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Richard Linklater’s 30 Year Vision: An Oral History of the Austin Film Society

Richard Linklater's 30 Year Vision: An Oral History of the Austin Film Society

On Thursday night, the Austin Film Society will hold its 15th annual Texas Film Awards ceremony, which traditionally takes place the night before the SXSW Film Festival. Honorees this year include famous Texans Tommy Lee Jones, Guillermo Del Toro, Bonnie Curtis and Luke Wilson, alongside a posthumous tribute to Austin film guru L.M. Kit Carson. Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” will also receive a special award.

But Linklater will have more than one reason to celebrate: This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of AFS, the non-profit film organization that he co-founded with cinematographer Lee Daniel in 1985. Over the years, as Linklater’s filmmaking career has blossomed, he has retained a prominent role at AFS — shaping Austin’s thriving film culture in the process. Now, the Film Society has its own theater and a successful grant program that has so far awarded a cumulative total of $1.6 million to filmmakers. Indiewire reached out to many of the prominent figures impacted by AFS over the years to recall its evolution and ongoing significance.

READ MORE: Austin Film Society Brings ‘Boyhood’ Back Home

Richard Linklater
Co-Founder, Austin Film Society, Filmmaker

AFS grew out of the desire to see films we haven’t seen before, through all of the amazing things that the Film Society has accomplished over the years, things that we never dreamed imaginable at the beginning, such as starting a production facility and surpassing $1.5 million in cash grants to hundreds of Texas filmmakers. At the heart of it all is a community of people passionate about film. It’s the "society" that makes AFS.

Louis Black
Co-Founder of the Texas Film Hall of Fame and the Texas Film Awards, Co-Founder and Editor of The Austin Chronicle, Director of SXSW

The extraordinary thing about the Austin film scene, why it has produced so many fine filmmakers and outstanding films, is that it is a cooperative creative community — emphasize all three of those words – cooperative, creative and community.

Charles Ramírez Berg
University of Texas Radio, Television, Film program Professor, founding board member of AFS

That all came out of those early, early days where Rick basically taught himself film history. He would rent all these filmmakers’ work — Ozu or whomever — and then invite other people to come for a dollar or so to help defray the costs of the shipping and film itself. It was more his vision of the whole thing that I remember. He wanted to share it with everybody and find an inexpensive way to do it. He’s watching these films and might as well share it with Austin. So everything that has come after that was all just Rick’s vision.

I first met Rick because I was teaching at the University of Texas as a doctorate student and teaching a big film history class. He came to my office hours asking if I’d distribute some flyers for a screening he was going to have. That was 1985. The particular screening was some avant grade films, like Luis Buñuel’s "Un Chien Andalou" and Kenneth Anger’s "Scorpio Rising." So I started showing up to his screenings. The next thing that happened was that Rick started applying for grants. He told me, "In order for me to apply for grants, we need to call ourselves something, and have a board." Rick invited me to be on the board. I said, "Well, what do I have to do?" He said, "Nothing. I just need your name." So that was that.

READ MORE: Austin Film Society Joins Sundance Institute’s Expanding International Artist Services Program

Then he said, "You know what? They’re requiring the board have meetings. Is that OK?" The early meetings were just us getting together and talking about movies — him and me and Louis Black and some others. After not too long, we realized we needed to have an organization and somebody to help us run this on a daily basis. We needed to have some office managers. But it was all Rick’s vision — and he was a generous visionary. It was never about making money. it was all about movies.

Janet Pierson
Producer, SXSW Film Festival and Former AFS Board Member

Because we [Pierson and her husband, producer John Pierson] were involved with Rick’s "Slacker," AFS was my first association with Austin. We used to get the schedule for AFS mailed to us in New York and I wanted to go. I used to look at it and think, "I wish I was there." It was appealing to me before I moved here.

Kahane Cooperman
Producer, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Documentary filmmaker

I had the good fortune to dip into the Austin film scene in the early 90’s – just post-"Slacker." I was so impressed by the generous spirit of the filmmaking community and it was all anchored by the Austin Film Society. To shoot a behind-the-scenes look at "Dazed and Confused," I borrowed —and learned how to use — AFS’s Nagra and Rick Linklater lent us his Arri so that the wonderful cinematographer Deborah Lewis, an Austin local and one of my best friends from childhood, could shoot. Shameless plug: You can see "Making Dazed" on The Criterion Collection’s "Dazed and Confused" DVD.

David Zellner
Filmmaker, "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter"

I’ve been attending Austin Film Society screenings since I first moved to Austin over 20 years ago. It’s been an integral part of my film education, and I’ve had so many eye-opening, formative experiences being exposed for the first time to work by Fassbinder, Bresson, Boetticher among others.

READ MORE: Trailer for ‘Kumiko the Treasure Hunter’ Takes ‘Fargo’ at Face Value

Janet Pierson
Producer, SXSW Film Festival and Former AFS Board Member

We decided to move here in 2004. We started looking at houses and were planning to move. John came down around April 30th of that year and then I flew down on Memorial Day weekend to see the house he wanted. Then I went out to lunch with Louis Black, who I didn’t know well. I told him my background, who I was, that we were moving to Austin. Not soon after I got a call that I was invited to join the AFS board. By the time we arrived I was a board member. It became the grounding for my Austin life. A lot of my closest friends are board members.

Rebecca Campbell
Executive Director, AFS

The first day we opened up Austin Studios: We’re at this old airport. When we opened on November 1, 2000, we were the first tenants. It was just dead silence — this wonderful sense of possibilities, like a blank canvas. We had a padlock on the gate and just unlocking it and going to this trailer that we had inherited from "Miss Congeniality" — it was just so exciting. That whole year was an absolute madhouse. Four months later was our first Texas Film Awards, which we threw together in five weeks. So one of these hangers was filled with 1000 people celebrating Texas film.

