As any parent can tell you, it’s tough to raise a child from birth to fully-grown.
Most parents will explain that they’re never done steering, counseling, advising and generally guiding their children, well into adulthood. They survive terrible twos and rebellious adolescence, then the misguided post-teen years, always still dedicated to the business of raising their baby to go out and conquer the world. A quarter of a century ago, Barbara Morgan gave birth to a child of a different kind, as the Austin Film Festival came into being. In addition to being the founder of the fest, Morgan has remained fully immersed in the business of the festival since that very day, serving as Executive Director.
Without a doubt, AFF is Barbara Morgan’s baby; and on Thursday, her baby turns 25 years old, hosting over 180 films, multiple world and regional premieres, and gathering people from a spectrum of industries to discuss the nature of story, creativity and art in film. Her baby’s all grown up and has become a significant influence on filmmakers and audiences the world over.
“There have been times over the 25 years when it was really difficult,” Morgan explains. “The first few years were just so hard. It was really hard here – getting stuff done, marketing and getting people to know we were here. There was a lot of competition and it was about building a brand.”
Begun in 1994, Austin Film Festival was a different sort of entity. Rather than court the controversial titles or star-chasing celebrity offerings, the fest adhered to a strict rule of including great stories and instructing aspiring storytellers in its composition. It wasn’t meant to become the next Cannes or the new Sundance, where Hollywood summered for a week to get out of L.A. Rather, the festival wanted to explore the bare-bones craft of filmmaking. It was, from the outset, a writer’s festival.
“It was a lesson,” Morgan explains, “that took a little while to learn – that writers were a different breed than the rest of the people in the industry. They really are communal and they really do care about helping other people and maybe some of that great spirit is because they were ignored for so long in the industry – particularly in film, obviously far less in television – and that part of this gave us this very specialized base of people.”
The festival grew, despite certain difficulties that come with creating a signature brand in an industry whose tastes change with the seasons. The call to become more of a mainstream film festival eventually began to bend the ear of those who were making sure the festival survived. After all, nothing creates buzz like marquee premieres and celebrity sightings. But, the perception of an intimate festival, held predominately for writers was AFF’s identity, and so the journey to a 25th year wasn’t always smooth.
“There were times when we definitely were trying to change that [identity],” she muses. “I would say the avoidance of it came from some messages from all of us that very first year. We were so lucky. We actually got some incredible people who came in – writers who came in and loved the experience of being together. So, some of it we created and some of it got created simply because of the chemistry of all these people who came.”
It goes to show just how strong the Austin Film Festival attendees have been, over the years. If it ‘takes a village to raise a child,’ then the loyal patrons of the fest certainly proved that the power of that village’s influence cannot be overstated.
“I feel like over the years we’ve also had people helping really kind of helped us maintain our identity,” Morgan says. “We did chase some of those [big-budget, celebrity-filled] movies and sometimes we do get those movies, but we get them with the writer of course. And that, in itself, is what’s kept us honest. We’ve had a base of people who really appreciate what we do and it’s kind of a theory of ‘dance with the one that brung ya.'”
But the growth of the festival wasn’t the only troublesome growth that presented a challenge for Morgan and the Austin Film Festival. While the festival was hitting its stride and finding its identity, the city the fest calls home utterly transformed around them. No longer was Austin a quaint little town that had an obsession with live music and honkytonk bars. Austin was becoming a behemoth of a city and cultural influence on the world around the festival.
“Well, so here were the first original phone calls,” Morgan recalls. “I mean I called all these kinds of people in L.A. – and their responses were, ‘Austin? That’s in Texas, right? Don’t you guys have guns in your pickup trucks and stuff like that?’ Those are really things people said. And I’m saying, ‘No, I don’t think you’ve been to Austin, so why don’t you come give it a try?’ At first, we actually did have to kind of coach people here. That changed fairly quickly.”
Similarly to the experience that every Austinite who has called the city home for more than a decade, the exponential growth presented new challenges, and does to this day.
“There’s just more opportunity, the more things are here,” she explains. “But, it’s also a difficult place sometimes to do business. The cost of everything goes up exponentially each year. In the past five years, our expenses for really basic things like venue rental and permitting and things that are part of the everyday genetics of a festival and event are just becoming so exorbitantly expensive.”
It’s a perspective we all know well in Austin, but it won’t stop Barbara and the festival from doing what they love, nor for championing that cause for the sake of others who share that love.
“We have to keep finding ways to continue to pay those without raising prices because there’s still only so much you can charge people,” Morgan emphasizes. “We have a significant amount of tourism and people in Kansas and Alabama and Chicago, they don’t care that the city’s become more expensive. They don’t think that’s a reason to make your badge more expensive.”
Fortunately, Austin does have significant merits for those seeking cinema screens, regardless of genre; and that appetite for film helps feed the festival. Morgan counts her lucky stars at the mere mention of the city’s accommodating infrastructure. “We’re lucky,” she says. “This is a town with a lot of theater and event space. A festival our size and a town our size normally would have to make movie theaters out of lots of places. We only really have one of those.”
The difficulty notwithstanding, most of the significant challenges are well in the rear-view mirror for the festival, itself. This year’s offerings include a host of different venues, the appearance of more than a few international celebrities – Natalie Portman’s Vox Lux being a significant draw, while Jason Reitman and Hugh Jackman’s The Front Runner will also draw the Hollywood crowd – and countless panels and conference sessions, designed to put creative storytellers in a room with other creative people, so that they can craft something that, someday, might be featured in Austin Film Festival’s offerings.
Morgan has every right to swell with satisfaction at the work she has done, but she is quick to emphasize that she, by no means, raised this baby alone.
“I feel like we have something that a lot of people contributed to building and that has added value to a lot of people. And by that, I’m in no way taking credit for that. I just mean that we facilitated people getting their work in front of people that could hire them and help them actually realize dreams and the industry and to help people take the steps, the first steps, the second steps, and the third steps, So it actually ends up giving them opportunities. I feel like that – from the big overarching sense – is something I’m really proud of.”
As the 25th Austin Film Festival kicks off, it is a feat of which Barbara should be exceedingly proud. Her baby has grown up to be a leader in its community, a significant voice into art and culture, and a fine entity to be around.
Make your plans to be around the Austin Film Festival this Thursday through November 1
Flash sale today—Oct 22—with Lone Star Badges for $25 off
Cover photo Anna Hanks