Screens Fresh Face Time

Films making their regional or national premiere at the Austin Film Festival include, from top, Halfway Decent, Shopgirl, and Ice Harvest.
The Austin Film Festival knows a foot in the door beats a seat in the front row

The Austin Film Festival has long been oriented toward the appreciation of screenwriting, both in its choice of special guests you’re always more likely to find the writers of this year’s surprise hit here than the stars and in its daytime programming, which is geared toward attendees who would like to get into the game themselves.

Want to learn how to draft a TV pilot? There’s a panel covering that topic. Want to discuss the peculiar challenges presented by the action film, the comedy, the romance? Ditto. There are do-it-yourself instructional sessions, convince-them-to-hire-you rallies, and cajole-them-into-seeing it-your-way seminars, along with primers on finance, new technology, distribution, and so on.

The festival even features a “pitch competition,” entering its third year, in which hopefuls pay $15 in return for 90 precious seconds in which to deliver their high-concept ideas to a panel of “industry judges (including some super surprise judges).” The idea and delivery are then dissected, American Idol-style, and the best pitchers proceed to the finals.

The interview format is popular at the festival, whether with a newcomer who has broken into the industry but isn’t yet a household name the team of Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, for instance, who wrote Legally Blonde and Ella Enchanted, appear this year or with writers who have shaped entertainment as we know it.

This year, in the latter category, AFF welcomes two men who define the screen comedy of their respective generations: Buck Henry, whose many achievements include The Graduate and What’s Up, Doc? and Harold Ramis, who wrote or cowrote a few movies you may have heard of Stripes, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters among them before making his masterpiece, Groundhog Day.

If Henry and Ramis represent the stars of two previous generations, two relative newcomers will be on hand to show that comedy, while not pretty, at least isn’t dying: Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butthead and Office Space, and Judd Apatow, who tasted cult success (read: commercial failure) with the wonderful TV series Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared before his home run, The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

The Austin Film Festival

Oct 20-27
Various venues in Austin

A festival with such a well-developed focus should hardly need any other perks. But at night, the AFF turns into an entirely respectable regular-old movie showcase, boasting more than a few films that even Hollywood hasn’t had a peek at. Plenty of work by first-time filmmakers will be shown, of course, but competition films will share space with some well-pedigreed titles. Among the most promising or anticipated are:

Bee Season, an adaptation of the Myla Goldberg novel directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel (The Deep End) and starring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche.

The Dying Gaul, a “psychological thriller” about a screenwriter facing a Faustian bargain (hmmm) starring indie gods Patricia Clarkson, Campbell Scott, and Peter Sarsgaard.

The Ice Harvest, a modern-day noir in which John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton try to get away with stealing a couple million dollars, directed by Harold Ramis.

Manderlay, the second in Lars Von Trier’s “America” trilogy.

Shopgirl, the latest from Steve Martin.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, by Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black, which teams Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer.

Mrs. Henderson Presents, the latest from Stephen Frears.

A short and very incomplete list of actors gracing some of the other films Bob Hoskins, Christopher Guest, Ricky Gervais, Meryl Streep, Uma Thurman, Hope Davis, Pierce Brosnan, Paul Newman, Steve Coogan might suggest that the Austin Film Festival is as geared toward great acting as great screenwriting. But front-of-camera talent is somewhat harder to rope into sitting on a panel called “Low Budget Agreements and the Writers Guild” and might not have as much wisdom to impart as somebody whose name you’ve barely heard before.

By John DeFore