Austin’s film fabric begins at AFS
Words by Jessi Devenyns Photos by Eric Morales & Courtesy of AFS
For 33 years, Austin’s creative film engine has resided in East Austin. Begun in 1985 in the building that now houses La Escuelita del Alma, Austin Film Society (AFS) had humble beginnings as Richard Linklater’s personal project to showcase more of the independent films that were being created in the community. Today, however, his passion has evolved into a non-profit with 20 acres of stages and blacktop dedicated to creation, as well as projection.
Ensconced in the north side of what is now Mueller, Campbell says, “We were the very first people here when the airport closed.” When they arrived in 2000, Campbell remembers stepping out of her trailer office and surveying 700 acres of blank silence. Although a desolate description, this flat expanse of tarmac turned out to be a boon for both creatives and the city.
Within a couple of years, what was once a club for the initiated became a permanent, city-sponsored hub for imaginative expression and creative nurture. Besides simply opening the doors of reconverted airplane hangars to filmmakers in all financial strata, AFS offers grants “that form the backbone of a local film community where people help each other out creatively,” explains Campbell. Depending on the applicant’s needs, grants range from $1-15K and can cover anything from travel to production needs. In 2017 alone, 39 grants totaling $110,000 were given. The only catch to qualifying for one is that you must be a resident of Texas.
Campbell shrugs over the last requirement. “I think the idea is more to attract people to stay here to do their creative thing here.”
In Texas, it’s becoming a challenge to be involved in the film industry’s big-production projects. As governmental incentives dry up, more and more productions are moving to other locales like Philadelphia. But, according to Campbell, “That’s why it’s so important that we’re developing our indigenous community.” The locals are, she explains, the engine that runs AFS.
Beyond grants, there are more subtle ways that AFS works to ensure that those who are driven to make films are able to access the equipment and space that they need. “We have a long-term lease with the city that is very favorable. So, we can pass on our savings to all of the productions,” explains Campbell. Although space is available on a budget, it isn’t necessarily what you would expect. Out of the seven airplane hangars on site, only two are renovated. The renovated stages are, according to Campbell, “more traditional airplane hangars.” Having such a wide range of refurbishment, however, is the key to keeping AFS’s space inviting to every level of filmmaker.
The two renovated stages were sponsored by the City of Austin and are generally intended for higher budget films that come in. “Once the city began to realize that this was really great for economic development and Austin’s image and position in the world, they agreed to make an investment in it,” remembers Campbell. That investment she referred to was a $6 million bond that was issued in 2006. Since then though, the only capital that has been put into the stages is the rent that tenants pay. Nevertheless, in Campbell’s opinion, that’s exactly the right balance. If they improved all the stages then, “the rent would be so high it would drive people away.” And that, she says, would defeat the purpose of making film accessible to all.
Did You Know? In addition to their production and post-production studios, the Austin Film Society has an education branch called Austin Public that is dedicated to turning visionaries into filmmakers.
What’s a Film Society without a Cinema? In May of 2017, AFS opened its own arthouse cinema at the new Linc shopping center. They are open 7 days a week and show a variety of films from French New Wave to local, low-budget experimental film. Feel free to attend hungry—they offer full bar service and dinner menu items to make an evening into an immersive experience.