Austin Film Society At 35: A Look Back at Texas Movie-Making Magic
Richard Linklater’s efforts since 1985 have created a galaxy of stars and creativity
By Hannah J. Phillips
Lead photograph by David Brendan Hall
When Richard Linklater founded the Austin Film Society in 1985, he had not yet written “Slacker,” the first film that would bring him critical acclaim. Matthew McConaughey had not even applied to the University of Texas, and South by Southwest would not start for another two years. Austin’s identity as a hub for independent filmmakers did not yet exist.
Today, the influence of Linklater’s work and his Austin Film Society are slowly starting to receive due credit. So far, Linklater has been nominated for five Oscars, two Golden Globes and three BAFTAs, winning the Golden Globe and two BAFTAs for “Boyhood” in 2015.
More recently, the Centre Pompidou in Paris curated a retrospective exhibit exploring Linklater’s brilliant use of time—whether in a single day in “Dazed and Confused” or over a decade in the Before trilogy (1995, 2004, 2013) and “Boyhood.” The exhibit dedicated an entire room to the AFS, with archival photos and videos showcasing the organization’s significant contribution to film culture in Texas and beyond. Pompidou curator Judith Revault d’Allonnes considers the AFS crucial to Linklater’s own creation.
“It is by [watching movies] ranging from the silent era to the latest underground works,” she shares, “that Richard forged his eye, his outstanding narrative skills and creativity, and his both experimental and classic taste. Founding [AFS] also gave him a strong base to his work and allowed him to escape the industry when he wanted to experiment and regain more freedom.”
Linklater’s original vision for the AFS was simple: to show films and help fellow filmmakers. The organization has more than lived up to that promise, expanding its programming to nurture the Austin film community into the powerhouse it is today. From forming the Texas Filmmakers’ Production Fund (TFPF), to establishing the Texas Film Hall of Fame and gifting Austin with an updated art house cinema for both classic and rare films, the AFS has had a profound impact on local filmmakers and film lovers in its 35-year history.
This year marks not only the 35th anniversary of the AFS but the 20th anniversary of its production facility, Austin Studios, and the 20th anniversary of the Texas Film Awards. This month, the Texas Film Awards celebrates these milestones at the newly expanded Creative Media Center on March 12. We sat down with CEO Rebecca Campbell and the head of film and creative media, Holly Herrick, for a look back at some of the society’s biggest milestones.
Austin Media Arts Era
From 1985 to 1987, Linklater collaborated with the Dobie Theater and Laguna Gloria to exhibit rare and difficult-to-access films around the UT campus.
The AFS achieved nonprofit status in 1987, the same year Linklater invited Louis Black (then-editor of the Austin Chronicle), Chale Nafus (who helped establish the film program at Austin Community College) and Charles Ramírez Berg (professor of film at UT) to join the society’s founding board.
By 1988, the AFS had established its first programming space, known as Austin Media Arts, above a Quackenbush’s Coffeehouse on the Drag. Campbell, who joined the AFS as a volunteer and went on to become its first full-time staff member, describes the first few years of the AFS as the Austin Media Arts era.
“AFS at this time was really a collection of young, boundary-pushing musicians, artists and filmmakers who were really engaged in the avant-garde and arts scene in general,” says Campbell. “Austin Media Arts was more than a space to show films; there were also musical performances happening there, and when Rick started making ‘Slacker,’ it was all the people that hung out there that helped with the production of his film.”
This early era was a scrappy time for the organization, with programming primarily led by volunteers while Linklater’s career as a director skyrocketed. “Slacker,” which first received critical acclaim at Sundance in 1991, was followed by “Dazed and Confused” in 1993 and “Before Sunrise” in 1995.
In 1996, the AFS hosted retrospectives from German and French directors Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Robert Bresson.
“Fassbinder was having a prolific period in the ’80s,” says Campbell, “but his films weren’t coming to the U.S. Bresson was an established director, but it was hard to access his new films. These retrospectives really showed the passion AFS would bring to film education in Austin.”
Along with the Fassbinder and Bresson retrospectives, a John Cassavetes series inspired a generation of young directors.
“The late-nineties were a pivotal time for independent filmmakers,” says Campbell. “The Zellner brothers were studying at UT at that time, and the Cassavetes series is one that really shaped artists in that era.”
Quentin Tarantino Era
After meeting Quentin Tarantino at a midnight screening of Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” Linklater invited him to come to Austin. Bonding over a shared passion for film culture and community building, Tarantino and Linklater first started discussing a fund to support fellow filmmakers. The AFS hosted the Texas premiere of Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” in 1994, launching the Texas Filmmakers’ Production Fund at its first Quentin Tarantino Film Festival in 1996.
Over the next 10 years, the AFS would host seven QT Fests—first at the Dobie Theater and then at the new Alamo Drafthouse (founded in 1997). The goal of the festival was to increase film education and financial support for local creatives. Cecilia Conti, who started as an intern with the AFS around this time and now serves as a board member, recalls the obscure ’70s films Tarantino would bring to the festivals.
“The best thing about being an intern,” says Conti, “was the education in obscure, foreign films—just by virtue of being involved—learning film and interacting with high-level people in the industry. It’s not like you’re a cog in the machine; it’s a family, and we’re all here for the mission.”
