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Diary of Eilis Mernagh at the Austin Film Festival
30 Oct 2008 :
Eilis Mernagh is a rookie Irish screenwriter with 3 feature-length scripts completed. She recently attended the Austin Film Festival this year (16-23 October) with a view to selling one/all of them or at very least to make some useful contacts in the industry.

Austin is a small and quirky but very influential movie festival which will be attended by a lot of big names, including legendary screenwriters Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest), Buck Henry (The Graduate), John Lee Hancock (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and actor/writer Sam Shepard (Paris, Texas).

In this diary Eilis recounts the 90 second pitching competition which she entered as well as meeting some top industry people at the festival parties and her low down on panel talks and the films screen.

Austin Film Festival, 16 -23 October 2008

Day One

It’s the 16th of October and I’m setting off on a 4,500 mile journey to the Austin Film Festival in Texas. My aim: to meet Hollywood movers and shakers and learn how to pitch a script to some of the best in the business. The Austin festival focuses on screenwriting and writers, attracting some of the biggest names in scriptwriting, as well as studio executives, producers and agents. The perfect place to make contacts and see what the moviemakers are really looking for in a script.

I’ve written three feature-length Irish-based scripts, none of which have been produced. Up to now it’s been a hobby that I’ve always dreamed of making a career. But I have two solid ideas for movies set elsewhere – a horror comedy set in Maine, Massachusetts and an action adventure set in Central Asia – and the chance to see if I can sell the American script to U.S. producers seems too good to miss. Plus I’ve never been to Texas!

The trip over involves an eight-hour flight to Chicago and includes some seriously weird plane food. Thanks, American Airlines! By chance, I’m sitting beside Irish singer-songwriter David Peyton (ex-frontman of band Dave’s Radio), who’s on his way to New Orleans to record an album. He’s got an even longer journey ahead of him than me, and mine’s pretty long. I have a five-hour stopover in Chicago and then spend another four hours in a plane until we finally reach Austin at 8pm local time.

First impressions of Texas: there’s non-stop country and western music playing at the airport and all the airport cafes seems to be serving things like barbecued brisket.

The jet lag is kicking in and by the time I reach the Austin Motel, my eyes have to be propped open. The motel itself, however, is a sight to behold. The lobby looks like someone robbed a Western-themed junk shop in the dark – and yet somehow, it works. Each room is decorated with a different theme: my room, number 131, is Tex-Mex inspired. It has a Mexican blanket on the bed and the table lamps are made from old cowboy boots. Having been told by the taxi driver that Texas is known for dangerous spiders and snakes, I search the room for creepy crawlies then pass out on my fiesta bed.

Day Two

My first day at the festival and things are starting at 9.00am so I grab a coffee and a taxi and head for the old-fashioned southern luxury that is the Driskill Hotel. The Driskill is the centre of the action for the next three days, forming the backdrop to most of the Festival activities. My motel is on South Congress, a long street just over the river from downtown Austin. It’s only 25 minutes walk from the Driskill, but given the fact that the schedule is very tight and that the temperature is already up to 30 degrees, taxis are essential. I’m already making a mental note to just shell out and stay in the Driskill next time.

The unique thing about the Austin Film Festival – and the real reason I’m here - is its annual Festival Conference. The Conference involves three days of panel and round-table discussions where amateur and professional screenwriters can meet each other, as well as getting access to big-name producers, directors, agents, managers and studio executives. There are all sorts of legendary stories about people selling scripts, getting agents and making deals during this three-day networking free for all, so I have to hit the ground running. I pick up my conference badge and get ready for a day of assault.

To fray my nerves even further, I have entered the festival’s pitching competition, where you have 90 seconds in front of two industry judges and a roomful of other people to sell your script and hopefully progress to the next stage. My pitch slot is at 1.45pm, so I guess I won’t be eating lunch today.

My first event of the day is an informal group chat with Terry Rossio, co-writer of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Shrek and Aladdin, to name but a few. The discussion takes place in a room with Terry Rossio sitting in a chair beside the fireplace and about 30 people sitting on the floor in front of him. I think the idea is to have a relaxed encounter with a pro but Rossio, while charming, is a shy man and I think the whole thing is freaking him out. Still he gives some great anecdotes and even better advice. For selling scripts in public, he urges us to concentrate on the content and ideas and not to worry too much if your delivery is bad. He claims not to be great at pitches himself. Apparently Steven Spielberg even told him and his writing partner Ted Elliott, “It’s a good thing you write better than you pitch”. Phew, I must remember that later.

