ATX Fest: Thoughts & More
Last month, my husband and I headed down to Austin, Texas for a vacation and ATX Fest. In case you haven't heard of the festival, it focuses on television, with panels, reunions and other events about television past and present. This was the final year they were incorporating Friday Night Lights into the festival, and so I thought this was the year to go.
I wanted to share a bit about the fest, the good and bad, and the whole experience, even though I'm a bit late in doing so.
ATX Fest: Day #1
Like I said, ATX Fest takes place in Austin in June, so it's hot. And humid. All the margaritas in the world can't make you forget this, which is why the general disorganization and low-budget feel of the festival really bothered me. I talked to some folks who had attended in previous years and they said it was quite a bit better organized than in previous years (last year there were stories of people passing out in line), but I still think there are some logistics issues that make the whole festival not ready for prime time--pun intended. Which brings me back to the heat...
ATX Fest just didn't do a great job of managing issues with the heat--which truly is a health and safety problem. For example, they listed the even headquarters on their app as being at one of the downtown hotels--which it was. However, this was not where badges were being distributed. Loads of folks--including us--went to the wrong location only to be told to walk across downtown Austin in sweltering humidity to get our badges elsewhere. We were lucky, we didn't miss any panels because of this (we did other things while we were in Austin, so we didn't plan our whole weekend around the event, like many others did), but it's stuff like that that really felt like the organizers weren't taking managing a festival in Texas in the summer very seriously.
Anyway, more on that later, but we finally acquired our badges and our only event on the Friday of the festival was the FNL reunion, so we had a great time poking around Austin and eating tacos. As one does...
After actually driving to the wrong place (ugh, two locations with the same name + Siri are a bad combo), that evening, we made our way to the FNL reunion, which was held on the actual field at which they filmed the series--it was pretty exciting!
Because we were badgeholders, we got to go in an hour early and go into the locker room, so we got there a bit too early and ended up sitting in the hot Texas sun for what seemed like ages. The lovely people from Southwest Air passed out fans, which helped a bit, but UGH... This was unwise.
We were worried about not getting parking (I found out the "shuttles" to the event were actually school busses, which got a hard nope from me.) so we arrived early, but we really should have sat in our rental car and polluted the air with our air conditioning running.
Anyway, we didn't die of heatstroke, but we did get super grumpy.
Getting to go inside Panther Fieldhouse was really cool. Quite a bit of the outside set decorations have been removed (mostly East Dillon Lions stuff--which is at the back of the building) but the inside still had some stuff up.
The most exciting this was this:
I got super emotional about getting to touch the "Street" signature just like the players did. I think I actually said something whacked out like, "I'm touching this for all my FNL friends like Mindi and Lisa and Gina and Laura and Kateasa and everyone else!" Like I said, I was hot and I do not maintain my mental stability when overheated.
Anyway, after that emotional rollercoaster, we bought fancy popsicles (mine was champagne, which was the bomb-diggity; we actually went back to that stand several times until they ran out of popsicles) and immediately spotted Landry/Lance and Devon wandering around the field--which was so cool.
We actually snagged a primo spot on the field, right in the view of the goal posts and stage...
But I'm not kidding, you guys, there was no shade and it was so hot that I thought I was going to barf. We brought water, etc but it was gone in a heartbeat, so we sold our souls to Southwest airlines for these hats and a couple cans of water.
Despite that, we were still just miserable, and we discovered that one of the vendors didn't show up, so we took over the empty awning to the side of the stage to get some relief. We were soon joined by a few other folks, including some press guys who were pretty funny and gave us the scoop on what cast members were showing up for the "Q&A." (Note the quotation marks--I'll get to the in a second.) And we were treated to a performance by none-other than Dillon's own favorite fake band, Crucifictorious.
Landry (Jesse Plemons), Devon (Stephanie Hunt) and Co were eventually joined by Louanne Stephens, who played Grandma Saracen on the show--who played tambourine while wearing a tiara as a fun shout-out to her character.
Jesse and Stephanie were in a band for quite awhile after the show and were, honestly, really good. It was super fun that they played Vaseline as an homage to a scene between their characters too. This was sort of my favorite part of the whole event.
