7 Things We Learned at The 2017 Austin Film Festival’s Writer’s Conference

“The Writers Festival” delivers a wealth of good advice for aspiring filmmakers.
Austin Film Festival Shane Black
By  · Published on November 6th, 2017

“The Writers Festival” delivers a wealth of good advice for aspiring filmmakers.

With every fall season comes the Austin Film Festival and with the festival brings together some of the most talented filmmakers and writers in the business, and those inspired individuals hoping to break in. If you’re not familiar with the Austin Film Festival, it is a traditional film festival that premieres different movies, shorts, and television episodes, but what makes it unique is that it’s also a writer’s festival which celebrates and focuses on screenwriting. Throughout the first four days of the fest, which is the writer’s conference portion of the week, there are several different panels that talk about everything from working in a TV writers room, to breaking into the business, to writing animated films. All provide helpful, realistic insight into being a professional screenwriter, and this year I was fortunate to attend some really cool panels. Here are some of the best takes on writing that I heard most often throughout the conference.

The “second act” is always hard

This is something I heard in multiple panels. No one really likes writing the second act of a script. It’s the point of a story where things slow down a little bit, and it’s not as flashy as the opening or as dramatic as the ending. It’s the part of the story that just feels like it drags on and on and will never end. And unfortunately, there is no one way of jumping into it. The debate on how to approach structure still seems to be ongoing in the writing community. While some choose to not to pay attention to classic screenwriting structure when writing, others use it as a way to outline, while others follow it all the way through. No matter how you choose to write a script, know that most everyone from the most experienced of writers to the newest of newbies struggles with the much dreaded second act.

Your characters need to struggle

It feels like this would be an obvious piece of advice, but this is actually something that should probably be heard every day. As humans, we are (hopefully) inherently nice individuals, and seeing others suffer is not at the top of our list. But as a writer, it’s almost essential. And it’s not like it always needs to be some dramatic sort of suffering, but rather just various obstacles that keep the character away from what they want most, and experiences that really make them learn. Whether it be something as small as making them go to a grocery store that has nothing on their list, or something as big as having them cope with a tragic death, struggle makes a character interesting, more real. Most importantly, these struggles guide them toward what it is they want most in addition to what it is they truly need, which enhances the entire point of the story in the first place.

Rewrite and rewrite

Nothing is ever perfect on its first try, and what we see on screen has most definitely been altered and rewritten a billion times. I will admit, I never exactly thought about this part of screenwriting. I just assumed that everyone who ever wrote anything was an artistic genius who just pieced together their story on the page like a painter with a blank canvas,  but something almost every panel stressed was that the first draft is exactly that: the first draft of many. And there sounds like there will be many. This was a bit of a relief actually. It gives room for experiments and mishaps. A cliche so often thrown around is that “writing is rewriting.” But, it looks like there is some credit to that. So don’t stress the first draft. Just get it all down and sort out the pieces later.

Writing can be a group effort

When people think of writing, it’s easy to picture someone at their desk, in their home alone, with their coffee, writing away. While technology does make this picture a little more realistic, so much of writing involves a collaborative effort. This includes receiving notes from all levels, in order to work with rewrites. Also, in both film and TV, it’s not uncommon for writers to work on various projects at the same time. They might be working on their own thing while also stepping in during the middle of another project to do a punch-up, or help develop a new show or film out of existing pitches the studio has previously bought. And for TV especially, working in a writer’s room is all about the group effort. So, while it’s easy to think about writing as a solo career, it’s actually a pretty collaborative job, at least where screenwriting is concerned. It’s all fine and dandy to have an idea, an outline, and maybe even a completed script, but getting that script in the hands of someone that can produce it and then eventually get it on the screen is a whole other ball game that involves at least some human interaction.

You need to at least step foot in L.A.

After deciding to be a screenwriter, the next question everyone has (if they’re not already there) is whether or not to move to LA. The consensus on this one was pretty clear and the answer is yes. At least for a little bit, to get established and try out different jobs. Since the film industry is so centralized in LA, moving there is a good idea for anyone wanting to break into the film business in general, but for a screenwriter especially. And definitely, if the goal is to work in TV. Being there, on the grounds, within minutes of studios and agents is an important part of the job. Sure, it is possible to write from elsewhere and send in drafts, but thinking back to how many rewrites go into various projects, being nearby to be able to hear notes in person and rework a script immediately is essential. And it’s not like living there forever is the requirement, but the recommendation for moving out there for some time while starting out was quite strong.

Features may not exactly be booming, but TV is.

With streaming services and the internet in general, getting people to go to the movies is difficult enough, and feature films are not experiencing their best of years where box office numbers are concerned. In addition to this, so few movies even get made just out of budgetary reasons and other demands. That being said, no one discouraged writing features if that’s the dream because features are always needed and always appealing to some audience or studio somewhere. However, many did mention that currently, there a more jobs in TV writing because of how much TV there is right now. Think about it. There’s all of the cable, network, and premium channels that come through cable boxes, but there’s also Netflix and Hulu and Amazon that are all services online looking for content as well. That’s a lot of content, and they’re always looking for more. So even if you’re hard set on writing features, maybe consider trying to write for TV if you think that could be your thing, especially if the goal is to be a screenwriter for any medium. And it’s not like working for TV bans you off from working with films. Something else that was stressed throughout the week is that there is usually some overlap in those who work for TV and who work in film. So TV can be a great opportunity to gain writing experience and the connections made in TV can possibly lead to feature work later down the road.

Be interesting, be you

In each of the panels, an audience member would usually ask for advice in some form about how to get a job working as a screenwriter. And the advice usually leaned toward the fact that there is no one way to break in. Each writer had a different story as to how they made it in the business, and while some may have gotten in through being assistants, others just had written spectacular scripts that got them years of work. However, one thing most everyone noted was to simply be yourself and let your voice shine through in your scripts. Don’t try to pretend to be someone that it would seem like a studio would hire, and don’t try to write something just for the sake of imitating some type of success because chances are if you have a unique voice and are a great writer, the work is there somewhere.

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