Flashback – The Not-So-Secret Society: How the Austin Film Society Came of Age

Originally published in the Daily Texan on April 23, 2003.

"People are attracted to Austin for various reasons," said Richard Linklater, the artistic director of the Austin Film Society. "I came in the early to mid-'80s because I had seen a couple of films actually made in Austin, some student films that were like 30- to 45-minute student films, and I thought there was some sense of film community there. And music for sure – it was like there's something happening there."

The funny thing is that many people in Austin blame Linklater for that.

In 1985, he and future cinematographer Lee Daniel showed a few experimental films at the Dobie Theater, and the Austin Film Society was born. Generally regarded as one of the best film societies in the country, as evidenced by being the very first to be recognized by the Directors' Guild of America in 1999 with a DGA Honors Award for their contribution to film culture and production, the Austin Film Society has grown in leaps and bounds.

From 1996, when the AFS took on the additional responsibility of giving grants to filmmakers by setting up the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund, until today, the Film Society has been the leading facilitator of Austin's film culture, and has educated even those educating other filmgoers.

"I was expecting Rick and his [production company] Detour Films to be there," said Ann Hornaday, a film critic for The Austin American-Statesman from 1994 to 1997 and now a critic for The Washington Post. "But I was happily surprised to be introduced to his work with the Austin Film Society, and just his whole role as a film historian, because I kind of came to that job not knowing a lot about movies, and I was not a big movie buff, so, frankly, those screenings of the Film Society that I could attend when I had time, and the program notes and the columns in The Austin Chronicle that were always written about what was showing, were enormously helpful to me to fill in gaps in my knowledge of cinema history."

Hornaday's experience is not unique. The Film Society has made its presence known artistically and financially. Its film series have covered a broad spectrum ranging from the movies of Robert Bresson to Women's Film Shorts to the Texas Documentary Tour. When it created Austin Studios in 2000 as a haven for national and local filmmakers, the organization seemed intent on making some cinematic history of its own. One needs only to glance at the numbers to see the Film Society's vitality – 1,600 members, 35,000 people annually at film society screenings, approximately 170 screenings per year, $400,000 since 1996 given to aspiring filmmakers from the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund that Linklater established through the film society ($65,000 this fall alone), and perhaps the most staggering numbers of all – the estimated $100 million the Society's Austin Studios has brought into the local economy, as well as the 1,500 local jobs the Studios have created.

"This city and this region have become known outside of Austin and Central Texas, and even Texas itself, for being a hotbed of creativity, “ said Evan Smith, editor of Texas Monthly. "Austin Studios has helped because it has attracted the kind of A-level film production that normally goes to places like Vancouver and North Carolina."

The Austin Film Society, however, isn't going anywhere but up. After a year when "The Life of David Gale," "Secondhand Lions" and the remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" were all filmed at Austin Studios, the decision of the AFS to create five sound stages and plush production offices on the site of the abandoned Mueller Airport on the outskirts of Austin is looking like a wiser investment with each passing day.

As for film programming, the film society just completed a series on the work of legendary Mexican director Arturo Ripstein, who was in attendance. In addition, beginning last week, they embarked on a six-week survey of European emigre directors in Hollywood – showing classics from the likes of Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder.

Still, many have fond memories of the early days, before glitzy benefit premieres and the Texas Film Hall of Fame were set up as fund-raisers for the Texas Production Fund and even before Linklater made his first feature film, "It's Impossible to Learn How to Plow by Reading."

Linklater remembers the first days of the Film Society as a project to satisfy his "pure greed to see a lot of movies." Reminiscing about the glory days of the Texas Union Theater in the mid-'80s, when they showed at least five films a day Monday through Thursday, and then had a full schedule of classics on the weekends, he waxes nostalgic.

He said, "They would often show the same films over like a Bergman film, they would show the same films: 'Wild Strawberries' and 'Seventh Seal.' I would want to see others by a certain director. It started off very experimental, kind of crazy films that never show, and that was before we were the film society. It was just me and a couple roommates – me and Lee Daniel mainly, and we were just in love with film. Budding filmmakers, you know, I had a Super 8 camera, and I was making my first stuff."

Louis Black, editor of The Austin Chronicle and the first AFS president in 1999, said, "Rick came up to me at Liberty Lunch one night to compliment me on my obituary for Sam Peckinpah. And now Rick's memory is he also brought up some experimental shorts. My memory is he came up to me, and a few months later, we had run into each other a few times between then, and some time he brought it up, but it doesn't really matter." (Linklater joked, "I've got the best memory of anyone, so I can tell you exactly everything.")

