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New member of AFS team is launching new programs

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

By Matthew Odam

American-Statesman Staff

A couple of years after graduating from the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas, Ryan Long found himself spending countless hours draped with headphones, staring at monitors in a darkened studio in Los Angeles.

Working as a studio engineer for a sound designer, Long was coming face to face with the cold reality that a successful career in audio production was going to mean hundreds of hours spent alone in similar situations, locked away from human contact. It was a commitment the lifelong film lover was not prepared to make.

Long eventually moved back to Austin in 2003, where the shorts program at a local film festival would inspire a passion project that would eventually redefine his career.

"I realized if you don't see these films now, you're not likely to see them," Long said.

n 2003, the soft-spoken but staunch advocate of regional film started Screen Door Film, a regularly occurring micro film fest that provided local filmmakers a chance to bring their work to Austin audiences. The program, which began at Arts on Real, eventually received funding from the city's Cultural Arts Division as it bounced from local music clubs to St. Edward's University to the University of Texas.

As Long scoured regional film festivals, looking for works he could bring to audiences outside of a large festival context, he paid the bills by working a variety of unfullfilling jobs. But the work that continued to bring him meaning, if not riches, was his championing of regional film.

"You always hope in the back of your mind that there is that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow if you put in the work," Long said. "I think perseverance is a huge piece of this. Just continuing to do this screening series for seven years, it's had its high points and it's had its low points — I've had 250 people in a room and I've had five in a room. Just keeping at it, you start to build that base of relationships with filmmakers and different people who are interested in film. And over time your name and your organization start to have a brand and mean something."

The Austin Film Society took notice. In November of last year, the nonprofit organization founded in 1985 hired Long to serve as its film programs manager. Long says his eye for regional film should supplement the programming for the society renowned for its art-house fare.

"I think what AFS does programming-wise and has been doing is great, but it speaks to a certain film audience," Long said. "What I'm trying to do is expand that audience and show how Austin Film Society membership can be valuable to people who don't always want to see just some of the more obscure documentaries and whatnot. I think those films will always have a place in Austin Film Society, as it should because it's a film society, but I think I bring a populist angle to it."

His first act in his new role was to institute a program titled Best of the Fests. Expanding on Long's work at Screen Door, the new program will bring some of the strongest films from a wide array of festivals to audiences each month at the Alamo Village theater. When possible, the filmmakers will be on hand to present their work.

"It's intended to replicate a film festival experience, to give people that kind of special-event feeling, as opposed to just seeing a movie," Long said. "When you're seeing a movie with the creator present, there's something unique and authentic about that experience."

Although the first film of the series, the South by Southwest hit "Tiny Furniture," was made by a New Yorker, Long says the majority of the series' films will come from local and regional talents. Texans Geoff Marslett ("Mars") and Stephen Belyeu ("Dig") will have their movies screened in February and March, respectively.

"I just genuinely believe in the people doing the work, and I think there's a lot of great work being made in Austin and in Texas in general," Long says.

One of the great rewards of his job at the society is the group of creative people with whom he has had the chance to interact, he says. One of those people is Austin Chronicle co-founder and original society board member Louis Black.

When Long approached Black about screening two films owned by Black's Watchmaker Films (Tobe Hooper's "Eggshells" and Eagle Pennell's "The Whole Shootin' Match"), Black told the new employee to think big picture. Instead of a one-off event, the two men set about establishing the Texas Independent Film Network.

In partnership with film organizations such as the Video Association of Dallas, Screen Door Film, the Austin Film Society and the Lone Star Film Society, the Network will be a traveling exhibition of films from Texas filmmakers. Beginning in February, screenings will take place on a monthly basis in nine cities across the state, with more cities expected to join the group in the coming year.

Ironically, Long says part of the inspiration for the cinematic road show came from one of the banal day jobs he had in recent years. Long visited towns across the state, performing inventories of the State of Texas' computer equipment.

"It was really great to be able to travel the state, see all the different people, see all the different resources and kind of get an appreciation for the vast resources that are available in the state of Texas," Long says. "It gave me an appreciation for the depth of history of the state. And the Film Network to some extent exists to tell those stories, and I've always kind of felt that way through Screen Door, showing a lot of Austin and Texas films. I've always been a proponent of spreading that word."

A decade after he began to rethink his place in the film world, and after years of toiling for free to promote local and regional films, Long says he is fortunate and grateful for the opportunities with the society and the new Network.

"I learned through my experience in LA and other places that I'm not a creator, but I want to be a part of the process," Long says. "I feel like there's so many creators out there that could benefit from somebody who helps them connect the dots and helps them with marketing, promotion, distribution, exhibition ... getting the films out to the people. When you believe in something like that and you just end up doing it, it doesn't really feel like work, which is really an awesome thing to say. It's great to have a job where you don't feel like it's that much work but yet you're doing something good ... I feel like the luckiest guy in Austin."

modam@statesman.com