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.