Thirty years ago, Richard Linklater started the Austin Film Society and created a thriving Texas film industry. Why not try it yourself?
Thirty years ago, there were few films being made in the state of Texas, let alone Austin. There was maybe a once-yearly film shot in the state which, as Richard Linklater describes in the conversation below from this year's Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, tended to be of the exploitation genre like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That wasn’t the type of film Linklater aspired to make, and he didn’t want to move to New York or Los Angeles. Linklater’s response to the question of did you think you could make a living as a film director? “Not no, hell no!”
In the video below, watch a conversation with Linklater, David Zellner, and Andrew Bujalski at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival on how the Austin Film Society was built from scratch and became one of the most influential institutions in the country. Today, Austin is a thriving film community and industry where you can actually make money making films. And it is in no small part to the dedication of the Austin Film Society, which now operates screenings, a 20-acre studio, grant programs, educational training, and industry events. If you want to try to reproduce something like this for yourself, check out the step-by-step breakdown below!
I’ve broken down the steps you’d need to take—according to Linklater, Zellner, and Bujalski—to turn the place you love into a thriving film community. They may or may not need to happen in this particular order, but as you’ll see, each step springboards the next, so it gets easier as you go along.
Step 1: Show movies you want to see
When Linklater, who was from a very small town in Texas that had a very small B-movie theater, got to Austin, he noticed the campus was showing the same films over again. Luckily, this was the dawn of the great VHS movement, and the Austin Film Society was born out of this timing. “I was just greedy to see more films,” said Linklater. “That's when I just found out you could rent films and show them, and maybe I could hustle people into giving us $2. You do the math, you can rent a film for $100 or $150, then you can get 75 people to pay $2. We could do it in a cooperative way so the Film Society Society started just wanting to see these films from everywhere.”
From there, Linklater found likeminded people passionate about films who would become his conspirators in the building-up of the Austin film scene.
Step 2: Hustle to make your film in your town
You’ve got some screenings happening that have attracted film lovers and filmmakers? Great. The next step is to make something locally, and make it good. And make it for nearly nothing. For Linklater, this was Slacker. “I mean, it was one of those no-budget hustles: you know, credit cards, savings, family members,” said Linklater. He made the film, and was lucky to sell the TV rights at the IFP Market and a German TV station. “I got enough money to finish it and to pay back my parents and pay off the lab…that's how every indie film was made back…to be a filmmaker you have to be a cheap hustler.”
"To be a filmmaker you have to be a cheap hustler."
Step 3: When others see your film, lure them to your town...
And validate their work! When Linklater finished Slacker, it got seen by other would-be filmmakers in and around Texas. It signaled to them that there was something interesting going on that they might be able to get into. David Zellner and his brother Nathan were living in College Station, TX and had been making movies on VHS since they were kids. “I remember hearing about Slacker and it was like made here and it wasn't a studio movie,” said Zellner. “I remember renting it right away and it felt like a like transmission from another planet, but at the same so relatable because it’s from Texas and it was so exciting to me that you could do something so original…that was a big part of moving to Austin.” Zellner moved to Austin and was even an intern for Linklater.
Bujalski had a similar experience watching the film, although he was not from Texas. He described himself as a movie-crazy kid whose dad took him to see Slacker in theaters. “He slept through it and then he woke up and said it was the worst movie ever saw,” said Bujalski, who himself was smitten with the film. Years later, most of what he knew about Austin was based on seeing Slacker and Dazed and Confused. Which was enough to get him to move there! “Texas always appealed to me…in the late '90s I moved there kind of arbitrarily just because it sounded fun and I was then an age where I needed no better reason to move somewhere than it sounded fun.” As you probably know, the Zellner Brothers and Bujalski have gone one to be iconic Austin filmmakers also recognized around the world.
"Cinema requires new blood and new enthusiastic people."
Step 4: Fundraise to create an ecosystem
A big part of the Austin Film Society is the granting program, which Linklater said meant a lot to him based on the hustle it took to make Slacker, and also the small grant he received while making the film that gave him (and his family members) the hope that he was doing something with his life! So, he knew that the Austin Film Society should start working towards something like that, despite the fact that in the beginning everyone he knew was broke and the film economy was non-existent. How to change that? Filmmaking and filmmakers. ”We had cultivated an audience,” explained Linklater. “We were able to raise money by special premieres. Filmmakers I had met would come in and have premieres and we would raise a lot of money. That's how we started the grant program…we'd make like $50K in one night.” AFS would use that money to pay filmmakers and attract companies to sustain the Austin film scene.
Step 5: Keep Recruiting New Blood
Linklater mentioned that he was always trying to recruit new people, like students to come see movies at the AFS. Sometimes that awkward kid who keeps showing up turns into, oh, say Wes Anderson! “It’s fun to see all the new blood,” Linklater explained. “You know, cinema requires new blood and new enthusiastic people.”
Sound like something you could try? Carpe diem, and seize the print by the spool!