After they played, Louanne actually set up camp under the same tent as we were sitting under so she could meet fans and she was the sweetest!
She thanked me--like everyone--for being a fan and said how much it meant to her, so I ended up blathering about how much the show meant to me and a bunch of my friends and then ended up telling her all about Lisa's book that had an FNL vibe and that she dedicated to Laura and I, her "Texas Forever Friends," and Louanne was very gracious in not looking at me like I was a lunatic, which I really appreciate.
There were actually loads of cast members wandering around--in particular Smash (who I would have loved to have met), Street, and Luke--but people were being fairly unchill about them and really mobbing the cast, and I just didn't feel comfortable with that. They all seemed like they were really cool about it, but still... (There was a lot of this all weekend and I just felt like people could have used better restraint in terms of not stalking TV cast members quite as aggressively, but I think I'm super sensitive about that sort of thing.)
Anyway, nothing ran on time with this whole shindig, which kind of put a damper on the fun. The cast reunion seemed to actually be taking place in the lockerroom away from the folks who'd actually shown up for the event (and paid for badges, etc). I guess they were too busy filming EW's package for the magazine's website to be bothered to start the "Q&A" at 8:15pm like they'd planned, so were all just sitting around until about 9pm (my camera timestamp said 8:54, if we're going to split hairs), which seems kind of ridiculous.
Then the "Q&A" consisted of introducing the cast (most everyone was there except Kyle Chandler--**sob**, Taylor Kitsch, Minka Kelly, Zach Gilford and Aimee Teegarden; the latter four were taking part in some sort of race in the mud in Chicago) and then asking a couple of completely banal questions, like "If you were a student at Dillon High, which cast member would you have a crush on?" Honestly, that part of the evening pretty stupid.
I would have much rather preferred something of some substance, but I guess the organizers of ATX Festival cared far more about making EW happy than the people who'd been waiting for hours in the hot sun. #priorities
Oh, yeah, and at this point, the vendors had completely run out of beverages. So that was awesome.
Anyway, after the "Q&A" they did an outdoor screening of an FNL episode, which was the excellent, but wholly inappropriate for the moment, Emmy-winning "The Son," which is the biggest tear-jerker of the entire series. We opted out of that, since neither Josh nor I felt like hanging out to watch such a depressing episode after having spent so much time waiting around and we wanted to get back to Austin (the field was a bit out of town) to eat and hydrate. Loads of other people left at the same time, so I know were weren't the only assholes in attendance, haha.
The caption to that photo should've been "What Would Tim Riggins Drink?"
We hit up Hopdoddy, which has a great veggie burger and lovely servers (seriously, we had the best waiter ever there) and comes with bonus aging racist sexist Baylor frat boys for customers. You win some, you lose some, I guess. (Come for the food and excellent service, leave when the idiots arrive... I forget how spoiled I am in Oregon, where people are generally pretty good at conducting themselves in public.)
ATX Fest: Day 2
David Simon & Tom Fontana
Our first official panel was on Saturday, with David Simon (Homicide & The Wire) and Tom Fontana (Homicide & Oz). Josh and I used to stay in on Friday nights and watch Homicide when we were in college and we really love that unheralded little show, so we were pretty pumped about this. It was moderated by Beau Willimon, who's the showrunner of House of Cards. I actually hate House of Cards, but Willimon was a good moderator and was super passionate about the subject and I was really impressed by him. I was particularly struck by the fact that he noticed immediately that the people who'd jumped to the front of the line to ask questions were all men and he actually called that out and asked for any women who wanted to ask questions to come forward and jump the queue. It's a little thing, but it was one of the few times --maybe only--I can recall a man at an event like that recognizing there were problematic gender dynamics happening and using his privilege to fix that on the spot.
This event was at the Google Fiberspace, which was very air conditioned, but again, you could really see that ATX Fest cut corners on the organization side. The room wasn't turned over very quickly and they didn't even bother putting signage up to indicate which line was for fast pass holders (like use) and which was for regular badgeholders. The volunteers were working their asses off to make sure people were in the right place, but they shouldn't have had to.
