This month, the Austin Film Festival will return for a 27th iteration, and like most 2020 festivals, it’ll be a virtual rather than in-person event. Executive director Barbara Morgan says that, for a while, festival organizers were hoping that change wouldn’t be necessary. “We were hopeful… when we heard about South By [cancelling] that by the time the world got to October, we would be back live,” she says. It eventually became clear that large gatherings would still be unsafe this fall, and the festival moved online.
“For the most part, the festival – as far as the films and the panels – are going to be the way they have been in the past, they’ll just be virtual,” Morgan says, adding that in addition to all the virtual events, there will also be a couple of actual in-person screenings at the Paramount. “We’ve always been in the Paramount Theatre, since the day we started,” she says. “So we are going to do a couple of events in the Paramount Theatre. We just felt like we’ve got to have that treasure as part of our programming.”
The virtual festival will feature around 100 films and 40 panels, giving participants something pretty close to the actual festival experience. One thing that’s hard to replicate for an at-home audience, though, is the in-person networking that has always been a big part of AFF.
“You know, it’s a weird animal for us, because we’re definitely an event that’s very much about the networking aspects of it,” Morgan says. “The biggest thing I know I’m going to miss most is the live aspect of it – seeing people in line at a theater and talking to them, [without] even knowing them.”
Anne Rapp, who’s a longtime writer and now a first-time director (her documentary Horton Foote: The Road to Home will be premiering at this year’s festival), also says she’ll miss that one-on-one interaction. “I’ve never been to any kind of film festival – or even film event – where there weren’t kind of ropes between the fancy people and the everyday people,” she says. “They call it the velvet rope, I guess. And those were gone [at the Austin Film Festival].”
For years, much of that networking and conversation happened at the Driskill bar, which Morgan calls “the aorta” of the festival. “The bar became the epicenter, you know. Everybody would go down there as soon as the panels were over,” she says. “And they’d talk and network and get to know each other and scripts were sold down there – we’ve had a lot of scripts sold in that Driskill bar.”
To try to keep that spirit alive this year, the AFF crew is creating a sort of virtual version of the Driskill bar as part of a networking portal for the online festival. “When you get in to log in to start networking with folks, you’ve got to go through the bar doors," Morgan says. "You’re going to meet the bartender. They’re going to be doing special drinks.”
“I’m really going to miss that this year,” Rapp says of the in-person portion of the festival. “But there is no other place that I would even consider premiering my film regardless. It’s a film about a writer, and the writer that I made my film about, Horton Foote, was their first Distinguished Screenwriter award [winner]… back twenty-five-ish years ago. So that’s karma, man.”
In addition to Rapp’s Horton Foote: The Road to Home, this year’s Austin Film Festival will host the premieres of Fugitive Dreams by Jason Neulander; Paper Tiger by Paul Kowalski; The Catch by Matthew Ya-Hsiung Balzer; Open Field by Kathy Kuras and many others, along with dozens of panels.