Time is a funny thing.
For long stretches it can drag by so slowly that it sometimes even seems running backwards, and then you look up and realize that great honking gobs of the stuff have surged by without you paying the slightest heed.
September is upon us, dear friends, and that means I am suddenly in countdown mode for that annual pilgrimage to the Driskill Hotel for that annual pagan celebration of loquacious non-sobriety known as The Screenwriting Conference at The Austin Film Festival.
Any even casual readers of this blog likely understand the feelings I hold for this event: it is, in my non-humble and totally biased point of view, simply the finest networking event of its kind anywhere. Dozens of A-list screenwriters and producers and agents and managers (as well as a some number of well-dressed slimeballs and braying ass-hats) gather in Austin annually in October to open The Austin Film Festival, a week-long celebration of moviemaking and movie watching.
What makes this AFF event so special—so valuable to aspiring screenwriters—is that this is one of the very few such events which is focused specifically on the craft and business of screenwriting. There are plenty of film festivals—every even medium sized town seems to have one these days—but the AFF event caters to the specific and twisted interests of us folks who consider a day spent staring at arcanely formatted 12-point Courier "a good thing."
Panels where we get to listen as big-name pros offer advice and insight and encouragement and gentle remonstrance for lapses in taste, judgment, and dedication... the rare and thrilling experience of briefly being part of a community of peers rather than the most isolated and ill-understood outcast in the neighborhood... the opportunity to network and socialize with talented folks whom you recognize as names in the credits of your favorite movies... and (among my favorites) beer, beer, glorious wonderful heavenly beer.
Do not underestimate the importance of this last element. There are, as I said, any number of other festivals out there, but there is something about the vibe in Austin that helps create an environment where these reclusive writers not only willingly gather, but congregate and socialize for extended period. For four bizarre wonderful days, the Driskill Hotel Lounge becomes the communal living room for the oddest gathering, with non-name newbies sitting around and having a beer and a normal conversation with some guy who penned the #5 biggest box office success of all time. A housewife with three kids back in Biloxi laughing and talking "theme" with a twice-honored Oscar nominee. A struggling writer from small-town nowhere chatting intensely with the legendary writer behind at least three of his all-time favorite movies.
For the four days of the conference, "Hollywood" suddenly no longer seems some mystical distant Neverland existing only in dreams and fantasies. Instead, it's a real place of real people—people with names and voices and faces and senses of humor and personalities.
And phone numbers. And email addresses. And cellphone numbers.
When done well and properly, a trip to the AFF Conference can be every bit as rewarding in terms of networking and professional development as might be three months of time spent pounding the pavement in Hollywood. In fact, loads of aspiring writers from Hollywood come to Austin for this event as they understand that a "nobody" (and I use that term with absolute respect, as it self-applies) can never hope to get even 1/50th the access in Hollywood as they might rate in Austin. At the festival, everyone is relaxed and glad to help and listen and socialize, and suddenly almost all the normal walls and restrictions to access are taken down.
But even beyond that, The Austin Film Festival is a sort of reunion—a "gathering of the tribes," as I call it—as friends and peers gather for that four days a year where they can all be in one physical place, sharing one physical existence. I have friends—and I mean dear friends, ones I rate among my best—whom I see only during these magical four days. Whose total days of shared time together we can measure as multiples of four days represented by this annual event. We meet at the Driskill, we smile, we hug and shake hands and laugh at all that has transpired since the last time we so-gathered, and then we rush to squeeze a year's worth of friendship into those next 96 hours before it's time once again to take flight and migrate back to wherever our "Normal Lives" run their course and we are forced to try and make do with friendship by email and online wave at a distance.
Few like to talk about it, but working to screenwriting success is often a lonely and soul-crushing pursuit, as we spend our nights chasing a goal which none of our real life friends, neighbors, and peers can even believe, much less understand. If we told these people that we were secret agents or treasure hunters or wizards I doubt they'd be much more befuddled by our work. We spend the year as the slightly odd guy who acts overly excited when he says "oh, I finished a rewrite today!" We're the spouses who have to make do with a politely indulgent and distracted "that's nice dear" when we announce with pride that we "wrote three really good pages today!" We're the odd birds who clock the seasons by such odd calendar landmarks as "deadline for the Nicholl Fellowships submission" and "hiring season for TV" and "Oscar nominations."
But for those four days in Austin... for that span of days we are not unusual. We are not alone. We are neither dreamers nor eccentrics nor quaintly a-social recluses burdened by caffeine burn and bloodshot eyes and writer's cramp and hearts made tired and heavy by too many dreams delayed or denied by circumstance and geography.
Instead, we are briefly, simply, and wonderfully with our kind.
Make what preparations are right and proper, brothers and sisters, and stand ready to sound the advance.
The time grows near.