"So we met at Liberty Lunch, “ continued Black, "and in the fall of '85, he and Lee decide to show some experimental shorts, because the University had really changed the campus film series. Suddenly, they weren't as vital as they had been, because film students had been renting tapes, instead of going to film screenings. So Rick and Lee showed experimental shorts over two consecutive weeks at the Dobie, and they sold both of them out."

Current president and UT distinguished radio-television-film professor Charles Ramirez-Berg remembers when he was first approached by Linklater.

"Rick basically just wanted to show films, and I was teaching RTF 314, and he came and said, 'I hear you're interested in films, and you teach a film history class. Could you announce that I'm showing some films Friday night?'  Then I started going over to the films, and that was the beginning."

A year later, Ramirez-Berg recounted, Linklater began applying for grants, and as a result, he needed to establish a board of directors. Ramirez-Berg and Black immediately became charter members of a board that existed mostly on paper.

Five years later, in the early '90s, Ramirez-Berg said Linklater gave him the good news that the grant money was coming in. The bad news was that now they would need to have regular meetings. Ramirez-Berg smiled and said, "So we would just get together and talk about movies. That was our meeting."

In 1996, the meetings became far less informal. Linklater, then-executive director Katie Cokinos and Elizabeth Peters not only designed a logo and started doing publicity for the organization, but more importantly, they launched the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund, which helps finance narrative, documentary and experimental directors from Texas – with a great deal of the financing coming from the University.

"If you look at the list of Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund grantees, you'll see that a lot of UT students and grads have received grants, “ said Rebecca Campbell, the current executive director of AFS. "In particular, some of the films that we've helped fund that have been enormously successful have been by UT grads. You can look at Laura Dunn's "Green," which won the student Academy Award or Heather Courtney's "Los Trabajadores," which won the David L. Wolper Student Achievement Award. There's numerous others, but there's that type of relationship where the student community is benefiting from the presence of a strong media arts organization."

Suddenly, the film society began to hold film premieres that benefited the TFPF with filmmakers like Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh showing their films in Austin first. In 2001, Black and Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith came up with an additional way to fund-raise for the organization.

"We had the idea that there ought to be a Texas Film Hall of Fame, “ said Smith. "Because as folks who had a professional and personal interest in the film business, we felt there was an opportunity to honor the many, many people from this state who have contributed to the film business over time. So we thought about something along the lines of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, buildingless at first, but no less heartfelt in its tribute to the people that have changed the industry in that case music, in this case film."

A ceremony honoring such luminaries as screenwriters including Horton Foote, Bill Witliff and Bill Broyles, and actresses Sissy Spacek and Cyd Charisse needed to be held in a place befitting the event. And, the Film Society had the perfect place – the Austin Studios.

"Six weeks after Louis and Evan came up with the idea," Campbell said, "we had 1,300 people in one of our soundstages here and an incredibly successful event that's just taken off. Everyone just loved the location."

Filmmakers do as well, which is why Tom Copeland or the Texas Film Commission only thinks the studios will get better over time.

"Every time a movie comes here, part of the deal is that you're going to leave something behind, “ said Copeland. "One of the hangars has been insulated. They've got a grid in one of them now, and the studios are expanding, and the deal is that every picture is going to leave something behind that's going to make it a little more attractive for the next guy."

Still, with the Austin Film Society's rapid ascension to the top of Austin's film culture, Ramirez-Berg, who will step down as president of the film society in August, prefers to enjoy the moment as he reflects on the impact the society and the Austin film community has had on his life.

"I look back on it, and I don't quite know how I was so luck. But when I was in El Paso, I was frustrated, I didn't know anybody, and the world was passing me by. But then, I decided to do what I really wanted to do. And, really, what I loved was movies, and to teach and write, and watch and talk, and movies and everything seemed to fall into place. And it seemed to me that because all these other people were doing the same thing. Rick Linklater was doing what he really wanted to do, Robert Rodriguez was doing what he really wanted to do. And it just seemed to me that when people were really doing what they're really, really passionate about, it just has a way of being a hundred times more powerful.

"So I think back, and I think 'gosh, I know some of the best filmmakers making movies.' I know Quentin Tarantino, and I know Robert Rodriguez, and I know Rick Linklater, and I know Guillermo del Toro, and how did that happen? And it happened because we're all just part of something, doing different jobs, but part of something that we all love doing. And how did I get to be president of the film society? I don't know. But I do know. Somehow, he heard there's a guy who teaches at the University, and he's excited about film, so one thing led to another, and the film society is this really interesting thing where I'm one of the original board members, and I don't want to ever leave the board. I want to be on the board forever and ever."

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