David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, both creators/writers/showrunners of HBO's "Game of Thrones" at Austin Film Festival on Oct. 26, 2019 (Courtesy of Jack Plunkett)
David Benioff and D.B. Weiss at Austin Film Festival (Oct. 26, 2019) Courtesy: Jack Plunkett

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After going all virtual last year, the Austin Film Festival is back live, in person in the Capitol City starting Thursday.

The Austin Film Festival has been an annual staple focusing on screenwriting and filmmaking since 1993. The festival’s hosted some of film’s biggest directors, writers and actors since it began and has been home to numerous major movie premieres, despite its distance from Hollywood, Sundance or Cannes.

But cofounder and CEO Barbara Morgan says a festival was always a natural for Austin’s film-rich community, especially at its inception, as its artist population was exploding.

“You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a filmmaker or a musician,” said Morgan.

Austin Film Festival panel (KXAN Photo/Russell Falcon)
Austin Film Festival panel (KXAN Photo/Russell Falcon)

The festival aims to help future filmmakers get their foot in the door — especially those who typically don’t have these kinds of doors opened for them.

Through a large roster of panels, Morgan says the festival hopes to help these people hone their craft and find opportunities.

“It’s such a hard industry to break into for everybody,” said Morgan. “And even more challenging for some groups of people — and that’s something that we have since the beginning tried to break that barrier. By being A) a writer’s festival. And giving voice to people who show talent — and also to the talented people who need a little more help to get noticed because of challenges they face in the industry.”

What does Ann Richards have to do with the Austin Film Festival?

While Austin already had one long-running film festival back in 1993 (The Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival or AGLIFF), Morgan said the idea for another one had been around for a while. She says the festival came along organically, however.

In fact, a new hire by a certain former Texas governor helped her get the event in motion.

“There was a dinner, and Ann Richards was governor. She loved movies — loved, loved, loved movies. She’d just hired a new film commissioner, and I jokingly said something to her [film commissioner] and she said, ‘Well, we’re actually looking for somebody to start a festival here,’ and it was just kind of a kismet moment.”

Filmed around Austin, premiering in Austin

Meanwhile, one University of Texas Austin graduate is eagerly waiting the world premiere of her film at the festival. Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker Sophie Miller’s directorial debut “Ranch Water” will debut Sunday — just miles away from where it was filmed last fall.

Filmed over 17 days near Bastrop, “Ranch Water” follows a pack of sisters and their friends who reunite for a final weekend at the family ranch before its sale. For Miller, the story imitated its filming, as many cast and crew were friends. One of those real-life friends is Austin native Aubrey Elenz, who both stars in and produced the film.

“Aubrey and I met in New York [where Elenz now lives], and we bonded over our love for Austin and became friends. When she called me up, it was like, ‘What about a movie in Austin?’ I was like, ‘Great! I’ll be there.’

Cast and crew for the film were tested for COVID-19 and then fully stayed on set for the duration of the shoot, Miller says.

“A lot of the crew members are also my friends from [UT Austin]. We all met and fell in love with film — and each other — in Texas and Austin, and a lot of them were not living here anymore. It was just wonderful for us all to come back together. And while we were filming it, we kept saying ‘What a dream for this to premiere in Austin at the Austin Film Festival. That was our goal. That was our compass.'”

Sophie Miller, director of “Ranch Water”

Miller says AFF dictated how soon the crew needed to finish the film in order to make deadline.

“Now that it’s here, it’s just the best-case scenario.”

This year’s festival

An entire week’s worth of films will also screen at the festival, including Golden Globe-winning director Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” and A24’s latest drama, the Mike Mills-directed “C’Mon C’Mon,” starring Joaquin Phoenix.

2021 Austin Film Festival schedule

AFF begins Oct. 21 and will wrap up next Thursday, Oct. 28.