Both Linklater and Northwest Chicago Film Society have revived Warren Beattys Reds in the past two years.
  • Both Linklater and Northwest Chicago Film Society have revived Warren Beatty’s Reds in the past two years.

Richard Linklater is not only one of this country’s most versatile working film directors, he’s also an accomplished film exhibitor. Linklater started the Austin Film Society in 1985 to bring hard-to-see movies to his hometown and to stoke his own nascent cinephilia. What began as a ragtag (and often one-man) outfit has grown to a million-dollar organization that awards grants to new filmmakers, offers youth education programs, and operates a 100,000 square foot production facility. Last week I spoke with Linklater about his life in programming when he came to town to promote his new movie Boyhood. To help me conduct the interview, I recruited Julian Antos, Rebecca Hall, and Kyle Westphal, the brains behind local programming organization the Northwest Chicago Film Society. (J.R. Jones recently profiled the group’s 35-millimeter restoration of the rare industrial film Corn’s-a-Poppin’.) Our half-hour conversation centered on how repertory film programming has evolved over the last 30 years, though as in his latest film, Linklater was quick to note that some things—like the joy of rediscovering neglected areas of film history—remain consistent over time. The first part of our conversation follows the jump; check back tomorrow for the conclusion.

Kyle Westphal: You started the Austin Film Society in 1985. It was a different world then in terms of nontheatrical exhibition—for one thing, there was still a large market for films on 16-millimeter. What has it been like watching these things change?

Richard Linklater: When the Film Society came about, it was just me wanting to watch a bunch of movies I hadn’t seen. It was greedy, but it was a good impulse. Selfish isn’t bad when it comes to cinema or art—you just want to voraciously consume it and be a part of it. But [the Austin Film Society] ascended during the slow death of film societies nationwide. During the 1960s and ’70s, every college campus had a film society, every town—they were just flourishing everywhere. But then, the print quality started dropping off in [films available on] 16 [millimeter]. It just got more and more difficult, but somehow we went the other direction.

It’s changed over the years, but it’s still about trying to get a group of people together to watch movies. It’s still some of my favorite stuff to do. I hosted a series this spring, where every Wednesday night I showed a film from the 80s. I’m old enough now to realize, Oh, I’ve kind of lived through film history. So I showed films where I could say, “I went to this in the day and here’s what I was thinking.” It was a very personal, subjective film series. Some of the films were well-known, but I was also showing some lesser titles, all on 35 [millimeter] prints.

That’s more of a struggle, to get prints. I think it’s dangerous that some studios and some rights holders are now saying, “Show Blu-ray. Show the DCP.” They’re not valuing prints, so everyone else needs to demand them. They can’t go away.

Ben Sachs: What was in your 80s series?

Linklater: There were 15 different titles. For a lot of them, I felt like, “Everyone knows this movie,” but when I asked a lot of people at the Film Society, I was amazed by how many cinephiles who are around 30 hadn’t seen these movies. Like Reds . . .

Julian Antos: We showed that.

Rebecca Hall: The print was great.

Linklater: Yeah, there is a beautiful print of that. But even some of the classics I showed, like Fanny and Alexander, they’d seen them, but they hadn’t seen them in a theater on a 35 print. Then there were titles that I thought were big films at the time [they came out], but that many people didn’t know. A lot of people hadn’t seen Atlantic City, Cutter’s Way, Star 80, or Samuel Fuller’s White Dog. It was fun to go through all these again.

White Dog
  • White Dog

In hindsight, it’s remarkable how personal and strange a lot of cinema of the 80s was. Even the genre films that John Carpenter and Walter Hill made for the studios had this strong personal component.

Linklater: I think there was this long hangover from the 70s. That era was coming to a close, but some of these [kinds of] films were still hanging on. It was a tough decade for auteurs in Hollywood. The guys who’d had a real voice in the 70s—the Coppolas and the Scorseses—were really on the ropes. Heaven’s Gate changed the landscape enormously. There are studio heads, on the record, saying, “We’ve got to get back the power from the creative people,” as though creative people were the problem. That said, you do your research on the films and you find stuff like [blockbuster producer] Don Simpson, of all people, green-lit White Dog. You’d think he was the poster boy of what went wrong in the 80s, but he still used his power to get weird stuff made.