Mike Simpson
WME Agent

I left Austin in 1978 with my wife of one week and a Student Academy Award winning film in a U-Haul truck, hoping for a job in the mail room of William Morris. I returned to Austin in 2001 to be inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame and presented the Warren Skaaren Lifetime Achievement Award by Quentin Tarantino at the very first Texas Film Awards. It was a really fun gathering of the film community that was full of heart, and I’ve been back every year as the TFAs and Austin have become more polished. It’s been a joy to watch the Austin community grow and become more vibrant and viable as a film center, and I knew it had reached an important milestone when I began to see people in the L.A. industry successfully move to Austin and join with those who never left to further realize their dreams. Through all this growth and invention, AFS has been at the heart of it all.

Hector Silva
President, Cine Las Americas Film Festival

AFS has been a key collaborator and supporter of Cine las Americas every single year of our 18 year history. Originally, the city’s arts funding didn’t have a funding category for film. AFS worked with the city in 1998, and now film organizations, including Cine las Americas, receive funding through the city’s cultural contracts.

Louis Black
Co-Founder of the Texas Film Hall of Fame and the
Texas Film Awards, Co-Founder and Editor of The Austin Chronicle,
Director of SXSW

Unlike Hollywood, where all the annual awards are the culmination and rating of the year, as with everything about Austin, the Texas Film Awards are not exclusionary but inclusive. They are about celebrating the whole community while especially honoring those spotlighted each year. But there is no aspect of them that says this film is better than that one or this film maker’s achievements greater than that others. Going back to the punk days, in Austin there is very little line between audience and those on stage. They are one. The Awards are a celebration of all of us. If we move forward at all, and we are always moving forward, it is together, regardless of race, sex, age, area of filmmaking, vision, success, sensibility, politics, sexual persuasion and on and on. We move forward as one people in love with cinema, dependent on each other. This ceremony is not just about individual achievement or in any way picking "winners," it is about our shared pride in the work of our family and friends — including those who came before us and those who will follow. This sounds like such bullshit, it is so completely honest. 

Janet Pierson
Producer, SXSW Film Festival and Former AFS Board Member

I made myself very available and got to know everybody. I was on the board for six years and then I ended up with the job I have now because of how I immersed myself in the AFS. 

READ MORE: 10 Cool and Crazy Must-See Films at SXSW 2015

Holly Herrick
Associate Artistic Director, Austin Film Society

When I first started at the Film Society, it was so exciting to see all this amazing history that has come before. Since Austin has a shorter history with film, it really started with the Film Society, so it was so exciting to come down here and see all the founders were still around. It’s so neat to collaborate with people who had this vision from the very beginning. To see that ethos still intact — even though the film society has become a huge leader in the city down here, both with Austin Studios and by being one of the bigger nonprofits in the area. In many ways, AFS is this grassroots, artsy organization and has this very deep presence as a cultural leader.

But when I came down our exhibition programming hadn’t really changed much from the one-screening-a-week format. I just felt like we had so many opportunities to do more since we had this community of people who love film, and there wasn’t a ton of repertory programming every day of the week in Austin. So we started trying to figure out how we could expand our programming and find our own space to double it. We had been a gypsy organization playing around town. We still show movies everywhere. But we found this old theater, the Marchesa, that started around when AFS was founded in 1985. It still had 300 seats. The owner was using it as an event space. All these places were throwing out 35mm projectors, so we found two that were donated, set up an archival projection booth, and a lot of people donated time and services. It was really a friends and family effort. We showed "Dazed and Confused" the night before the Texas Film Hall of Fame in 2013. Then we got DCP in there, and now use it all year.

The first time we tested the print of "Dazed and Confused" that we got from Rick’s office, it was like, "Oh my gosh, we made a theater in like three months."

David Wingo
Film composer, "All the Real Girls," "Joe," "Take Shelter," "Mud"

After attending UT in the 90’s, I moved back to Austin from NYC almost six years ago and have watched the film community here grow more every year while still managing to remain as close-knit, supportive and nurturing as ever. It only makes sense that AFS has grown right along with the community in that time and continues to remain a central hub of it on so many levels. A majority of my friends in NYC were working in film, and I probably made the trip from Kensington into the city two or three times a week to see movies at Anthology, Film Forum, Lincoln Center, etc., etc. There were several factors that played a part in my decision to move back to Austin but one of the main ones was knowing that I would still be living in a city with a thriving film community and culture. Little did I know that several friends from both NYC and elsewhere would be making that same decision in the following years, and I would say that almost all of them have seen support from AFS in various ways. And once AFS acquired the Marchesa Theater, it really brought them up to another level. The programming itself is not only top-notch and as good as anywhere in the country in my opinion, but it also serves as a true meeting place for the film community here. 

Janet Pierson
Producer, SXSW Film Festival and Former AFS Board Member

Second to Robert Redford, Rick is the only filmmaker who’s affected a mass number of people in the American independent film world.

Richard Linklater
Co-Founder, Austin Film Society, Filmmaker

The Austin film community of today exists because we’ve had amazing people here who care enough about film and this community to contribute their time, their money and their talents to make it great. If it wasn’t a group endeavor, and if this community didn’t have this level of drive and passion, we never would have made it.

READ MORE: Watch: ‘Boyhood’ Behind-the-Scenes Short Keeps It in the Family

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