Austin’s Film Industry Embraces Innovation, Sees Hope in Tough Times
The institutions that make Austin an indie film haven embrace virtual cinema
By Courtney Runn
Portraits by Riley Reed
Like every creative field, the film industry took a particularly hard hit during the pandemic. In Austin, some beloved institutions permanently closed their doors (RIP, I Luv Video and Vulcan Video), while others have barely survived. But the desire for entertainment and cinema hasn’t stopped. A loss for theaters has been a gain for drive-ins, and streaming services continue to dominate the industry. To learn how local film initiatives are navigating a rapidly evolving cinemascape, we talked to the teams at the Austin Film Society, Hyperreal Film Club and Alamo Drafthouse about what’s giving them hope that Austin will retain its status as an independent film haven for years to come.
This year, cinephiles didn’t have to travel to the snowy mountains of Park City, Utah, to experience America’s premier film festival, Sundance. Instead, viewers could kick back in their cars on a warm January Hill Country evening and watch the Texas sunset while waiting for a drive-in screening to begin.
Forced to skip a year or reinvent itself according to CDC guidelines, Sundance opted for the latter. Rather than stream an entirely virtual experience, the festival partnered with independent film organizations throughout the country to host outdoor screenings alongside online premieres. Since Austin annually submits more films to the festival than any other city aside from New York and Los Angeles, it was a natural choice for satellite venues, and the Austin Film Society, a longtime partner and friend of the festival, was the fitting host.
While virtual COVID-era film festivals might lack industry networking opportunities, they provide a new level of accessibility. Holly Herrick, head of film and creative media at AFS, says the festival was a local success, with turnout by AFS regulars and newcomers alike.
“What Sundance really underscored is what a robust film community we have here and how important it is to the culture and the economy of our city,” Herrick says. “The reason AFS has the Cinema is because we think it’s indispensable to having a film ecosystem in Austin.”
While the AFS Cinema (opened in 2017) has yet to reopen, the organization has stayed busy with a robust virtual schedule. It awarded more than $146,000 to 28 directors, produced virtual discussions, hosted drive-in showings and launched an at-home streaming platform.
“Through our ability to have a virtual cinema, we’re able to draw more constant attention to Texas filmmakers,” Herrick says. “We have a whole slate of Texas-made and AFS-supported films that are streaming on our site now and that wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t forced into this digital space.
Jenni Kaye, Tanner Hadfield and David McMichael used to meet weekly over croissant doughnuts at Uncle Nicky’s cafe in Hyde Park to hash out their dreams for the Hyperreal Film Club, their nonprofit devoted to an “eclectic mix of the world’s greatest movies.” Prior to 2020, the trio produced ambitious immersive pop-up events, hosted weekly family movie nights and offered aspiring filmmakers a platform to display their work via VHS zine parties.
The pandemic forced the founders back to the drawing board. Now they check in via Zoom, reimagining a community-centric nonprofit in a time of isolation and fostering a passion project when burnout is inevitable.
“Nothing is forever. That’s what last year taught us,” Kaye says.
With a limited budget and capacity, they’re honing in on what sets them apart: connection. While they can’t facilitate in-person community, their reach now extends beyond Austin with online watch parties, film reviews and roundups, and a new weekly podcast.
In June, they turned to a longtime supporter and friend, Graham Cumberbatch, to produce virtual programming. Through a two-month multimedia series, “Black Is Not a Genre,” Cumberbatch examined Black contributions to eight genres, exploring his thesis that Black films are often grouped in a separate category and not valued for their significant contributions to genre.
“It’s the way history is written. Whoever has the pen gets to decide,” he says. “When a certain group of people don’t have any opportunity and the films don’t get distributed, of course they can’t be in the canon. For me, it’s about uncovering that and resituating it.”
Following Cumberbatch’s summer series, Hyperreal launched two more collections, focused on female directors in the Arab world and Mexican cinema, respectively. Sharing their platform with other creatives—and paying them for their content—is another way Kaye, Hadfield and McMichael hope to keep supporting the community, as they’re increasingly and acutely aware of the industry’s mounting losses.
“The waves from this year, we will probably only begin to understand them 10 years from now,” Hadfield says.
The Hyperreal founders can only speculate what the future holds for film communities like their own, but they’re hopeful for a renaissance. “The hopeful thing is that people care,” McMichael says. “People are being creative. People are continuing to invest energy and adapt.”
When Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League passed the CEO baton to Shelli Taylor in 2020, it was in hopes of expansion. Instead, they spent the year making sure the iconic theater chain survived.
In March of last year, the company closed all 41 theaters throughout the country and laid off 5,000 employees: It’s been a slow crawl toward a shred of normalcy ever since. When Governor Greg Abbott greenlighted the reopening of movie theaters in May, Alamo was one of the few in Austin to hold off, waiting until August to make the process as safe as possible. By February of this year, 16 theaters had reopened, with about 15% of employees rehired.
The pandemic forced League to return to the creativity and budget-slashing of the Alamo’s early startup days. In an attempt to stave off mounting debt and layoffs, he announced an auction of movie posters from his personal collection—a success, but not a long-term solution.
Other innovations are paying off, too: Before the pandemic, 70% of the revenue came from large studio releases like Wonder Woman. Now about 50% comes from private theater rentals, a pre-pandemic feature now automated so anyone can book a theater online.
“People are much more comfortable going to a movie with their pod or family or their friends. They’re more afraid of the unknown, so [personal theater rentals] really started meeting that need,” League says.
The company also introduced Alamo on Demand, a streaming service that allows users to rent or buy new releases as well as old films. Virtual trivia nights have sold out, and soon Austinites will be able to rent movies from Vulcan’s vast collection for free (the Drafthouse bought the beloved video store’s catalog).
“I’m a firm believer that people love movies. They love the experience of coming to the cinema and the night out,” League says. “I feel very confident we’ll have a role in this world as a cinema operator for a long time to come.