Austin Film Festival continues to expand, offering more for storytellers – without relying on donors

Austin Film Festival Greta Gerwig

For 25 years, Austin has been home to a nonprofit film festival and conference where the headliners are unlikely to be recognized. That’s because instead of promoting celebrity-driven films, the Austin Film Festival and Writers Conference champions writers, and this distinction makes it a must-attend event for about 20,000 industry people from across the country, including, by chance, the occasional celebrity. Almost half the attendees are from Texas. The festival and conference take place from October 25 to November 1 this year.

But for the AFF organization, the commitment to writers is year round. Though the festival screens about 175 films over 8 days, the rest of the year’s programs offer opportunities for writers to learn and improve. “With so many film screenings in this town, it was just impossible to compete,” said Liz Mims, senior film program director and a filmmaker herself. “So we decided to go back to our mission, which is focusing on being a resource for writers at any stage here in Austin.” That means offering day-long writers’ retreats, learning and networking events, and opportunities for feedback, like “First Three Pages Live” next month, where writers are invited to watch actors from ColdTowne Theater perform the first three pages of a submitted work. “It’s amazing what that can do for writers,” said Mims. “They can get a sense in front of an audience for how something feels and then talk through their ideas.”

As a way of doubling down on its mission, AFF offers most of its off-festival programming at affordable rates, from the $5 “First Three Pages” event to a $25, day-long writers’ retreat this past April. To keep the costs to participants low, the nonprofit earns most of its operating costs from revenue from the festival and conference, says Mim. “We really want people to participate,” she said, “and sometimes cost can be a barrier.”

It also helps to keep expenses low, which is why it’s started now to recruit about 1,000 volunteers for the festival and conference. Volunteers are offered festival passes based on the number of hours they work, which was a hook for long-time volunteer Nan Foley. “Volunteering can be a good point of entry for people to learn about AFF, especially if they have aspirations to be involved in the film industry in some ways,” she said. “I love everything I have an opportunity to do.”

Foley first volunteered for the festival in 2008 and has since become a contract employee, working on the On Story Project, another AFF program that caters to writers. On Story consists of a video and audio recordings taken from the festival and distributed via PBS television affiliate stations and podcasts. In July, the On Story Project earned a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which helps keep the content free. “That’s the goal,” said Mims. “We really don’t rely too heavily on donors.”

PHOTO: Greta Gerwig, writer and director of the film Lady Bird, appeared as a speaker at the 2017 Austin Film Festival. Photo by Jack Plunkett.

NOTE: This story was also published by the Austin American-Statesman on July 29, 2018.

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