Twentieth anniversary of an Austin cultural mainstay starts this week


Gabriella Belzer

Barbara Morgan, founder and executive director of the Austin Film Festival, is preparing for the opening day of the festival, currently in its 20th year. The festival has grown from a screenplay competition into a nationally recognized event that includes 150 panel discussions.

Lee Henry

Austin Film Festival has a red carpet and celebrity appearances, but since its inception, the festival has celebrated the hard work behind the glamour. 

The Austin Film Festival began 20 years ago and has grown from a screenplay competition to a nationally recognized festival filled with world-renowned films and guests. Its founder and current executive director, Barbara Morgan, believes the genesis of the festival was a case of kismet. 

“I was doing some music promotion in addition to having a finance company in Austin,” Morgan said.  

She was at a dinner party with a friend who started talking about how Austin had no public film festival. 

“I said ‘Hey, what if I started a film festival? Would you guys help?’ And the ball just rolled from there,” Morgan said. 

The ball never stopped. Today, the Austin Film Festival screens high-profile films, including Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” and the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” 

“We would never have gotten those 20 years ago,” Morgan said. “It was probably four or five years into our existence before we got some really solid big films. But we fall right after Toronto [International Film Festival], so it’s a great trickle down for us to be able to have a lot of U.S. premieres.”

The Austin Film Festival is divided into two parts: the film series and the conference, which consists of various panels featuring well-known producers, directors and writers as well as film scholars and historians. The centerpiece of the conference is the screenwriting competition, a contest that this year alone brought in 8,600 submissions across all categories. 

“It takes all year to do it,” competition director Matt Dy said. “We got about 1,000 submissions our first year, and the winner got optioned and made into a movie.”

It is this competition that makes AFF a writer’s festival above anything else and is a perfect example of its governing ethos: fostering new creative voices and giving them feedback and ways to break into the industry. 

“We do 150 panels on every topic imaginable, but it is focused on story, on narrative storytelling,” Morgan said.

Despite the presence of A-listers such as Susan Sarandon and “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan, it is work by inexperienced filmmakers, some of whom are UT students, that is the central focus of AFF. 

The Festival’s staff boasts a surprising number of UT alumni, and many of its interns and volunteers are current students. Dy, for instance, is a 2005 graduate from the radio-television-film program and said he essentially trained for his current position as an intern during his time at UT. 

“I told the guy who ran the competition that I was gonna take his job one day,” Dy said. “And I did. It took less than 10 years.”

Another of Dy’s coworkers and a fellow UT alumna, Allison Frady, had a less direct interest in working in the film industry but a surprisingly similar experience. 

“I graduated from UT in 2009 with a degree in PR,” Frady said. “I was an intern [with AFF] in 2008 and then officially became full-time in 2009.” 

As the development director of the festival, Frady is in charge of everything from corporate sponsors to event planning and reservations, but before that, she worked as Morgan’s assistant. Frady said these kinds of jobs are so vaulable for students who want to work in film because “you really go through the nitty gritty everday tasks, and in the film industry, those are all over the map.”  

When asked if she has ever had a moment where she realized that she made it, festival director Barbara Morgan admits she’s had them from the beginning. 

“We were very lucky. I mean, the very first year we started we had five Academy Award-winners,” Morgan said. “But I have to say, when Oliver Stone agreed to come in 1998 … that was something that presented itself as the difference between something that was a smaller local event and something that was national.”

Morgan isn’t sure what the festival will look like in another 20 years, but she hopes it will still keep the same focus on growing new writers. 

“I hope we’ll be very much an iteration of what [we are] today,” she said. “What I’d like to see is more people who have come through our competition … be able to break into the industry because that’s what our intent always was when we started. Was to be an access point.”