Anyway, that was--if I were to rank the panels I went to--number 2 of four in terms of quality. I wish it had been a longer discussion so they could have gotten into more meat. But I realize it's a delicate balance.
First Time Showrunners
The next panel we hit was one I was super excited for, but was actually incredibly disappointing and even disheartening, the First Time Showrunners and Creators panel. Like all the panels we went to, we had fast passes for this one. And while there--once again--wasn't any signage about the lines, at least the queuing was indoors and a very sweet staff person saw my confused tweet about trying to find the line and found me and helped me get to where I needed to be.
This panel was moderated by Tim Goodman (who's an awesome writer for Hollywood reporter) and featured Ryan Condal (Colony), Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (UnReal), Zander Lehmann (Casual), Joe Pokaski (Underground). I was actually so intrigued by this whole concept of discussing the craziness of running a show for the first time and all logistics and decisions and all of that.
The most positive thing I can say about this discussion is that Joe Pokaski seems like a genuinely decent person who's really trying to do the work to tell a story that's not his own. Truly. I haven't had the opportunity to watch Underground yet (it's on my list!), but it seems like he's very aware of the responsibility he has to do justice to these stories. I have no gripe with him whatsoever and I look forward to watching his show--so I just want to be clear that the rest of my generalized criticism is not directed toward him.
Here's what I tweeted while I was sitting in on this panel:
Note: The "one guy" was Ryan Condal, showrunner for Colony on USA, which I had planned on watching but now gets a big NOPE from me after hearing him talk on this panel. Holy unchecked white male privilege.
More on this: I think Sarah Gertrude Shapiro is doing some very good stuff related to gender on her show, I want to be clear on that. I also think that it really shows that her attempts to tackle race this season are glaringly coming from the position of someone who simply hasn't done the work required to tackle that subject. Full stop. Both Ruby and Darius are very flat characters, and I think Jay also is troubling. Do the work. Hire writers who can help you get there. Make it a priority.
What I think is interesting is that (and I'm paraphrasing here) Shapiro talked a lot about fighting the network to maintain the integrity of her vision for the show but when asked about writers and specifically about finding diverse writers, she punted that issue over to who the network will allow. So, it felt like she believed (and again, I'm paraphrasing and this is how I heard/understood her answers--but my husband interpreted her comments the same way) that her vision was worth fighting for but not necessarily diversity in the writers room beyond gender.
Note: He said that he specifically asked agents to send him young black men's work. I feel like this is actually something that showrunners can do to change media representation.
Goodman's question about criticism (I wish I could remember his exact phrasing, because it was excellent) touched how how they listen to critics, if at all, and both Shapiro and Condal insinuated (Shapira) and overtly (Condal) that you had to have a certain credibility to criticize art. Which I found troubling. The reality is that good, meaningful criticism about art and creative work is going to come from the outside, from people who aren't being represented, whose identities are being used and co-opted by creators (looking at you, The 100), rarely from "official" critics who are too close to the material and frequently come from the same privileged background as the creators of TV shows.
I'd rank this panel third of four. It made me think, but in a bad way. And it kind of tarnished Unreal for me, which is bad and good--I definitely watch it with a more critical eye than I would have if I hadn't gone to this panel.
Westerns: Then & Now
Our third panel on Saturday was back at the Google Fiberspace (yay, more waiting in the heat for people to turn the room), which we basically went to because Graham Yost was on the panel and he created one of our favorite shows, Justified. It was focused on Westerns and was a goddamn mess.
The reason it was such a disaster, the moderator, Ben Blacker was terrible.
I mean, he was ill-prepared, uninformed and seemingly more concerned with impressing the panelists into a job for himself (or something) than actually facilitating a conversation. He was a nightmare. I'd listened to one or two episodes of his podcast, and I think he is knowledgeable about some aspects of television, but he was more concerned with randomly "shushing" the audience (I guess so he'd look cool or something? Is this an LA thing? I don't know...) than being, you know, prepared for his role as moderator.
