Today was the kickoff of the Austin Film Festival, which differentiates itself from dozens of other fests by celebrating the art of screenwriting in an atmosphere where the rankest beginners get to rub elbows with and seek advice from some of the most experienced writers in the business. There's no VIP area for the stars to hide in here. If Lawrence Kasdan or David Ward want a cocktail this weekend, they'll have to wait in line with a bunch of people who dream of success in the movie biz and would really like to hear the magic words of advice that will send them on their way.
The opening party at the old Paramount Theater seemed populated more by seekers than seers, but the mood was festive. The entertainment business may be in a funk elsewhere, but it's kicking ass in Austin. Projects shooting here include Alan Parker's The Life of David Gale, Spy Kids 2, Rolling Kansas, Lone Star State of Mind, and Going to California. All totaled, maybe $80 million bucks worth of production. The film crews here are happy.
To my great regret, when Barbara Morgan and Marsha Milam were first putting together their festival dedicated to screenwriters, I was doubtful about their odds of success. That may be why Patrick Sheane Duncan, William Broyles Jr., and F. Richard Pappas are on the board of directors, and I am not. Or it may simply be that I don't have three names.
This year, the festival had a staggering 3,500 scripts submitted to its screenwriting competition, the film conference has 1,500 registrants, and 80 movies are screening over a period of eight nights. I'm exhausted just thinking about it, and my work has yet to begin.
What I do here is moderate panels like tomorrow's "Yuk, Yuk, Yuk: Television Comedy With Gary David Goldberg, Harry Anderson and Jim Dauterive." If the panelists are half as goofy as the title, we can't go wrong.
Two years ago, after I missed introducing Robert Altman at a screening of Nashville because I was having cocktails in a nearby bar, Altman accepted my apologies, then phoned me a couple of days later.
"This is Bob Altman," he said. I asked him to repeat that part, not because I didn't believe him, but because it was such a gas to hear him say it. What "Bob" wanted was to know if I'd be interested in doing something for his upcoming movie, Dr. T and the Women. Richard Gere was set to play the lead, and "Bob" wanted Gere to have a natural Texas accent, not the kind of dictive crapola you sometimes get from a professional voice coach. In other words, "Bob" liked the way I talk.
I wasn't actually going to work with Gere—I never even met the guy. "Bob" just wanted me to do sit down with Dr. T screenwriter Anne Rapp and make an audio recording of the entire screenplay to send to Gere. Our studio efforts ended up a little overly-dramatic though, so on Round 2 "Bob" instructed Anne and me to take a cheap tape recorder to a bar, where we proceeded to get hammered while recording everything we said. I have no idea if Richard Gere ever listened to that tape, but it might make a nice weapon in the war against the Taliban—the Marines playing it loud from helicopters to drive the terrorists from Afghanistan.
Last year, a few days after moderating a panel with David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, I was cast in the show as a born-again narcoleptic with the alliterative name of Aaron Arkaway. The script for my first episode had Aaron wearing a WWJD pin, which some said stood for "What Would Jesus Do?" but I liked to think secretly meant, "Who Wants Jack Daniels?"
Nearly everyone I met at the film fest today wanted to know if I was headed back to The Sopranos for another season and, more importantly, would I give them the inside scoop on what's going to happen on the show?
To the first question, I can only say that I'll know if I'm going to be on The Sopranos again whenever the show asks me to be there, which could be as little as five hours before cameras roll. That's how long it takes to get from my house in Austin to the set in Queens, and I'd show up smiling, even if my character only has an off-camera sneeze.
As to their other inquiries, I'm more likely to know the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden than I am the future plots of The Sopranos, so give it a rest. Besides, the beauty lies in not knowing.
As individuals, the conference attendees are sharp and friendly, pretty good drinking buddies. But assemble 1,000 of them and you've got a horde of aspirants with a Hollywood jones worse than a $100-a-day heroin addiction. Some of these folks are damn talented and work their asses off, a few don't have a clue, but all of them share the great Hollywood dream. And what they seldom want to hear is the cold, hard truth that the business is infinitely harder than they could ever expect.
"I moved to Hollywood and wrote 14 screenplays before I sold the first one," Scott Rosenberg told me today as we discussed those odds. The screenwriter of Things To Do in Denver When You're Dead, High Fidelity, and a bunch of other big movies, Rosenberg is as approachable as any guy in the business. But you only get one shot with a guy like Scott; so if you're looking for someone to read your stuff, don't burn your best contact with your first half-formed screenplay, make it your fifth or your 10th. Make it your best.
Fourteen unsold screenplays. That makes me feel a lot better about the stack of my own specs gathering dust on my shelves. During the almost 20 years I've been in the Writer's Guild of America, I've had countless hours of prime-time television produced; I've got a solid literary agency, and I know producers, directors, and stars. Despite all that, I've been unable to get one of my feature screenplays produced as a major motion picture.
Does that mean I suck? I don't think so (though I do go through periods of doubt). What it means is: To succeed in this business, you need skill, determination, connections and a heck of a lot of luck. Even then, it's a long shot.
Between panels tomorrow, I'm looking forward to seeing Mike Rich, screenwriter of Finding Forrester and Dennis Quaid's upcoming baseball movie The Rookie. When I first met Mike, he was a radio disc jockey in Portland, Ore., interviewing me on my book tour. After we got off the air, Mike told me he was trying to be a screenwriter and asked if I had any advice.
I told him something quite brilliant, and now he's one of the hottest writers in the business. I'd share that advice with you, if only I could remember what I said. Besides, a great story is like a little like a baffling magic trick—the beauty lies in not knowing.