The Austin Film Society has spent much of its existence bouncing around various venues in town promoting and celebrating the art of filmmaking with screenings of classic, avant garde, independent, art house and popular cinema.
After years of nomadic existence, the society, which was founded in 1985, has found a permanent home for its repertory screenings, which are open to members as well as the general public. AFS has formed a partnership with the Marchesa Hall & Theatre (6226 Middle Fiskville Road), an event space near Highland Mall that has hosted wedding receptions and the annual Blue Genie Art Bazaar. The Marchesa was originally built as a small cineplex in the 1980s named the Lincoln Village, which closed in 1999.
The first official AFS screening at the 274-seat theater was March’s 20th anniversary and reunion screening of AFS co-founder Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused.” Since April, AFS has screened its weekly Essential Cinema series on Tuesday nights at the Marchesa, with tickets available for $8 for nonmembers. (Members pay a tiered rate.)
The Marchesa, owned by Hyde Park pizza shop The Parlor proprietor Deborah Gill, has one of only three theaters in Austin, along with the Paramount Theatre and Alamo Ritz, that can run classic reel-to-reel 35mm films. After a fundraising campaign, which begins this weekend, the Marchesa will have the rare distinction of showing movies on both film and via digital cinema projector (DCP).
A home theater has long been a dream for AFS, says Linklater. The organization, which has screened movies in museums, classrooms and nightclubs, briefly had its own dedicated screening space in the late 1980s and early ’90s, using a converted storage room above Quackenbush’s on Guadalupe Street. But this will be the first time AFS has its own home theater.
Former Alamo Drafthouse programmer Lars Nilsen has joined the AFS programming team of Chale Nafus and associate artistic director Holly Herrick. The film scene fixture who turned the Alamo’s Weird Wednesday into a cult-lover’s favorite says he’s excited about growing the Austin film community with the new venture.
“The Alamo is becoming a national company, so a programmer at the Alamo is a national programmer, and for me, my interests and my tastes and where I’m going now … is programming for Austin and for Austin audiences,” Nilsen said.
Film fans can continue to expect the Essential Cinema offerings from AFS co-founder Nafus, as well as some “some fairly obtuse newer films” that Nilsen says “are not going to be commercial but that we feel like we’ve judged to be important and should be seen by Austinites and not just people in L.A., NYC and Chicago.”
“The art house titles are going to include a lot more cultish and yet quality type films,” Nilsen said. “Films that straddle mainstream, outsider and art cinema.”
Linklater says that if AFS can raise enough money to pay for upgrades that will help reduce overhead, the “sky’s-the-limit” in terms of programming possibilities, and the famous filmmaker says he plans to have a hand in what ends up on screen.
“We’ve got a fantastic team of programmers in Chale, Lars and Holly,” Linklater said, “but as perpetual artistic director I’m going to be hovering around more than I have lately.”
If it wasn’t for Linklater, the programming team at AFS likely wouldn’t include Nilsen. Following stints in San Francisco and New York City, the North Carolina native moved to Austin in 1994, drawn to the town by his love of Linklater’s seminal “Slacker.”
Nilsen had a film-going life in the two coastal cities, but he “was really blown away” by the film community when he moved to Austin and attended AFS screenings like Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend” in 1995 and a series of films by German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
“It made me fall in love with this city to see that all these people would go and see these weird, amazing movies,” Nilsen said. “And it wasn’t like these were art films that were shown in a museum. It was like these smelly people riding their skateboards to go watch a Godard film. It really was super formative for me. I could have gone in a lot of different directions at that point.”
Nilsen, who started working at the Alamo for food in 2001 and for money in 2004, also had an immediate affinity for I Love Video and Vulcan Video, stores that helped inspire his appreciation for genre films. The funky movie hubs offered expertly curated sections on cult films and sent the programmer on a path toward obsession with filmmakers like Ray Dennis Steckler and Russ Meyer.
Nilsen enjoys introducing moviegoers to his personal favorites, but he understands that building the film community as a programmer requires sharing his obsessions while remaining open to the obsessions of others. He knows that great programming requires finding the intersection between the best things AFS has to offer and cinema of which the audience can be receptive.
“We’re throwing a lot of curves out there right now to try and find where these intersecting curves are,” Nilsen said. “Fundamentally, as kind of a personal mission, it’s about building a community. I realize that sounds a little clichéd, but it’s true. I think that the community of people who come together and experience films … it’s so important to not only our quality of life but what ends up coming out of Austin and what Austin is.”
AFS will continue to partner with theaters like the Drafthouse and Paramount “whenever it makes sense for everyone,” but after years of wandering town setting up screenings at temporary venues before moving onto the next place like a busking musician, AFS finally has a place to call home. It’s a move that amounts to something of a game-changer for the local scene.
Linklater, the undeniable Godfather of the Austin film scene, says the addition of the Marchesa’s programming to repertory screenings at the Drafthouse, Violet Crown Cinema, Paramount and various “renegade screenings” around town puts Austin in elite company.
“I think Austin is now possibly the third-best cinema exhibition town in the country, maybe just a little behind L.A. New York stands alone, of course,” Linklater said. “But, unlike the bigger cities, we keep getting voted the best town for making films in, so when you factor these two things together, production and exhibition, I think you can make an argument Austin is the best all-round film town in the country. I’m biased, of course.”
Marchesa fundraising campaign
The Austin Film Society on Monday will launch a fundraising campaign to “Help Build the Best Little Art House in Texas” at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre.
AFS hopes to raise $120,000 for theater upgrades at the Marchesa, including a digital projector and DCP system; Dolby 5.1 surround sound equipment and installation; a 35 mm changeover system; and updates to the theater to “create a space dedicated to classic, international and independent work.”
The “Best Little Art House” program has been seeded with $30,000 raised from a small group of Founders of AFS at the Marchesa and, as of May 20, Richard Linklater will match every gift up to $45,000 to bring the campaign to its goal of $120,000.
To reach their intended goal by July 3, AFS will host special benefit screenings and offer gift incentives at various membership levels.
The campaign officially kicks off Sunday at the advance screening of Linklater’s “Before Midnight” at 9 p.m. at the Marchesa. For tickets to the Sunday screening, which will be preceded by screenings of “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” visit AustinFilm.org/BeforeTrilogy. For more information on the fundraising campaign, visit AustinFilm.org/Marchesa.