10/03/2014 01:25 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2014

Make the Most of the Austin Film Festival

Greg Garrett

Why the Austin Film Festival Matters

It's the season of big events here in Austin, Texas, bringing tens of thousands of people into town from across the globe. Some of those events--ACLFest and Formula One--I flee. But there's one--the Austin Film Festival, which begins October 23rd--that I anticipate all year long.

I don't go to the Austin Film Festival because I want to shop my script or make connections with producers and directors, although people do both of those things here.

I don't go to the Austin Film Festival because I want to hobnob with stars, although Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Billy Bob Thornton, Keanu Reeves, and Jack Black are going to be in town for a look at Richard Linklater's career--only one of many panels and screenings that will turn Austin into Tinseltown for a week.

I don't even go for the films, although Donnie Darko and 12 Years a Slave are just two of the Festival films that have rocked my world.

No, I go to the Austin Film Festival--and have been going for over a decade now--because I am a writer, and because I want to talk to other writers about how and why we tell stories.

I go because I teach writing, and I love the opportunity to talk structure, editing, and the writing life with people who've figured it out.

And I go because it's one of the few writing events I know of that prides itself on inviting only people who want to give back, to help out. It's one of the few gatherings of this many made writers where there's a genuine spirit of community that includes everyone. I like to say that the Festival enforces a "no asshole" rule, and I do think it's true. People that are too full of themselves, who are mean to others, or who behave badly don't tend to get invited back. No matter who they are.

Now, during the ten-plus years I've been involved with the Festival, I've been a panelist, interviewer, and moderator who has talked writing and filmmaking with the people behind The Empire Strikes Back, Lost, Wedding Crashers, Game of Thrones, and dozens of other films and television shows.

I've been to parties and barbecues. I've worked behind the scenes as a consultant, and driven my son to work as a Festival intern and volunteer. In the process, I've gathered plenty of wisdom about how to make the most of the Festival when you come to Austin, and I want to share some of it with you here.

Pick Your Panels Wisely

About 150 different panels, interviews, and other offerings populate the schedule for the conference, and you need to spend some time reviewing them to see what they're covering and who's going to be involved with them. If you're writing a scifi dystopia, you certainly may want to sit in on a panel about writing alternate worlds or plotting science fiction. The Festival features some of the greatest genre writers in the world talking about the kinds of stories that made them famous, and you could hear the solution to that problem that's been keeping you up at night.

But that could also happen at panels on more general topics, which often feature some of the Festival's great educators and most inspirational speakers. When James Hart talks about story structure, you ought to be in the audience. When Steve Faber talks about writing with heart, you should be taking notes. Whatever Shane Black is talking about, it's ultimately going to be about why you should persevere as a writer--and he'll offer his own career as proof.

If you did well in the screenwriting competition and you're entitled to attend any special sessions, absolutely take advantage of them. The panels often feel like master classes, and are limited to a relative handful of people. You may also have access to roundtable discussions where this year you can ask questions of writers for House, MD, Breaking Bad, Beverly Hills Cop, Men in Black, Chicago Fire, and 22 Jump Street, among others.

Do consider attending films--especially when filmmakers are in attendance. This fall, Randall Wallace will be screening and talking about Braveheart. Jon Stewart will be here to show his new film. Jim Sheridan will talk about In The Name of the Father, and Matthew Weiner will discuss Mad Men. It's an unprecedented opportunity to watch and study films with the people who made them.

Be Social--But Not Obnoxiously So

The bar of the Driskill Hotel is the beating heart of the Festival. Here you'll find established screenwriters, directors, agents, and producers holding forth--often with writers and filmmakers in earlier stages of their careers listening. People will be here until late, so do drop by.

The Festival also schedules official gatherings from before the weekend writer's conference starts until the film showings conclude ten days later. Depending on the kind of badge you're holding, some may not be open to you. But assuming that you can attend, check out the WGA West Late Night Welcome Party on Thursday the 23rd, the BBQ supper on Friday the 24th, the Heart of Film party Saturday the 25th at the Long Center, and the Hair of the Dog brunch at Ranch 616 on Sunday morning the 26th.

At all of these events--and the other parties and receptions spread throughout the weekend--do feel free to introduce yourself to people. You may have the chance to sit at the feet of an Oscar-winning writer--or share beers with an agent looking for her next great client. But in all cases, be respectful. If people want to know the plot of your screenplay, they will ask. And please, don't monopolize. Chances are, people are standing in line behind you for the same chance to sit at someone's feet, or to talk to an agent.

Have your pitch polished and ready. Have business cards ready to hand out. Be ready to talk about your work if you have work worthy of talking about.

But remember the "no-asshole" rule. It applies to everyone. Don't pester, don't hound, and don't plead.

And don't forget to make friends with your fellow conference-goers. Not only will they be people you can hang with at the conference, but they are also your peers. You may discover a new writing partner, a potential first reader, or a lifelong friend as you continue to pursue your craft.

Enjoy Austin

One of the reasons panelists return year after year is the unique vibe of Austin, a city that takes movies, storytelling, food, music, and the good life seriously. Take in some music--not on Sixth Street, please! But do see if Jon Dee Graham, James McMurtry, Bob Schneider, Walt Wilkins, Terri Hendrix, or Marcia Ball are playing during the weekend. Patronize the Saxon Pub on South Lamar, the Continental Club on South Congress, or the Broken Spoke on South Lamar in lieu of the fratboy atmosphere of Sixth Street. Check out the amazing Dale Watson and chicken shit bingo at Jenny's Little Longhorn on North Burnet on Sunday the 26th. You won't be sorry, if you can manage to squeeze inside.

Take in at least one show at the Alamo Drafthouse while you're here. It's nationally famous for a reason--because, as Quentin Tarentino says, it is the best freaking place in the world to watch a movie. Food and drink at your seat. A no texting, no talking policy that is for real. The Drafthouse is movie-loving for movie lovers. Plus the Drafthouse Village up north is a venue for the festival this year.

Get out in the great outdoors. Swim at Barton Springs--it'll probably still be warm enough. Hike the Barton Creek or Bull Creek trails. Run, walk, bike, or jog along Lady Bird Lake (still known to many locals as Town Lake). Rent a bike, and ride. Drive out into the Texas Hill Country and take in Pedernales Falls State Park or Hamilton Pool.

And eat. Not from a chain--although Ruth's Chris steakhouse downtown is pretty phenomenal--but from some of Austin's famous or should-be-famous restaurants. Asian tapas at Uchiko on North Lamar, small plates at Odd Duck on South Lamar, French food at Chez Nous off Sixth Street on Neches or Justine's on East Cesar Chavez, Sandra Bullock's West Sixth Street bistro Bess, and the 616 Ranch just off West Sixth Street will all reward you, and a visit to the food trucks scattered around town are likely to surprise you with the variety of foods available in Austin.

Enjoy yourself. Make friends. Learn things.

And chances are, you'll want to come back again next year.

That would be just fine with us.