Everything You Need To Know About Austin Film Festival with Grace Donaldson

The Austin Film Festival is an 8-day convention that kicks off in October, featuring writing competitions, panel discussions, and even exclusive screenings. Though the Festival may be months away, deadlines for the competitions and early registration are coming up, so in preparation for this exciting event I sat down with Script Director Grace Donaldson to get the inside scoop, “This is our 31st annual Film Festival and Writer’s Conference.” Donaldson explained, adding that AFF’s uniqueness comes from the inclusion of writers, “The Writers Conference has been essential throughout AFF’s entire existence. What separates this film festival from other festivals is the emphasis on writing and the writers that come in. Our Executive Director, Barbara Morgan, started this festival because there wasn’t a lot of recognition for screenwriters, and without a script, you have nothing.” 

As a writer myself, the importance placed on the script is what initially drew me to the event last year, when I had the opportunity to cover it. Austin Film Festival has so many open competitions all for different categories, “We have a category for drama, feature comedy, feature drama, pilot, comedy pilot, drama and comedy specs, short screenplays, stage plays, fiction podcasts, and digital series.” Each competition comes with its own deadlines, guidelines, and expectations but the diversity with which you can write in is incredible. There are no age restrictions, though filmmakers ages 13 – 18 can participate in the Young Filmmaker’s Competition, for free, avoiding the application fee that comes with the alternative. 

As for the deadlines, “If you are a screenwriter, you definitely want to submit by May 24th.” Donaldson says, “That’s the final deadline for the majority of our screenplay categories. There is an extended deadline to July 6th, I believe, and that’s for fiction podcast and digital series submissions. For film, the late deadline is June 21st, and that’s when we get the bulk of our submissions. But they also have an extended deadline. That’s July 6th as well.” The Early Bird deadline for all competitions is March 22nd, which will result in a cheaper application fee. The full list of deadlines and competitions is available to check out right here. With each submission being evaluated twice, it’s imperative that applicants meet the deadlines. When I mused about how AFF has time to do all this, she replied with a smile, “We have a strong team that we work hard to train throughout the reading period.” 

Outside of the Film Festival, AFF is always busy with year-round events and staples. For their younger participants, the organization offers their Young Filmmakers Program, “There are four pillars of the Young Filmmakers Program that I think that people aren’t overly familiar with.” Summer Camps and Classes make one pillar, another is AFF’s Digital Storytelling Course, “For our high school students, our Young Filmmakers Program Director actually goes to different Austin high schools and has different residencies there to teach that to our Austin community.” Then we have the Festivals and Conference Scholarships, “The Festival Scholarship is for students to attend the festival.” 

And, rounding out the four pillars, we have the Young Filmmakers Competition, “It works very similarly to our Film Competition and it’s reviewed by our panel of judges and we announce the winner at the awards luncheon. That student’s recognized and I was lucky enough to watch a couple of the films last year. And I mean, they were just really impressive. And it’s very exciting to see what young filmmakers, you know, the future of our industry are producing and putting out there into the world.” To any aspiring filmmakers or writers reading this, maybe unsure whether or not to participate, Donaldson has some encouraging words for you, “You never know how it’s going to go until you try. There’s little risk and there’s a lot to gain because even if the script doesn’t advance or a place in our competition, each submission can opt-in to free reader comments.” For writers this is massive news, having other readers, experts in your field, offer insight and feedback is such an important thing, “We want to try to support the revision process as best we can. And so writing is rewriting.”

When I asked what a day at the festival looks like, Donaldson’s excitement was palpable, “a day at the festival is jam-packed with lots of discussions of craft, business, networking, new friends, talking about your stories, the community of writers of the festival. It is such a kinetic energy there, you step into registration and you can feel everyone’s collective excitement. Whether it’s people who have attended the festival before or it’s first-timers at the festival…You meet so many friendly and passionate people who all collectively care about writing so much.” 

Accessible to everyone on their website is AFF’s amazing series On Story, which features a podcast, with interviews from big names in the industry, and a YouTube channel with full On Story episodes that pull interviews from Austin Film Festival’s own panels. It’s an incredible resource for writers new and old, and a great way to learn more about the Festival before you attend. Through checking out their podcast, I found an interview with Joanna Calo, showrunner for Hulu’s wildly successful drama The Bear. That show is so so so good, and having someone so connected to it talk about their experience is incredibly beneficial. 

Outside of the Festival and On Story, there are plenty of other amazing events AFF puts on year-round. One of Donaldson’s favorites is an event called First Three Pages Live, “First Three Pages Live was partnered with Coldtowne Theater and essentially we had open submissions to call for the first three pages of people’s scripts, and selected a handful, and invited the writers. We had an audience and the actors at Coldtowne did a live reading of the first three pages. Then it was open to questions from the audience, and the writers talked about the inspiration. It was really exciting to just like hear the words off the page and be able to pick the writer’s brain.” 

To learn more about Austin Film Festival and how you can get involved, you can visit https://austinfilmfestival.com



  • Camila Dejesus

    Magazine & Media Editor, Camila Dejesus has been writing since she was a child and enjoys all forms from creative writing down to narrative analysis. She graduated from Brooklyn College with a bachelor's in Television and Radio Production and works full-time at Latinitas Magazine. In her free time, she loves writing stories, water coloring, or playing songs on her Baritone Ukulele. Now, her greatest passion is finding new topics that will engage and inspire Latinx youth.

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