Terry Rossio also shares his memory of realising that his first script was going to get made (“A feeling of absolute contentment, that I was exactly where I was meant to be”) and spills the beans on Keith Richards playing Johnny Depp’s dad in At World’s End. Apparently he was told by the studio that Keef’s part would have to be crucial to the plot (to justify him showing up) but as they couldn’t be sure that he would show up, it would have to be a part that could be cut out later without affecting the rest of the script!

I also hear my first piece of great screenwriting jargon: shelf puppies, which are scripts that haven’t been produced and just sit on your shelf, but which you dearly hope will get made some day. Well I have three of those!

Next up is a knuckle-chewing hour, followed by the start of the dreaded pitching. I head into a small, theatre-style room with two people sitting at a head table: Hollywood producer and manager Darris Hatch and producer Rick Dugdale. There are about thirty people in the room: thirteen of us are on the list to pitch and only two will progress from this round. I’m number six - already I am having to take deep breaths. I try to stop thinking about how bad my prepared pitch sounds. It doesn’t help that the first guy up gives a really funny pitch about his Christmas movie, where Santa has to stop global warming and save the North Pole along with his elves. He made it sound better, trust me. Then there’s a no-show, then two guys get up and blow everyone away with another comedy pitch, this one about a celebrity sperm bank (tagline: From Clay Aiken to Billy Zane!). Great! Finally, it’s my turn.

I’m pitching The Heartstoppers, which is a comedy horror about a haunted house in Maine. It’s Ghostbusters meets The Cat and the Canary, a Halloween movie with a lot of scares but a lot more laughs. About ten seconds in, I realise that I’m enjoying myself. Rick Dugdale laughs at the funny bits and really seems to like it. Then, just before I get to the end of the story, the girl with the stopwatch calls time. She says I can finish my sentence, so I end with “Finale, the heroes win” and everyone laughs. Darris Hatch tells me that she thinks there’s a bit too much set-up before I can get to the good stuff, which is probably true. However, overall it seems to go well and it’s a brilliant feeling to have done my first ever pitch in front of two Hollywood pros. The rest of the pitches pass in a blur and then the results – the two comedy pitches are through. No surprises there, they were brilliant. The big surprise is that I came fourth – and Rick Dugdale gave me his second highest score. Happy with that, I give the two judges a copy of my treatment and leave for the next panel discussion.

This is called “A Shot of Inspiration” and that’s exactly what it is. Veteran screenwriter, director and producer Laurence Kasdan, rookie writer Shauna Cross and director and writer John August take part in a Q&A about their experiences of breaking into the industry. Kasdan, who wrote classics like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Body Heat, was an advertising executive who wrote 6 movie scripts before finally getting his big break. One of his scripts was turned down 67 times! Shauna Cross’ big break came when she wrote the novel Derby Doll about her experiences of growing up in Austin – she’s now turned it into the movie Whip It! which is being produced by Drew Barrymore. Overall, my lessons from this session are, don’t give up, stay in the game, think about writing a novel first, then a screenplay, keep writing – and don’t give up!

One of the great benefits of the badge I’ve got is that you get priority seating at all festival movies, however long the queue is. That night, I see two movies – the utterly brilliant Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Danny Boyle, and a 10-year anniversary screening of Zero Effect, directed by Jake Kasdan. Danny Boyle gives a great interview after Slumdog, talking about working with MIA on the soundtrack and (possible spoiler!) revealing why the final kiss is cut just as the actors’ lips meet (Indian actresses traditionally do not kiss on film, especially if it is a scene in a public place). The Austin audience gives the film a great reception and it is definitely my favourite film of the festival.

Day Three

Into Saturday and after a session on What Gets Producers Excited? (ideas that sell, sell, sell), there is an interesting panel on the manager/writer relationship. Ten years ago apparently it was unheard of for writers to have managers but now it seems that the manager has taken on a lot of the duties an agent used to have – acting as a sounding board, developing ideas, etc – while the agent is there primarily to sell you and your work. There is an interesting Q&A session with manager and ex-studio executive Craig Baumgarten and über-manager Michael Connelly.