We did get to watch the sizzle reel for Westworld, which is a big budget show coming from HBO and it looked interested and confusing. I'll give it a shot, but I don't know if it will hold up or not... There were honestly, some good panelists (the producer of Firefly was supposed to be there, but he wasn't, by the way), but they weren't given the opportunity to dig into anything. It was all surface and nothing that had any substance. I am marginally versed in Westerns and could have done a better job of eliciting something of interest from these panelists. If the most astute observation is that Deadwood proved that Tim Olyphant looks good in a cowboy hat (thanks, Graham Yost) on a panel about Westerns, you have a very big problem.
That panel was a colossal waste of an hour of my life. (But at least Matt Laura (who played Luke on FNL) was sitting in the next aisle over and, you guys, he is devastatingly attractive in real life. Like, old school movie star handsome. I thought he was cute-ish on the show, but I had no idea... FYI!)
This was really indicative of my overall frustration with ATX Fest. I really don't know if I can recommend this event.
I mean, I am glad I went, but I don't think it's quite ready for prime time (pun intended) and for the price, I'd expect more meat, more professionalism and just a better conference all together. It feels like it doesn't know what it wants to be, a fan convention, an industry event, or something else. If it were cheaper (and we didn't pay anywhere near full price), I would be more forgiving, but it's expensive and the quality of the production and experience simply don't match up to the expense. I know other folks feel differently because they find the opportunity to be in the same rooms as their fave TV creators and stars worth the price tag, but that's just not enough for me. Or maybe I'm not the audience... It was fine, because we went to Austin for other reasons, but if I'd come for just the conference, I would have been so disappointed...
Your mileage may vary etc etc.
ATX Fest Day 3
The last panel we went to was at Alamo Draft House on Sunday, for a reunion of the cast and creators of Terriers, which is another show that my husband and I watched together during its brief run (I'm pretty sure we were one of 20 viewers). The staff at the Draft House runs a tight ship and they'd put out signage and made the whole wait pretty easy--yay! They also created a special cocktail menu for the fest, which was super fun--and they gave me a massive bowl of free popcorn because Texas has some weird law about how you have to order food with alcohol. (Texas: Where you can legally walk around a public street brandishing a semi-automatic weapon, but you can't order a vodka and soda without a sandwich.)
Terriers was a great little show and the coolest things about this panel was how obvious it was that the show meant so much to the people involved in it. Donal Logue said that (I'm paraphrasing) if anyone wanted to know what his career was all about, he'd tell them to just watch the 13 episodes of Terriers, which I think says a whole lot. They also hinted that they would love to do a movie and it's something they've explored. Most of the time I'm not a big fan of reboots, but I think they could do something with Terriers...
They also screened an episode of the show, which was fun to revisit and, man, it sure reminded me how ahead of its time Terriers really was. I hope the movie happens--it would be great.
This was my favorite panel that we went to and it was just so cool to see how much the creators and cast loved it too. I know I've griped a bit about the festival but this was a rad panel and a whole lot of fun.
Tim Riggins' Little Piece of Texas
After that, my husband sweetly humored me and we drove out to a very special place....
It's actually amazing how many locations from Friday Night Lights we just happened upon. I wasn't going to be a stalker and check out the private residences, but we happened upon "Carroll Park," The Broken Spur and a whole bunch of other places. It's silly, but it was super exciting for me.
Book People Rules!
We also hit up Book People, which was the bomb dot com. Seriously, I remember when all bookstores used to be like this place. We found all sorts of books we'd never heard of and the staff was super knowledgable and it was just fabulous. Love you, Book People!
More Awesome Austin!
Some of the other places we really liked when we were in Austin:
- Fleet Coffee - We went there twice, super nice guys and great coffee.
- Guero's - We drank quite a few margaritas there
- Allen's Boots - My little piece of Texas heaven
- Figure 8 Coffee - A neat little neighborhood coffee shop
- Torchy's, OBVIOUSLY - tacos, yo!
- Via 313 - Detroit style pizza that made Josh happy
- Park Lane Guest House - the only place to stay if you're in Austin--thanks to Shakti for the amazing hospitality and incredible