the Austin Film Festival

Photo Credit: Griffin Smith | Daily Texan Staff

After she arrives at the small house on Salina Street and signs into the book dubbed the “Intern Bible,” public relations junior Hillary Hurst is ready to begin her day as an intern for the Austin Film Festival.

Since mid-August, Hurst has worked with a team of interns, board members and volunteers to organize the 21st annual Austin Film Festival, which will begin Oct. 23 and run through Oct. 30. It is the first film festival devoted to writers and filmmakers and celebrates the work of those behind the camera, through movie screenings at different theaters around the city and panels with writers, producers and directors from around the world. 

Working with the festival’s executive department, Hurst has completed research projects about funding, read scripts for the movies being presented and
ran errands. After working with C3 Presents, a larger event planning company, she said her first year with AFF has been an interesting change from a large company to a smaller one. 

“It was interesting going from C3 to a small nonprofit, where operations are out of a house,” Hurst said. “But since it is a small nonprofit, no one is divided, and everyone is warm and welcoming, which creates a really good environment.”

For radio-television-film sophomore Shelby Merritt, another AFF intern, the small house setting made her feel more welcomed.  

“In a way, I feel like it makes everyone working there closer,” she said. 

Students working with AFF read scripts, watch new films and experience what it takes to make a festival run.

“I get to do so many things — it isn’t really just one job,” Merritt said. “We get to meet people in the industry and experience running a festival firsthand. It’s exciting feeling the energy of it.”

Though AFF is a filmmaker’s festival, there are internship opportunities for a variety of departments that appeal to more than just film majors.

“They are so multifaceted, especially for interns, because they have a lot of different departments,” Hurst said. “And everybody is welcoming and nice; no one is snobby, and they don’t look down on you, which has been nice for me since it’s my first year.”

Elaine Holton, volunteer coordinator for AFF, said the interns are the driving force of the festival.

“I feel like we are the internship for RTF students,” Holton said. “You are completely immersed in the industry.”

This year’s festival will include a wide array of guests. Volunteer coordinator Elaine Holton is most excited for Jenny Lumet, granddaughter of Lena Horne and writer of “Rachel Getting Married,” while Hurst is most excited for the opportunity to talk to Matthew Weiner, who is the creator, executive producer, director and writer of the series “Mad Men.”

As the festival begins and attracts crowds to the movie screenings, panels and parties, the interns will continue their work to keep the operation running. 

For Hurst, this is the most exciting part of her internship.

“I’m really excited for the festival to start because I know they are going to debrief us about our duties and what we are supposed to do, but I feel like we are just going to get thrown into the middle of this chaotic awesomeness,” she said.

Barbara Morgan, founder and executive director of the Austin Film Festival, is preparing for the opening day of the festival, currently in its 20th year. The festival has grown from a screenplay competition into a nationally recognized event that includes 150 panel discussions.

Photo Credit: Gabriella Belzer | Daily Texan Staff

Austin Film Festival has a red carpet and celebrity appearances, but since its inception, the festival has celebrated the hard work behind the glamour. 

The Austin Film Festival began 20 years ago and has grown from a screenplay competition to a nationally recognized festival filled with world-renowned films and guests. Its founder and current executive director, Barbara Morgan, believes the genesis of the festival was a case of kismet. 

“I was doing some music promotion in addition to having a finance company in Austin,” Morgan said.  

She was at a dinner party with a friend who started talking about how Austin had no public film festival. 

“I said ‘Hey, what if I started a film festival? Would you guys help?’ And the ball just rolled from there,” Morgan said. 

The ball never stopped. Today, the Austin Film Festival screens high-profile films, including Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” and the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” 

“We would never have gotten those 20 years ago,” Morgan said. “It was probably four or five years into our existence before we got some really solid big films. But we fall right after Toronto [International Film Festival], so it’s a great trickle down for us to be able to have a lot of U.S. premieres.”

The Austin Film Festival is divided into two parts: the film series and the conference, which consists of various panels featuring well-known producers, directors and writers as well as film scholars and historians. The centerpiece of the conference is the screenwriting competition, a contest that this year alone brought in 8,600 submissions across all categories. 

“It takes all year to do it,” competition director Matt Dy said. “We got about 1,000 submissions our first year, and the winner got optioned and made into a movie.”

It is this competition that makes AFF a writer’s festival above anything else and is a perfect example of its governing ethos: fostering new creative voices and giving them feedback and ways to break into the industry. 

“We do 150 panels on every topic imaginable, but it is focused on story, on narrative storytelling,” Morgan said.

Despite the presence of A-listers such as Susan Sarandon and “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan, it is work by inexperienced filmmakers, some of whom are UT students, that is the central focus of AFF. 

The Festival’s staff boasts a surprising number of UT alumni, and many of its interns and volunteers are current students. Dy, for instance, is a 2005 graduate from the radio-television-film program and said he essentially trained for his current position as an intern during his time at UT. 

“I told the guy who ran the competition that I was gonna take his job one day,” Dy said. “And I did. It took less than 10 years.”

