12 Important Takeaways from Austin Film Festival 2015November 11th, 2015
By Danny Manus
There’s always a sharp adjustment period after I return from Austin Film Fest every year. And not just for my liver. It’s a constant whirlwind event for 5 days – and not just because of the Tornado that almost hit this year! There’s so much to take in – it’s wall to wall panels, parties and people! If you have never been, I highly recommend it!
This year, I was back teaching the Pitch Prep seminar alongside Pixar executive Emily Zulauf, as well as judging the early rounds. And I got to moderate a great panel on pitching as well.
While extreme weather and falling on Halloween certainly affected this year’s events, there was still a huge amount of learning and networking to experience.
My favorite panels that I saw were Phil Rosenthal’s interview with the legendary Norman Lear, who at 93 is every bit as sharp, hilarious and inspirational as he ever has been; the conversation between action heroes Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Long Kiss Goodnight) and Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive); Michael Arndt’s (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) course on Endings; the TV/Film Crossover convo between Justin Marks (Jungle Book) and Amy Berg (DaVinci’s Demons); and my own panel on the art of pitching with Chad and Carey Hayes (The Conjuring, San Andreas).
From all the panels I heard, as well as the pitching competition this year, there were some clear lessons, tips and quotes I want to share with all of you who couldn’t make it that will hopefully help you on your writing journey.
1. The greatest writers in the world all think Structure and Formatting is important. There are a few consultants and writers out there spouting about how structure is killing creativity and how having a beat sheet or using three-act structure isn’t necessary. And maybe it isn’t. But, when I hear writers like Michael Arndt, Brian Helgeland, Jeb Stuart and Terry Rossio touting the importance of specific structure, it’s clear those who don’t believe are in a vast minority. Even those who hate structure – still love structure. They just call it something else. You can look at structure from your character’s POV or thru visual beats or emotional beats – but it’s all structure. And it’s all important.
2. “At the moment of (true) commitment, the universe conspires to ensure your success.” – Norman Lear on becoming successful and what it takes. “We all walk in on the shoulders of others.” – Norman Lear.
3. “The big difference between action and suspense – suspense is cheaper.” (Jeb Stuart) He also said (and I’m paraphrasing): Action is when something exciting happens that the character and audience both experience. Suspense is when the audience knows something the character doesn’t and we’re not sure when or how they will discover it. For example, action is a bomb exploding. Suspense is seeing there’s a ticking bomb under the table and the character doesn’t know. Then finding ways to build the tension of that moment.
4. Humanizing your characters is about laying foundation with those small clues and moments early on that give us insight into them and connect us in some way. (Angela Kang, writer/Exec Producer, The Walking Dead)
5. When Die Hard was being developed, Joel Silver told Shane Black, “You have to blow up the top of the building!” Because if you don’t, you’re teasing the audience too much and audiences don’t want to be teased at the end of an action movie.
6. Insanely great endings are positive, surprising, and most of all – meaningful. There’s an emotional release, a new look on the world, and meaningful emotion… Always ask yourself – what’s at stake? And look at the External, the Internal, and the Philosophical (paraphrasing Michael Arndt in his Endings class).
7. “The connectors kill your script. They are what cause the lulls,” Shane Black said. He is referring to the exposition-filled PLANNING scenes where it’s just characters talking about what they are going to do or how they’re going to do it.
8. Good action scenes advance the plot. Never hit pause on your story to include action – it should be part of the story. (Angela Kang) And if you imbed the story in the action, then it can’t be cut for budgetary reasons later on. (Jeb Stuart)
9. In terms of pitching, TV was king this year. Two years ago, the pitch competition was about 60/40 in favor of film. Last year, it was 50/50. This year, it was about 70% TV pitches! And to that end, the WINNERS the last two years were TV series pitches.
10. When you pitch producers, pitch the External. When you pitch actors, pitch the Internal.
11. Have your pitch down. The winner this year had her pitch down so perfectly, she did not get ONE note in her preliminary judging session OR the finale. Her TV Comedy series pitch had everything one should have; a funny concept, likable characters and a strong entrée into the world, clear conflict, it wasn’t just a great pilot but a strong series, and she had great one-liners with perfect word choice, rhythm and cadence to the pitch. And she was unshakable. She knew her story and pitch so well a room full of drunken peers and three A-List writers judging her couldn’t shake her. That’s how you pitch!
12. “It took every moment of your life to get right here. And every second of mine.” – Norman Lear.Life in Hollywood, Pitchfests, Classes and Conferences, Pitching Tips, Screenwriting Tips, Television Ramblings