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From CNN Interactive Jamie Allen Deep in the heart of Texas: Hollywood

Austin Film Festival offers oasis for screenwriters

Web posted on: Wednesday, October 07, 1998 4:20:56 PM

From CNN Interactive Writer Jamie Allen

AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- As far as film festivals go, it ain't Cannes. And it's located nowhere near Hollywood.

Of course, that's exactly how the folks associated with the annual Austin Film Festival and Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference want it. The fest, now in its fifth year of focusing on the art of the screenplay, boasts more untucked T-shirts than luminous celebrities, more unshaven faces than popping paparazzi flashbulbs.

And, oddly enough, Hollywood is still paying attention. In fact, Austin has quietly become a back lot for Hollywood deal-making, and a place for every screenwriter to dream.

"Clearly, this is the coolest of the film festivals."
-- Dan Petrie, Jr., "Beverly Hills Cop" screenwriter

Started by film fans Marsha Milam and Barbara Morgan, the event running from October 1-8 has succeeded by celebrating screenwriting as the most necessary element of any film. Included in the festival and writer's conference: Dozens of seminars featuring successful screenwriters, an awards ceremony with top prize going to the "best" screenplay, and film screenings that highlight new and classic cinema.

"We realized that no one was doing anything to celebrate the writer's contribution to the film industry," says Milam, describing the impetus behind the project. "And we realized without the script you don't have anything. Every great actor, every great director, every producer -- they're all trying to find scripts and it seemed odd to us that no one was honoring that."

Gary Ross's "Pleasantville" transports two teen-agers into a 1950s TV sitcom

This year's festival has attracted the likes of Gary Ross, the filmmaker who premiered his directorial debut "Pleasantville" at the town's historic Paramount Theater; filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen ("Fargo," "Raising Arizona"); director John Landis ("Animal House," "An American Werewolf In London"); producer Debra Hill ("The Fisher King"); screenwriter Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull"); as well as actors like Sandra Bullock, Jon Cryer, and Eric Roberts.

But the presence of Hollywood elite doesn't come with the rarefied air found along the French Riviera. To the contrary, Austin is transformed from friendly capital of a sun-broiled state to friendly film town in a sun-broiled state, a place where the industry's movers and shakers actually take time out for a cup of coffee with the up-and-comers and wannabes.

"Jaws" scribe Carl Gottlieb, for instance, held a fireside chat. Dan Petrie, Jr. ("Beverly Hills Cop") hosted a late-night "coffee and clips."

Bullock, meanwhile, presented her short film "Making Sandwiches," then hosted a Q&A with audience members after the screening.

"The festival very much reflects the Austin concept," says Milam. "It's a very unpretentious town and it's very relaxed, so I think that's one thing that attracts the industry."

Throw in screenings of films from across the spectrum, from "Pleasantville" to the indie flick "Went To Coney Island On A Mission From God ... Be Back By Five" starring Jon Cryer and directed by former MTV promo king Richard Schenkman, and you have a festival buzzing with excitement.

Opportunity knocks?

The festival started out on a high note five years ago: The winner for best unproduced screenplay that year -- "Excess Baggage" -- was bought by Columbia Pictures and made into a film produced by and starring Alicia Silverstone.

Now, aspiring screenwriters flood the festival with hopes of breaking into the land of dreams. This year's screenwriting contest overflowed with a reported 3,620 entries.

And the award for longest film titles goes to "Went To Coney Island On A Mission From God ... Be Back By Five"

Morgan says the festival also offers writers the opportunity to quit staring at the computer screen and actually meet face to face with their compatriots.

"Writers are alone," Morgan says. "If you're a producer, you know all the other producers out there. If you're a writer, you don't know any of your peers."

That includes professional screenwriters: Jeremy Pikser ("Bulworth"), William Broyles Jr. ("Apollo 13"), Bob Pool ("Armageddon"), Patrick Duncan ("Mr. Holland's Opus"), and Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential") were just some of the hot Hollywood scribes taking part in the camaraderie.

"Writers try to break through all by themselves," says Milam. "And so (successful ones) seem to have this sense of really wanting to help other people who were in the position they once were."

"Not everybody is a good writer and not everybody has a good idea."
-- Debra Hill, producer

The idea that Austin is thriving on a festival in which writers help each other is an interesting one, since industry insiders consider this a business of decreasing opportunities and increasing competition.

"The field (of filmmaking) is suddenly sexy," says John Landis, "so it's deluged with these wannabes who say 'I don't want to be a secret agent, I'll be a filmmaker.' I think a lot of people are really kind of naive."

Debra Hill, whose first screenplay was a collaboration with John Carpenter that turned into the horror mega-hit "Halloween," admits that the business is for a chosen few.

"Not everybody is a good writer and not everybody has a good idea and even if it's a good idea, not every idea is a movie," Hill says. "It's fashionable to be in filmmaking, so everybody's trying it. But only a few are going to make it. And that's the hardest part for me, to come to a festival and see so many passionate wannabes. Some will fail horribly, and it makes me sad because I want to help every one of them. But I know that I can't."

Austin's local politics takes a back seat when the film festival comes to town

Hope survives

Gary Ross remembers what it was like on the other side, before he hit the Hollywood jackpot by penning the Oscar-nominated screenplay to "Big," starring Tom Hanks.

"You just don't believe that anyone will ever validate you until they do," he says. "You just think it's something that happens to other people. And no matter how close you get, you're always thinking you'll get halfway closer to a goal you'll never reach."

Ross says when he took part in panels at the Austin Film Festival he tried to coach new writers on the benefits of patience.

"Whenever I teach I say to them, 'Look, you're never going to have more purity than you do right now,'" he says. "'Don't sell out now just because you want success so badly. Now is the time you have to water and cultivate and grow your own voice.'"

Even in the dry vastness of Texas, hope is hard to kill.

Just ask Kate Hawley. A first-time screenwriter and divorced mother, Hawley won best screenplay at this year's festival for "Who Would You Rather Sleep With." By the end of the writer's conference on Sunday, Hawley said she had been approached by several producers who were considering her work.

Morgan and Milam say they find it most gratifying that their festival might uncover yet another diamond in the rough.

"People say the American dream doesn't exist, but that's crap," says Morgan. "There's opportunity everywhere and we're just a place for people to have that opportunity. Every year, they find it here."

And every year, more dreamers come to Austin.

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