Another of Dy’s coworkers and a fellow UT alumna, Allison Frady, had a less direct interest in working in the film industry but a surprisingly similar experience. 

“I graduated from UT in 2009 with a degree in PR,” Frady said. “I was an intern [with AFF] in 2008 and then officially became full-time in 2009.” 

As the development director of the festival, Frady is in charge of everything from corporate sponsors to event planning and reservations, but before that, she worked as Morgan’s assistant. Frady said these kinds of jobs are so vaulable for students who want to work in film because “you really go through the nitty gritty everday tasks, and in the film industry, those are all over the map.”  

When asked if she has ever had a moment where she realized that she made it, festival director Barbara Morgan admits she’s had them from the beginning. 

“We were very lucky. I mean, the very first year we started we had five Academy Award-winners,” Morgan said. “But I have to say, when Oliver Stone agreed to come in 1998 … that was something that presented itself as the difference between something that was a smaller local event and something that was national.”

Morgan isn’t sure what the festival will look like in another 20 years, but she hopes it will still keep the same focus on growing new writers. 

“I hope we’ll be very much an iteration of what [we are] today,” she said. “What I’d like to see is more people who have come through our competition … be able to break into the industry because that’s what our intent always was when we started. Was to be an access point.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy Photo | Daily Texan Staff

Students from around the country submitted short films to the Young Filmmakers Program in hopes of having their work showcased at the Austin Film Festival this year. Fourteen winners were selected to screen their films and participate in the festival. The Daily Texan spoke with three of the 2013 winners who wrote and directed their own short films. 

Elena Maeurer, 16

“A Story Unfolds”

The Daily Texan: What is your film about?

Elena Maeurer: It’s a short film about four kids who are locked in a library and they find a book, which is completely empty inside so they begin writing their own story. It’s all about them trying to come up with this story [when] one of the kids doesn’t really want to cooperate. 

DT: What was the most challenging part about making the film?

EM: It was my first experience directing, so it was a completely new side of filmmaking for me being in charge of the whole film. 

DT: What aspect of “A Story Unfolds” do you think gives your film an edge over other young filmmakers? 

EM: I think it’s important to have a cohesive story. I’ve seen a lot of student films that really confused me because I wasn’t able to see the point of the film at all, and I feel that [mine] has a good story.  

Alec Brown, 19 

“Out of Order”

DT: What is your film about?

Alec Brown: Basically it’s like a “Twilight Zone” episode. Two students in love living with the threat of nuclear war find paradise in their school’s dysfunctional elevator. 

DT: What initially drew you to film?

AB: I think every family has that one nostalgic movie that they can watch time and time again. My family’s movie is “Raising Arizona” from 1987. The first time I watched it I laughed so hard, and I thought that it had excellent cinematography and editing. Then I realized, I kind of want to make a movie like this. 

Ryker Allen, 16 

“Lovesoup”

DT: What is your film about?

Ryker Allen: “Lovesoup” is a documentary about the question: What is love? I wanted to answer that question, and midway through I discovered you can’t really answer it. 

DT: What was the most challenging part about making the film?

RA: I had to go find and cue out the people with the best points. I interviewed over 100-something people. There were a few people that had viewpoints that I completely disagreed with, and I had to make sure I left some of those in to keep it unbiased. 

DT: What initially drew you to film?

RA: I used to live in Los Angeles and I lived there for four years of my life. I was a commercial child, and I was on Nickelodeon and little things like that. After that, when high school came along, I stopped getting parts and we moved back to Texas. I was like, ‘Well, I kind of want to work behind the camera now.’ I use all of the knowledge I learned in L.A. as an actor and I put that into filmmaking. 

Still from Asad, one of the works screened for the Short Film portion of the Austin Film Festival. (Photo Courtesy of Hungry Man)

The Austin Film Festival’s marquee screenings feature highly anticipated movies such as “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Hyde Park on Hudson,” but the festival is also the proud home to an underrated facet of cinema: short films. Not often cited in the day-to-day, short films should not be put in the back burner as something less than their feature-length brothers. Shorts are just as valid a form as longer-length pieces, and often pack a great story with great production value in less than 20 minutes.

Short films have been around since the dawn of filmmaking. When film technology was in the process of being wrangled and tamed at the start of the 20th century, people’s projects would typically be a lot shorter, like Georges Mélies’ “A Trip to the Moon” (1902). People were interested in seeing the wonders of cinematic technology, and thus were excited to see screenings no matter their length.

That changed later, as filmmakers gained a better understanding of technology and story structure. The industry was opposed to making longer films, afraid that people would not pay attention for a whole hour or two. But directors came onto the scene with longer works, like D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915) and these garnered the most merit and attendance from audiences.

Shorts stayed alive through the rise of the feature film, screened alongside some features, newsreels and even becoming propaganda during wars. Today, we know short films best as music videos, film festival material, and artsy works, perpetually on Vimeo.

But why watch a 20-minute story instead of a two-hour epic? Is the story better developed in longer films? Not exactly.

