'W.' marks spot for Austin fest

15th annual event focuses primarily on TV and film writers

AUSTIN -- You can see the Texas State Capitol building from the elegant Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin. So it was a perfect setting for the first public screening on Thursday of Oliver Stone's "W.," the opening-night film of this year's Austin Film Festival.

As costar James Cromwell, in attendance Thursday night, remarked with a sigh, "It began here in Texas, right up the street."

The Austin fest, now in its 15th year, is the only film festival to focus primarily on the writers of TV and film. In addition to film screenings, the first four days are crammed with wide-ranging panels and Q&As, where hundreds of aspiring writers can get face time with screenwriting professionals like John Lee Hancock ("The Rookie"), Kirsten Smith ("The House Bunny"), Shane Black ("Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"), Jake Kasdan ("Walk Hard"), John August ("Corpse Bride") and Jeff Nathanson ("Catch Me If You Can").

On opening night, many of those attendees lined up around the block to get a look at Stone's biopic of our embattled 43rd president, who began his political career as governor of Texas 13 years ago. Although the state capital leans toward the liberal (the city's unofficial slogan is "Keep Austin Weird"), filmgoers ended up giving the film only slightly better approval ratings than the President.

Cromwell, who plays President George H. W. Bush in the film, didn't hold back his own criticism of the film's subject while working his way up the red carpet.

"Listen, it's too late now," said Cromwell, despite entreaties from Lionsgate that the cast refrain from injecting their own political views when discussing the movie. "Once you unloose me, all bets are off. Now it's open, the damage is done. They're going to spin it whatever way they want. I might as well get my licks in now. They're certainly not going to withhold any criticism of me."

The following night, Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" screened at the Paramount and stirred up much more positive reactions, with the crowd leaping to a standing ovation as the credits rolled. Boyle's festival favorite, which was picked up by Fox Searchlight after Warner Independent was shuttered, tells of a "slumdog" street orphan who overcomes terrible odds to compete on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

The festival also holds pitch, screenplay and filmmaking competitions, the winners of which were announced at a luncheon at the Austin Club on Saturday. Betsy Morris won the comedy feature script award for "eLove," Anita Skibski won the drama feature script award for "Mine" and Walter Campbell won the sci-fi feature script award for "The Man Who Would Be Sherlock Holmes."

Steve Daniels won the drama award for his "Pushing Daisies" teleplay, "Rumpology," and Beau Henry took the comedy teleplay award for his script for "The Office," "The Crossword Contest." The narrative feature film winner was "Lost & Found," written and directed by Nobuyuki Miyake, while "Les Ninjas du Japon," directed by Giommi Giovanni, won the documentary feature film competition.

Special honorees included Greg Daniels ("The Office," "The Simpsons"), who was named outstanding television writer, Boyle ("Trainspotting," "28 Days Later"), who was given the Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking award, and Sam Shepard ("Paris, Texas," "Far North"), who wasn't in attendance but is this year's Distinguished Screenwriter, an honor he shares with past recipients Lawrence Kasdan, James L. Brooks and Paul Schrader.