Austin Film Society's pivotal role in the invention of the city's film scene
He stood in front of the box office in shorts, sneakers and a loose shirt. His long hair shifted from side to side as he smiled and spoke in a low, friendly drawl.
During the early 1980s, future director Rick Linklater always smiled broadly as he purchased tickets for movies at the River Oaks Theater in Houston or, later, at the Varsity Theater in Austin. He devoured films and could easily sit through multiple iterations of double features offered at these art cinemas.
How do I know these details? True story: As an employee, I sold him tickets at both theaters.
As the Austin Film Society prepares its AFS Cinema — recently reorganized to ensure that the longtime nonprofit would balance its books, which it did in 2018 — for the glamorous Texas Film Awards on Thursday, it is instructive to think back on its founder, Linklater, as he appeared in the early 1980s, before anyone had dreamed of a movie nonprofit, much less a full-fledged Austin film scene nurtured by AFS.
The truth: Linklater has not changed that much, despite high praise for his independent films — which have made more than $130 million in profit, according to Box Office Mojo — and Academy Award nominations for direction ("Boyhood"), best picture ("Boyhood") and writing ("Boyhood," "Before Sunset" and "Before Midnight").
He never “went Hollywood.”
Sitting for an interview in the unpretentious manufactured building on AFS’ Austin Studios lot at the former Mueller Municipal Airport, surrounded by movie posters and oversize computer screens, Linklater is still crazy about movies and about the nonprofit he founded.
Some background: The seeds for AFS were planted in October 1985 as a way to show rarely seen art movies at the former Dobie Theater on the Drag. A group of friends, led by Linklater, later applied for nonprofit status and arts grants. They showed more movies, held casting calls and workshops and brought in filmmakers to a city already home to a flock of aspiring or up-and-coming writers, directors and other talents.
Although Linklater founded AFS, the group’s founders circle of early backers includes Lee Daniel, Louis Black, Chale Nafus and Charles Ramírez Berg.
By the 1990s, AFS was presenting the world premieres of Austin-associated movies, often at the Paramount Theatre, to raise money for grants given to promising moviemakers through the Texas Filmmakers’ Production Fund, which started in 1996. In the 21st century, AFS defied all predictions by opening Austin Studios, which became a beehive of movie, TV, advertising and gaming activity, soon to be expanded by its Creative Media Center, now under construction.
AFS added to that tradition recently by taking over operations at the Austin Public, a low-cost media studio on Northwestern Avenue in Central East Austin, open to use by all Austinites. This Austin Public wing also oversees the longest-running public access cable channels in the country.
Then there are the film summer camps and other educational projects, like the Film Club, part of Austin Public. AFS does all this with a $6 million budget and 32 full-time employees, along with a lot of part-timers at the cinema.
The nonprofit recently bounced back from an accusation that it was hiding losses at AFS Cinema in the resurrected Linc shopping center, an enterprise that features two high-tech theaters and an events venue. AFS Cinema drew 67,640 guests last year, up from 16,000 in 2015, when it operated one screen inside the Marchesa, the previous tenant at its present Middle Fiskville Road location.
In time for the Texas Film Awards, we pulled together some impressionistic memories about that history from interviews we conducted last year with Linklater; Louis Black, the Austin cultural force who has backed AFS almost from the beginning; and Rebecca Campbell, the group’s longtime CEO.
“We were successful from the jump. The first shows sold out. There was a hunger for alternative ways to watch movies together. We kicked it up a notch in subsequent years, and made a lot with premieres. It was unheard of then in Austin to have star-studded premieres, and we cornered the market. We showed my films, my friends’ films. Then along came the big festivals, so premieres are not such a big deal anymore.
“For 10 years, we were an all-volunteer group, with two overworked grad students helping out. But we were passionate. Later — I was busy at this point, and I couldn't do all that — it was nice to be able to pay them. And AFS continued to grow with Austin, even as film societies were dying nationwide because of home video, everywhere but here. Austin was hungry for it. ... When the economy was crap, we charged $2 to get in.
“Quentin (Tarantino) came through, and I think we were going to charge $10, but we could have charged $20, if not $100. Actually, there are some people in town with bucks who would go to an event if it was something you can't get somewhere else.
“The dreams of back then slowly came to pass, and AFS became more of an educational thing, a cooperative with equipment and granting, and eventually our own theater.
“Austin Studios came about practically. The airport closed. Films need space. We needed a parking lot, a place to build sets, a couple of stages, a couple of offices, an infrastructure thing. The city was happy with it. There was no money attached at first. We later got onto some bond proposals. It’s a good economic generator. The city understands it. People around the country ask, ‘How do I do that in my town?’ You can't. Other cities go, ‘Why would we do that?’ Austin, on the other hand, was ready for it."
“I met Rick in January 1985 at Liberty Lunch, and we were talking about films. Thirty-some years later, we are in the same discussion. Back then, we’d hang out at clubs and he’d say, ‘I want to show films the way there were meant to be shown on the screen.’ … He proposed two evenings of shorts titled ‘Sex and Blasphemy in the Avant-Garde.’ The Chronicle promoted it. It sold out.
