scribbled down what I could.

People were able to come to the panel and pitch their ideas for projects or present their reels of work to a panel of industry professionals from casting, directing, composing, producing, and writing. I didn’t get to jot down all of the pitches themselves or the sources of all of the advice, but I did catch some gems worth sharing:

  1. “You’re the imaginative one in the room, most people in the room aren’t” and won’t admit it. That in itself is worthy of your confidence.
  2. “Communicate everything in your head so the audience can understand it.”
  3. “When you say ‘yes’ you’re making a commitment to yourself.”
  4. Jesse Vaughn, director of The Last Punch –“Sound = Picture”…”There is no excuse for bad sound. The only excuse is laziness.”
  5. “Create a win-win situation…If you want [career] longevity, create win-win relationships.” -J.V.
  6. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get it… you can’t be shy.” -J.V.
  7. You sometimes have to give people “gentle elbows” in order to accomplish a certain goal. -J.V.
  8. When beginning conversations about financing, don’t begin the conversation with “What’s your rate?” That’s a major turn off. Use language more along the lines of “What does it take for us to work together… Communicate what you have and what you need respectfully.” – J.V
  9. When asking for film score help, ease your way into conversations. For example, “I like your music”, “I like this bit here”, and “can I see more of this?”
  10. “QUALITY: It’s all about bringing in and wanting to create A-level work” – J.V.
  11. “Be sincere, but be flexible.” -J.V.
  12. “Present someone with a challenge and do your homework”
  13. One goal to have: wanting people to “leave the theater smarter/better informed than when they entered.”
  14. When making reels (actors, composers, cinematographers, etc): “Make reels tailor-made. Know who you’re presenting it to”. – Anne Chapman and Erica Arvold
  15. Make your reel lifelike with highs and lows, moments big and little, peaks and valleys.
  16. Figure out what it is you want and curtail your reel to accomplish the goal.
  17. “Display proficiency and flexibility” -Black Liquid
  18. Anecdote: Context – When Rambo was first made and introduced without a score people couldn’t sit through it. Once the score was added, people could sit through the film and enjoy it.
  19. Composer reels should be two minutes in length.
  20. Cinematography reels should show some variety in your skill set.
  21. One thing from employers: (this note was given in regard to cinematographers, but could easily apply to anyone in any line of work) What they are looking for is how well do you work with people. A big part the job is managing people and equipment. How well do you do that? How well do you work with people you do and don’t like?

Overall, my experience of working with RIFF was a positive and beneficial one. I enjoyed learning more about the film festival and what all goes into planning. I’m also grateful to the film community as a whole for being incredibly welcoming. I’ve never once been belittled or ridiculed for lack of knowledge or experience. Whether I’m with writers, actors, or film festival goers, everyone is always so kind, generous, and encouraging. There is always something new to learn or experience and the enthusiasm people have for sharing what they’ve created is always inspiring. Richmond has so much to offer and is becoming a more sought-out place for a number of reasons, especially with a rich history to fuel a film industry. I can’t wait to see where this festival goes and how much it grows over time.



RIFF website

Richmond, VA was also ranked on MovieMaker magazine’s The Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker 2017


Get Yourself to SXSW Eco with a Film About Architecture

Frank Zappa once said “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Well, the folks at SXSW Eco want to see how your cameras dance as you create a film story about architecture for the SXSW Eco Conference. Applications are accepted in July and the correlating film submission in August. The submissions are judged and voted on in the fall and prizes of up to $2500 are awarded in October. Challenge accepted?

Get Yourself to SXSW

Click here to find out more about the I Look Up Film Challenge.

Information for the Architecture & Design Film Festival.