It’s fun to see how history treats a decade. You realize there’s never been a bad decade of cinema or even a bad year, once you go through the number of great films worldwide. Whenever I’ve looked for films to program from a certain year, I’ll come up with a list of maybe 70 films that I can stand behind and wish I can show. That tells you there’s just so much out there.

Westphal: Looking through the old Austin Film Society fliers on the Criterion Collection DVD of Slacker, you see that a lot of these movies you showed in the 80s were impossible to see in Texas at the time. Now with home video and streaming and everything else, how do you think film societies can convey the importance of seeing stuff on film?

Hall: We make a point of showing everything on film, even though not everyone who comes to our shows really cares about that distinction.

Linklater: The hard-core audiences can appreciate the value of a print if they know the film was shot on 35- or 16-millimeter. But then you run up against problems with availability and distribution. And a lot of prints have gotten bad—at some point you want to show a perfect digital version of a movie instead of a crappy print. Film schools are another matter. Where I live, around the University of Texas, they don’t even have much of a film exhibition program. This is one of the biggest film schools in the country. It’s unbelievable that students are OK looking at monitors watching, say, The Godfather for the first time. That’s an education? The bar’s been lowered as to what quality presentation means, so I admire you guys for fighting the good fight. It’s definitely worth it.

I think people do pick up on the difference [between digital and film], they feel it. But the main thing, to me, is [creating] that cine-club atmosphere, where you can watch something and then hang out and talk about it—know you’re not alone. What do you do with all this new work that’s originating on digital and that they never make prints of? You shouldn’t think you’re a sellout if you have a decent digital projector, because there’s a lot of stuff that only exists in digital formats. And then there are certain films where the prints are more or less lost. It’s OK to make exceptions.

Linklater (left) in Slacker
  • Linklater (left) in Slacker

Hall: Have you made prints of Boyhood, since you shot it all on 35-millimeter?

Linklater: That’s a good question. That [conversion to digital exhibition] happened so fast, didn’t it? In the last three or four years, it went from there being a few theaters that showed digital prints to just. . . . There’s really been no request for prints of Boyhood from theaters. They want the DCP, even though I shot it on film, and there’s a 35 [millimeter] negative and a final print. The upside of this is that it’s cheaper for distributors, because the cost of striking a bunch of prints is huge. I still like prints, but I think that day is coming rather quickly and we have no control over it. Theaters just don’t want prints.

Westphal: Digital technology makes things more democratic on the filmmaking side, but not on the exhibition side. The distributors don’t have to make all these prints, but all the theaters have to buy new projection systems.

Linklater: You know what happened? The companies came in—I found this out because I’m involved with these guys in Austin who do distribution—and financed everyone’s conversion to digital, but the theater owners had to pay them a percentage on everything they make. It’s like a high-interest loan. It’s bad for the film societies of the world, because if they show anything digital on, like, a Tuesday night, they have to pay this company the first $695 or something like that.

For a while there, the theater owners were sitting there with their arms crossed, but then the economics of it worked out somehow [for the DCP companies]. Once that happened, they all did it in about a one-year period. Time will tell if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

The transition is making it tough for smaller, independent theaters to keep up.

Linklater: [Austin Film Society] recently fixed up an old theater in Austin. We spent about $120,000 putting in new 35 projectors, a changeover system, a good sound system . . . and we got a digital projector. If you can raise the money, you could do something like that. Are you guys a membership-based organization?

Hall: No, we just charge admission. We’ve had to move from theater to theater in the past year. [Two venues where they’d shown movies, the Portage and the Patio, have shut down in that time.] It’s hard to ask people to become members if they don’t know where the next showing is going to be.

Linklater: We were a nomadic film society for a while. At some point, you have to lock into your own venue some way or another. Get that benefactor or . . . I don’t know how you do it, really.

Did the Austin Film Society ever get a benefactor?

Linklater: Yeah, me. [laughter] Five or ten years into the society’s existence, I became lucky enough to be an ongoing benefactor.

Hall: One of us needs to make a movie.

Linklater: Or get some extra cash in your pocket somehow. Once I had my own movies, we could do benefit premiere screenings. People come out, pay a little extra, and then we could put that money towards something. You need a good benefit every now and then, for the cause.

Now, we’re a million-dollar organization. We give out grants, we have programs in schools. Education is great, if you can create the programs, because those are fundable. Show kids movies, get them excited about cinema, so they can edit your corporate videos someday. [laughter] Or whatever. If you can create a love of cinema, that’s all I care about. Love of film is all that matters.

Read part two of this interview.