Matt Lefebvre, producer of the short film “Asad,” the winner of the Best Narrative Short award at AFF, said “[the short film form] ... can capture and create an essence and feeling that could only be done in a short film.”

A.J. Sheeran, the writer/co-director/co-producer of the AFF-selected short “The Treehouse” also defended short-form films.

“To be honest, at any given time I would rather watch a feature ... [But] I think that there are things that short films can do that a film can’t. You can drive a point home clearer and more coherently with a short,” Sheeran said.

UT filmmakers Kevin Harger and Chris Bourke, who had their short film “Love, Emily” screened at AFF as well, said that as an increasing number of people get their hands on today’s easily accessible film equipment, shorts are an important way for wannabe cineastes to hone their skills into something presentable.

“I think it’s, like, 12,000 shorts that are made each year now,” Bourke said. “And that number’s getting bigger and bigger because more and more people want to do film, but at the same time they don’t want to spend the money that it would take to make a feature, so [shorts] are a good way for them to [practice their skills].”

The rise of the Internet as a publishing tool has been a blessing to filmmakers trying to get some viewership, however little, of their work. However, the market still favors longer films and TV seasons over short films. People are barely willing to spend $15 on a feature movie, and thus shorts often remain stuck either in festivals or in the deep crevices of YouTube and Vimeo.

“I really really wish there was a market for shorts,” Sheeran said. “I think there should be and I don’t know why there isn’t because short form is much more proper on things like Netflix. ... people go on Netflix and watch TV episodes that are 22 minutes, so why not shorts that people can just watch and then go back to work, go do something, watch another one?”

Printed on Monday, October 22, 2012 as: Short films alive at Austin festival

Preview

Michael S. Wilson stars in the stoner comedy “Austin High,” written by UT graduates Kirk Johnson and Will Elliott. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Green Photography 2010)

The Austin Film Festival, which begins today and runs through Oct. 27, has the good fortune of falling just before Oscar season kicks into high gear. The festival usually has the lucky distinction of bringing many of the year’s biggest Oscar players to the screens of Austin weeks, if not months, early. While last year’s highlights included films such as “Black Swan” and “127 Hours,” this year’s festival has slotted in many promising independent features along with Oscar contenders such as “The Descendants.” Here are five films The Daily Texan is looking forward to at this year’s festival.

Austin High
Screens: 10:30 p.m., Oct. 22, Rollins Theater
9:30 p.m., Oct. 24, Rollins Theater

Recent UT alumni Will Elliott and Kirk Johnson penned ultimate stoner comedy “Austin High,” which focuses on a high school whose staff is made up of the same slackers who attended a few decades ago. The film is pretty much tailor-made for the Austin Film Festival, almost fetishizing various Austin locations and performers, and is a pretty entertaining film to boot, boasting some strong performances and a penchant for blatantly absurd humor.


Beneath the Darkness
Screens: 6:30 p.m., Oct. 22, Texas Spirit Theater
5:00 p.m., Oct. 23, Alamo Ritz

When local hero Ely (Dennis Quaid) exposes himself as a closet murderer, a group of teenage witnesses try to avoid meeting the same fate as an unlucky friend. The film promises to be an entertaining teen-based thriller featuring an against-type performance from Quaid and came about after director Martin Guigui and writer Bruce Wilkinson met at the 2003 Austin Film Fest.


The Descendants
Screens: 7:00 p.m., Oct. 26, Paramount Theatre

The biggest Oscar contender at this year’s festival is easily Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” his first film since 2004’s “Sideways.” George Clooney stars as Matt King, an absentee father who finds himself in charge of raising his two daughters after his wife is critically injured. Early reviews are touting Clooney’s performance as the best of his career, and Payne’s sensibilities for meshing the comedic and dramatic promise to give audiences plenty to talk about.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Screens: 9:45 p.m., Oct. 20, Paramount Theatre

Sean Durkin’s feature debut stars Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, a woman fundamentally broken by her time in a cult run by Patrick (John Hawkes) and living with her sister (Sarah Paulson) in the aftermath of her escape. The film is an experiential marvel, blending together the past and present with clever edits, a dreamlike structure and an inescapable sense of creeping dread that pervades the film and Olsen’s stunning lead performance. This is a film that deserves to be rewatched and discussed and is one of the most ambitious films of the year.

Shame
Screens: 9:30 p.m., Oct. 22, Regal Arbor

Michael Fassbender has had a pretty great year so far, stealing the show in “X-Men: First Class” and drawing buzz for his performance in Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method.” With “Shame,” he reunites with “Hunger” director Steve McQueen to play a sex addict confronted with his impulses when similarly damaged younger sister Carey Mulligan shows up at his doorstep. “Shame’s” first trailer promises a tantalizing, gorgeously composed experience, and the film’s banishment to the Regal Arbor suggests that it may be too raunchy for the screens of the Paramount, all the more reason to make the trek to North Austin to check it out.

Printed on Thursday, October 20, 2011 as: Austin Festival returns with promising films