After attending an awards lunch at The Austin Club, I head into Titans of TV, with Heroes creator Tim Kring, and TV comedy writers Greg Daniels and Phil Rosenthal. There is a lot of discussion about how U.S. TV networks are under siege from new viewing options like Tivo and the internet, which make it easy for people to watch show whenever they want, ad-free. This has led to product-placement hell, such as an entire episode of cheese fest show Seventh Heaven being devoted to the joys of Oreo cookies.

Lastly for the panels, there is a session on How to Make it Outside Hollywood. As I’m based about 6,000 miles from Hollywood, this seems like the one for me. The good news is that according to the panel it is possible to make it outside of L.A., although obviously it helps to live there. If you are determined to live elsewhere, it is important to have an agent/manager based in Hollywood and to go out there every 3-4 months yourself for meetings. Michael Connelly’s advice: identify producers who do films within your genre and email them brief loglines of your script(s).

I go to the bar and do yet more networking – my capacity to talk to total strangers has tripled – before taking a taxi to a cinema to see How to Be. This film stars British actor Robert Pattinson, who is about to become a huge star when vampire flick Twilight hits screens later in the year. When I arrive there is a line of over-excited girls stretching around the block. The film starts twice without sound – I think the girls are going to kill the cinema manager – and only gets started properly an hour after the scheduled start. The film’s director Oliver Irving resorts to working the crowd and signing autographs.

I have to move on because the Pitch Finale party is taking place in a downtown bar: surprisingly, neither of the comedy scripts win. Instead, a guy comes from nowhere with an animation script about a werewolf cub (were-cub?!) and scoops the overall spot. This is followed by the conference wrap party, where Colorado screenwriter Brenda Pressnall and myself try to track down some Hollywood heavyweights to chat to. There’s a free bar and everyone’s in a good mood. We meet Trading Places writer Herschel Weingrod: it’s one of my all-time favourite films and it’s great to chat with the man who wrote it. It’s at this party that I recognise two advantages in being the only Irish person at the festival: people love the accent and the drinking capacity helps! Some of the big hitters are going to have really heavy heads in the morning…

Day Four

I do two round-table sessions on Sunday – which starts later at 11.30am because everyone has a hangover. In fact, since Texas beat Missouri at football last night, the whole town has a hangover. Still, after a stack of the Driskill’s gorgeous blueberry pancakes I’m ready for action. At the first session, screenwriter Bonnie Orr is the first to sit at our table and she has some sobering stories to tell about copyright. She names names, telling us about how a famous Hollywood director stole her script for a big-budget action film and claimed credit for writing it and how she wrote the script for Contact 2 only for Jodie Foster to refuse to do the movie. In the later directors’ roundtable, we meet writer/director Eric Red, who wrote the horror classics The Hitcher and Near Dark. Eric’s best tip – hook them with the first ten pages!

My last session of the Conference is supposed to be a fireplace encounter with the legendary Shane Black, writer of the ‘Lethal Weapon’ movies and ‘The Last Boy Scout’. I’m very excited to hear his stories, although there have been rumours swirling at the Conference about Black’s diva-like behaviour. He was allegedly publicly rude to a festival volunteer at one of the panels the day before. Whatever the truth is, he doesn’t show up at the session and his place is taken instead by New York comedy writer David Wain. Wain, whose film Role Models is being shown at the festival, is a sharp and witty replacement.

Conference over, I go to two movies with L.A. based screenwriter Logan Steiner. ‘Wendy and Lucy’ is a well-acted and beautifully shot but very bleak drama with Michelle Williams, while the rough-around-the-edges but very funny Stanton Family Grave Robbery is a welcome relief afterwards.

Then it’s back to the Driskill Bar – because tomorrow, many of the festival attendees will start to head for home. The festival itself goes on until Thursday 23rd, but I will be leaving for some retail therapy in New York – and making plans to come back to Austin next year. I’ve met some great people; some big names in the movie industry, some just amateur writers like me who dream of getting their film made. I’ve learned a huge amount in the time I’ve been here – but one essential fact is: the Hollywood execs don’t care who you are, what your background is or what you look like. They don’t care if none of your scripts have ever been made, if you’re 15 or 72.

They just want a great idea – one that can sell millions of movie tickets.

For more about Eilis Mernagh visit http://eilistalkingmovies.blogspot.com/

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