In 1998, the AFS started collaborating with the Alamo Drafthouse founders, Tim and Karrie League, to bring weekly screenings into the new, one-screen cinema in downtown Austin. The Drafthouse hosted six of the QT Fests during this period, as well as a three-night mini-festival to mark the closure of the Alamo’s first downtown location in 2007.
“Alamo was the new kid on the block in ’97,” says Campbell, “and AFS had been around for a while, so AFS audiences were discovering the Alamo at that time and really became loyal customers.”
Campbell describes that period as the beginning of a 16-year love affair between the AFS and the Drafthouse, with both organizations growing alongside each other. Eventually, the AFS outgrew the weekly screenings, prompting the organization to search for its own space in 2013.
During this partnership with the Drafthouse, two major milestones were the launch of Austin Studios in 2000 and the Texas Film Hall of Fame in 2001. To provide production spaces and sound stages for local filmmakers, the AFS renovated empty airplane hangars at the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. Housing Linklater’s Detour Filmproduction and other film businesses, the 20- acre creative production complex became a key catalyst for film creatives and has produced more than 600 film and television projects to date.
Three of the most notable films shot on-site at Austin Studios include “Miss Congeniality,” the first big-budget production to film at the facility; “Idiocracy,” starring Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph; and “Machete” from Robert Rodriguez, who remains a major AFS collaborator. His Troublemaker Studios shares a neighboring hangar at the airport.
Rodriguez made a point to stay in Austin as his filmmaking career unfolded. His ability to carve out a career in Texas grew out of his partnership with the AFS and vice versa—it was a symbiotic relationship.
“Linklater started AFS while Rodriguez was still at UT,” says Conti, who met Rodriguez while working with AFS. She later worked as a director’s assistant on some of his biggest directorial features, including “Sin City” and “Grindhouse,” and now serves as a senior vice president for his El Rey Network. “Seeing [Linklater] shoot here definitely influenced Robert,” she says, and in turn, Rodriguez brought more of the spotlight to Austin. The AFS hosted his “Grindhouse” premiere in 2007, and Rodriguez used the Austin Studios soundstages for “Machete” in 2010.
“AFS is proof that when you remove yourself from the rat race of Los Angeles,”
A Permanent Home
When the AFS outgrew its weekly screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse, the organization started searching for a permanent space to show films in 2013. Working with the Lincoln Village Shopping Center (now known as The Linc) near Highland Mall, the AFS started a crowdfunding campaign to bring a 35mm projector to the Marchesa theater as a semi-permanent home. When the Marchesa folded in 2016, the AFS decided to take over the lease and renovate the theater. Adding a second screen and a new lobby designed by Austin architect Michael Hsu, AFS Cinema opened a year later, realizing Linklater’s original vision to showcase independent films.
Standing in the AFS Cinema lobby before a press breakfast announcing details for the 2020 Texas Film Awards, Conti points out the film posters from Linklater’s personal collection. “I remember seeing [them] in his offices when I was an AFS intern,” she says. “I’ve loved seeing something I was a part of when I was young just grow and expand.”
The past year fulfilled another major facet of the AFS mission to provide space and support for the local film industry. In December, the TFPF (now called the AFS Grant) surpassed the $2 million mark in grants awarded to emerging filmmakers since starting the fund. Founded in 2018, the Doc Intensive program supports documentary filmmakers in production, postproduction and development. Director Ben Masters participated in the program for his feature documentary, “The River and the Wall,” which won the Louis Black “Lone Star” Award after its world premiere at SXSW in 2019.
“The Doc Intensive program really helped us to whittle down our story in ‘The River and the Wall,’ gave us invaluable insight into what sections of the film were and weren’t working, and allowed us to consult with people who know the editing process,” says Masters.
Legends and Icons
Honoring the actors and icons who have made an impact on Texas film culture, the Texas Film Awards directly support regional filmmakers like Masters. Past Hall of Fame inductees include Robin Wright, Renée Zellweger and Terrence Malick (to name a few), while the Rising Star Award recognizes emerging actors set to leave a lasting legacy.
This year’s Rising Star Award will honor Kaitlyn Dever, who had a breakout year in 2019 with the SXSW release of “Booksmart,” a Golden Globe nomination for her role in “Unbelievable” on Netflix and a BAFTA Rising Star nod. “She fits the mold of actors who have already made an impact, and who are poised to do great things,” says Campbell.
Brooklyn Decker, who received the Rising Star Award at the Texas Film Awards last year, says the ceremony is a chance to celebrate Texas filmmaking and showcase the amazing work the AFS does for young filmmakers—even as early as elementary school. Partnering with the Andy Roddick Foundation, the AFS brings directors into summer camps to teach kids how to make Claymation films and expose them to filmmaking as a career.
“The Rising Star Award was a huge honor, when you consider those who have been recognized in the past,” says Decker. “The awards have always been a great way for stars like Renée Zellweger to come back to Texas and share what it meant to their career.”
Reflecting on the impact of the AFS in a 2016 documentary on American Masters for PBS (co-directed by founding board member Black), Linklater said it was born out of his desire for community: “I didn’t want to be a writer—that’s a lonely thing. I wanted to be part of an artistic troupe. I wanted to be part of a group, you know—it’s just so much more fun and collaborative, and just better.…The [AFS] taught me everything I need to know to hustle.”