Walk into the Austin Film Festival’s cozy East Austin headquarters, and the first thing you’ll notice is that employees are everywhere in the house-turned-into-office– practicing Pilates near the kitchen, working at desks, working on couches.
It’s a hive of activity with a fun, cooperative, almost collegiate atmosphere, the kind of place every college student dreams of working in. There are no cubicles or suits here, and there’s friendly banter about where to order lunch (Hut’s Hamburgers wins out).
The atmosphere may look casual, but the work is real, and hard, and the days are long. For Barbara Morgan, executive director of the Austin Film Festival & Conference, it’s a labor of love.
Morgan founded the festival with Marsha Milam in 1994 to showcase screenwriting, and 17 years later that’s still the focus of the festival and conference.
“I wasn’t involved in film. I had a finance background,” Morgan said of AFF’s conception. “Austin was a lot smaller then, and it was obvious there was a hole in the market for film programming. We had theaters, but no festival, and that was what led me to it…all we tried to do was fill a need in the market.”
The Austin Film Festival was a bit of an anomaly in the film world when it started. Most film festivals at that time–and there were only one or two others in Austin in 1994–focused on directors and stars. AFF’s seemed like a counterintuitive approach to take, but it meant plenty of growth potential, Morgan said. No one had previously honored the writers behind films, so AFF attracted plenty of real talent, with a knack for speaking to boot.
“That has been our focus the entire time–we don’t stray from that, and we don’t care what kind of programming it is,” Morgan said.
The conference takes up the first four days of the annual festival, and it feeds its programming. Panelists lined up for this year’s conference range from animation and family film gurus to screenwriting professors and industry representatives.
Although the fall conference and festival is a big part of what AFF does, it also helps present year-round events such as the “Made in Texas” Film Series and holds a summer film camp.
Plenty of conference and screening programming over the years has had LGBT ties, although Morgan said that hasn’t been a conscious choice so much as a result of what’s going on in the industry. And AFF has been careful to work with, not compete with, the Austin Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. Like the AFF, that festival also takes place in the fall. This year aGLIFF runs September 6–12, and AFF’s conference and festival take place October 20–27.
“I’m hoping to be in a continuous partnership,” Morgan said of aGLIFF, although the exact nature of what that would look like is still unclear. “We usually present at least one film of theirs, and they present one of our films… To me, the industry is everything… action films, gay products, comedies, shorts, which are a big portion of our programming, and how people break in through that. It’s all aspects of that, and how the story affects programming.”
That means sometimes panelists talk openly about being gay, and sometimes they just happen to be gay but want to talk about the writing. The point for AFF is about showcasing great stories, period. Or, as Morgan put it, “we don’t care what sexual orientation you have, we want to see what you do. That’s our biggest selling point.”
An interesting trend that Morgan said both AFF and aGLIFF have noticed is the changing definition of what makes a “gay movie.” Scripts with LGBT-related material aren’t necessarily LGBT movies, she said.
Take Brokeback Mountain, which was marketed to the general public. Was it a gay movie because its characters were gay? It’s hard to say, Morgan argued.
“We noticed, both aGLIFF and us, that there were then (after the release of Brokeback Mountain) a lot of people submitting characters with a strong gay character in it, but they didn’t want to call it a gay film. They wanted it to be marketed to the general public.”
Whatever the subject, Morgan said Austin film audiences have so much exposure to film content that they tend to be experienced viewers, almost jaded. That forces AFF, as well as SXSW and aGLIFF, to really rise to the occasion. Morgan added that as Austin has grown, its collective interest in foreign films has faded, while art house films seem to capture its attention. The new Violet Crown cinema, she notes, is now programming the kind of movie that used to come to the Dobie Theater.
With all the inside industry knowledge that Morgan has gained in her nearly 20 years of running the AFF, she’s developed an appreciation for films that’s decidedly not snooty.
“My tastes regarding film haven’t changed. I like a great action movie, as well as comedy. I am not ashamed to say I thought The Hangover was one of the greatest comedies to come out in a long time,” she said. “To me, film is entertainment. I think it’s more entertainment than art. It’s a medium meant for an audience. It’s not a cerebral medium, it’s tactile, and you want people to feel something, to walk away with an experience. You ask them to participate for a few hours in order to do that.”