“Later, Rick asked, ‘Would you be on the board?’ 'Sure.' For the first six years, we never had a board meeting. Once a year, he came by and I signed a paper. I did not book the films; I didn't sweep the floor; I didn't carry the films into the door. Rick was programming the films he wanted to see. I don't think they had much of an audience, but they did incredibly interesting stuff.
“In 1996, Rick called me up to say that NEA funding for individual artists was drying up. 'Why don't we raise money to give to filmmakers?' How incredibly unique for filmmakers to give to other filmmakers!
“We started screenings with filmmakers we knew and kept pushing for higher and higher prices to raise money for filmmakers. … Our first big premiere was ‘Dazed and Confused,’ then ‘Pulp Fiction’ early on. We did very well and premiered a lot of great films from a generation of filmmakers. Quentin Tarantino was bigger than anybody. If he was talking about movies, he'd talk all day. And he didn't want to talk about his own stuff.
“When Jonathan Demme came to town — he was working on a script with Bud Shrake — we showed him some movies. He mostly talked music, but those films ended up showing in New York. This was when the Austin music and movies scenes were merging.
“Austin Studios happened quickly. Rick calls and says, ‘Let's get out to the airport.’ I think a friend of Rick had the idea, looked at one place out there. It was perfect, but somebody else had it, then we found the place where we ended. It was 11 months between when we started with the city and when it was done. … We said to the city, ‘We don't have any money, but we won't ask for any money.’ Everybody was so thrilled about it.
“Over the years, we got to do stuff that was really important and great and helped so many people. The film grants were never big. $1,000 doesn't pay for lunch. But so many filmmakers said, ‘Nobody took me seriously until I got that grant. I didn't take myself seriously. That $500 was a game changer.’”
“The independent film movement was underway. It was all around me in Los Angeles. I wanted to be involved in that. I had a choice of graduate schools: USC or University of Texas. This city was calling to me. Maybe because of the music. It was August 1992, in the middle of the Save Our Springs fight. It was odd that I left LA to get into the film industry. I saw ‘Slacker.’ But I didn’t know that Richard Linklater would be in my future.
“It took me five years to get my degree. By then I was nearly 40. Hanging around on sets and making movies didn't make financial sense. Also, did I have the commitment or energy? I didn't know about AFS until 1997, when a classmate asked me to video an AFS event at the Paramount.
“Elizabeth Peters, who was AFS’ first paid staff member, recruited me. She and the crew around her saw the potential and leveraged Linklater's growing fame and reputation. It was a part-time job, and I was not sure this was the best move, to work for this tiny nonprofit. But I took to the hiring committee, and they took to me. I knew: These are my people.
“Within eight months, I told them that it was a full-time job, and we started working on our first strategic plan. We were raising and giving away money to filmmakers, but we needed a dependable source of income to keep doing that, and to show more and more of the films we had been programming. The possibility of creating Austin Studios was out there on the horizon.
“The red carpet movie premieres at the Paramount were a wild ride! We were promoting film culture however we could, making it up as we went along. But really we were creating results in whatever way we could.
“Between March 1998, when we identified the former airport site, and November 2000, when we moved into Austin Studios, was a really, really intense period. We had been at 32nd Street and Interstate 35, upstairs in one office with two (phone) lines, one for the internet.
“We’ve been in a trailer at Austin Studios ever since. When you have your own space and show people who you are, it's a big moment in a nonprofit's life. … Mayor Kirk Watson caught wind of our studio project and championed it. We realized it had to be in the hands of a nonprofit. Rick came into my cubicle and asked, 'Do you think AFS would be interested in this?' No hesitation: This is the kind of scale that our group should be to handle. … Nine months later, the lease agreement was written and signed. That would not happen today.
“We needed a signature event and ended up with really good timing. Five weeks before March 2001, we decided to use our biggest hangar for what was the Texas Film Hall of Fame. One thousand people showed up.
“Most recently, we took over Austin Public, which used to be Channel Austin, dedicated to public access shows. It was a really good fit, with its community programs, education and outreach. Anyone attracted to filmmaking and curious about the tools can come in through Austin Public. This completes the ecosystem. We have become this shrine to film culture, a place for people interested in learning and tools, then a place that brings the industry to Austin and makes it stand out in the national landscape while showing movies, most of which you cannot see anywhere else.”
Texas Film Awards
When: 6 p.m. March 7
Where: AFS Cinema, 6259 Middle Fiskville Road
Information: austinfilm.org, 512-322-0145
This year’s Texas Film Awards will honor actress and entrepreneur Brooklyn Decker ("Grace and Frankie") with the Rising Star Award; filmmaker John Lee Hancock ("The Highwaymen," "The Blind Side," "The Rookie"); and the movie "Office Space" with the Star of Texas Award, in honor of its 20th year anniversary. "Office Space" writer/director Mike Judge and actors David Herman and Gary Cole will accept the award for the film. Filmmaker Lynn Shelton and comedian/actor Marc Maron will emcee. Academy Award-winning actress Kathy Bates will present her longtime collaborator John Lee Hancock with his award, and actress June Diane Raphael will present her “Grace and Frankie” co-star Brooklyn Decker with her award.