Inspired by Richard Linklater’s work for the last 32 years with the Austin Film Society, writer-director Jeff Nichols (“Loving,” “Midnight Special”) wants to build a cinephile organization in Arkansas that is just as impressive.
“Little Rock and Arkansas don’t have anything like that,” he said. “One of my biggest hurdles as a kid in Arkansas was I just didn’t have any connection points with the global film industry.”
Eventually, Nichols found people in his life who helped him to see that “real people do make movies and it’s possible.” Now having achieved some success, he seeks to “create a cinema society that gets people together to watch movies and filmmakers they may not know about, to not only bring films but filmmakers to Arkansas, to have conversations people can see in front of them in a way that’s immediate and tangible.”
Over his career, Nichols gleaned intelligence from global festivals he has attended. Now living in Austin, he conferred with Linklater and his team about how to go about raising funds and growing the Arkansas Cinema Society.
Nichols is starting with Little Rock, which has neither a film festival nor an art house cinema. “I tried to think of something to cover all those bases,” he said.
Arkansas does have a film festival in the three-year-old, diversity-centered, Bentonville Film Festival, co-founded by Geena Davis and largely backed by Wal-Mart. However, Nichols’ plans are very different. He was most inspired by Ebertfest in Champaign, Illinois, founded by late critic Roger Ebert.
“It was an extended weekend of curated films curated by Roger all in one theater, with no cross-programming, not like any other festival,” he said. “They get together, show a movie, and after talking to a filmmaker, go eat lunch, then go see another movie and have cheeseburgers, then go to a midnight movie. It felt like a group of people talking about cinema. It felt like a way to approach the idea of a festival, and a year-round approach for the Arkansas Cinema Society.”
The ACS will host film events, seminars, panel discussions, and screenings throughout the year. For the first ACS event, this August 24-26 Nichols will host a filmmaker to show “a few films that inspired them, discuss them, and try to get people to think about what goes into making films,” he said, “the inspiration and where it comes from. It’s an earthly thought process, not some magic.”
Nichols will host three seminars on the craft of filmmaking in ACS’s first year, and plans to launch the first ACS film festival in 2018 to take place every year in Little Rock. He chairs the ACS board of directors that includes actress Mary Steenburgen; former governor Mike Beebe; Alison Williams, who serves as Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson’s chief of staff; and Skip Rutherford, Dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. ACS executive director and Little Rock native Kathryn Tucker, an assistant director turned producer, will help to raise money, run the organization, track area cinephiles, and grow statewide mailing lists.
They’re looking to renovate a theater in Little Rock; longer term, Nichols wants to send programs to enlightened theaters around the state and create a grant program to help upgrade needy cinemas. “It’s a shame ‘Moonlight’ can’t be seen in southeast Arkansas, which has a massive African-American population,” said Nichols. “Come on! Let’s get these films to the further reaches of the state.”
Nichols is also impressed with AFS’s Texas filmmaker production fund, which gives rising filmmakers grants that help them cover costs while taking their films to festivals. He vividly recalls being put up in fancy hotels while taking “Shotgun Stories” and “Take Shelter” at festivals where he couldn’t afford to buy a meal.
Nichols is currently teaching a course with Matthew McConaughey on “Mud” at the University of Texas, and was inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame this month. Next up: he’s writing his first studio movie from scratch, “Alien Nation.” He’ll present his story to Fox in May. “They want to make a movie of substance,” he said, “that is also a big movie, which is exactly what I want to do.”