The Unique Experience of the Austin Film Festival

By Elizabeth Quinn

There are lots of things that make Austin one of the best film festivals in the country.  I spoke with Roberto Orci (Star Trek, Sleepy Hollow) and Jamie King (LMU class of 2012) to get their take on what makes Austin’s festival so unique. Roberto Orci spent his college years at University of Texas-Austin and is a repeat visitor to the festival. He and his wife Melissa Blake (an LMU alumni), also provide several workshops for our film students. Jamie was a one-hour drama pilot semi-finalist in this year’s AFF teleplay competition.

Roberto Orci: What’s great about the Austin Film Festival is that there are some real deal screenwriters here who are really immersing themselves in the craft and not just pretending to do it. The people here care about film, they’re students of film, and they know a lot more about film than many of the people that I meet in Los Angeles.

This place, Austin, Texas is a real place and by that I mean, if you’re here to study film, you’re not messing around, you’re committing to learning about the craft. The people that come here from Los Angeles always talk about how the Austin Film Festival is just a different feeling than what they’re used to, because the people here are genuine students and it’s a really great city.

Jamie King:  I really love the Austin Film Festival. It’s so much fun here and I don’t know anything else like it that has the screenwriting conference. The screenplay competition is great and the people who run it are very encouraging and take a personal hand in it. I remember the first time I submitted a script that made it to the second round. I didn’t attend the festival but I did get a note from Matt Dy (Screenplay/Teleplay Competition Director) who said it was really good and to keep writing. It’s great to hear that from your teachers but from someone who only knows you from your writing, it really makes a difference. I know Matt reads all of the semi-finalists and above and he calls them personally if they make the semi-finals. Although, I also have a big stack of those rejection letters so it goes both ways!

I always try to take the notes I get here and apply them to whatever I’m working on. For example, the script I sent last year didn’t go anywhere and the note I kept getting was that there were too many characters right in the beginning, and there wasn’t enough to grab onto with the main character to make the audience love him. So, I used that note for my new script and tried to make him the most sympathetic character that you want to root for and that created an emotional connection. The more stuff that I write, I think you have to go at the audience’s heart not their head. Even if you’re not connecting with the story intellectually, if it connects with your heart, you can’t help but feel it.

This script I wrote that made it to the semi-finals this year is called Mock Trial. It’s a legal procedural set in a high school and focuses on this kid who wants to try get his mom out of prison. His new teacher is a great mentor for him and they set up a mock trial and “try” his mom’s case in the pilot. However, they find out that, legally, she does deserve to be in prison so he has to grapple with that discovery as well as the pros and cons of the legal system. I envisioned that every episode would be a new mock trial for the students that is related to something they’re dealing with in school or their personal lives so while there are no legal stakes, there are plenty of emotional stakes. The teacher and the kid are very strong characters that resonate emotionally with audiences.

I think one of the reasons I capped at the semi-finalist level is that my script is very niche (not everyone is familiar with mock trials). The stakes have got to be high and they’ve got to be specific.  Another issue might be that it’s hard to see the week-to-week structure by the end of the pilot. A lot of times the first scene in a TV series is a microcosm for the whole show. (e.g., Mad Men, Breaking Bad). Again, these are notes I can use to keep making my scripts better and there are so many places to tell your specific story that there’s a home for just about everything. It’s like the Venn diagram of notes; if everyone is saying the same thing you have to listen to it.

This is my third time attending the festival and my second time being a semi-finalist and my goal is to break into that finalist round. I do feel that I need to be better at approaching people and letting them know why I’m here. I have a hard time capitalizing on it. I hate feeling like I’m bragging but you have to be a self-promoter here to a certain extent. In fact, I just met a guy who had double-sided mini copies of his script and he gave it to one of the guys at the round table. Essentially, he made it physically compact enough for a person to take his script!

When I’m not writing, I’ll be working on a new show called The Divide. I’m the assistant to the EP/showrunner, John Tinker. He’s one of the nicest guys around and I get to spend a lot of time in the room so it’s a great opportunity. I got the gig by interning at AMC for over two years, mostly for free, by the way. My final thoughts though: I think everybody should submit to Austin. I use it as an incentive to up my game each year.