The Austin Chronicle

https://www.austinchronicle.com/screens/1999-04-16/521803/

Great Scott!

"Why Not?"

April 16, 1999, Screens

When you look back over your life to date, and arrive back at the present, you think of all the decisions you made, the impulses you followed, the advice you did or did not take, and maybe most importantly, all the many people along the way you worked with, collaborating in whatever way while the clock ticked forward. With Scott's era at the Dobie coming to an end, I can't help but think I might be inhabiting some different world right now if our paths hadn't crossed. I wandered into his theatre in the summer of 1985 and explained that my friend Lee Daniel and I wanted to show experimental films on the weekends at midnight if he'd let us. Scott's attitude was a cool "Why not? Let's try it." Oh yeah, we didn't have any money to rent the theatre, but maybe we could work out some kind of split of the box office. He still courageously moved forward, willing to give us a chance, open and excited about the possibilities, not complaining about the hassles and extra work. The first show was a success and what would soon grow into the Austin Film Society was launched. What if he'd said no, or priced it out of our realm of possibility? What if he couldn't be bothered?


Photo of Dinger

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

In the summer of 1990, although we'd shown a lot of movies there in the intervening years, I was back with another proposal: Could we show my film, sans distributor, and (still no money to rent the theatre) just split the box office? "What the hell, let's give it a try," said Scott. Slacker did great that summer, and its run at the Dobie helped us get national distribution and we were back there again in the summer of '91.

"Why not?" "Let's try it." It's Scott's open approach that has made the Dobie the coolest theatre of the last 15 years, and whose own growth and success has mirrored and cultivated Austin's own film cultural growth. The Dobie -- a truly independent theatre, beholden to no one, following its own Austin-specific instincts. It remains to be seen if a national chain, however cool (and we could do a lot worse than Landmark), will be able to maintain that same deft touch of good programming and local accessibility. Can big corporations say "Let's try it" to some nobody with an idea, some passion, but no money? I guess I'm cautiously pessimistic. One thing is for sure, there'll never be another Scott Dinger, to whom everyone in Austin who gives a damn about film owes so much. I know I speak for the Film Society and many more in wishing him the very best in all his future undertakings. We'll miss you, Scott! Thanks for everything -- it's been a great run. --Rick Linklater

Rick Linklater is the artistic director and a co-founder of the Austin Film Society, and the director of Slacker and other films.


By the Dobie,
Ye Shall Know Them

In the early years of SXSW Film, I was sent to the Sundance and Toronto festivals to hype the existence of our new film festival. At that time, I knew hardly anyone in the industry. I would walk up to people, introduce myself, shake their hand, and begin some sort of spiel that explained who I was: "We've started a film festival in Austin ...." Or, "South by Southwest, the largest music festival in the country, has added a Film Festival in Austin ...."

You get the picture.

After many blank stares, I finally latched onto something the film industry understood: "We've begun a film festival in Austin. We'll be screening films at the Dobie Theatre ...." At the mention of the Dobie, faces would light up. Everyone in the industry knows Scott Dinger and his legendary theatre. The film world knows the Dobie as the theatre that introduced Slacker to a generation. We thank him for that, but also a host of other things: 1) For giving every Austin independent film a chance to find an audience. 2) For truly odd and distinctive decorating taste. 3) For giving up his screens at the drop of a hat (and minimal cost) to the Austin Film Society and other special film events. 4) For daring programming -- in the face of the Miramax-ization of the independent film world, Scott still manages to show truly startling and innovative work. 5) For the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival, which he founded. 6) For supporting SXSW Film when we were an unproven concept, and continuing to support us now. --Nancy Schafer

Nancy Schafer is the executive producer of the SXSW Film Festival.


Reflections on the
Art of Saying Yes

Scott Dinger sold the Dobie: Can that be possible? The place where I spent most of my eight years in Austin, outside of my own house?

"Hi Scott, we are thinking about showing some great-films-that-need-to-be-shown over a six-week period. Could we show them at the Dobie?" How many times did I say that between the spring of 1991 (when we, the Austin Film Society, were kicked out of our space above Quakenbush's) until the fall of 1995 (when I resigned as managing director)?

I would immediately think, "Okay, this will be the first time he says no -- he won't want to show these films." I would wait -- there was always a pause over the phone -- and then Scott would inevitably say, "Well a series of great-films-that-need-to-be-shown, that sounds like it could be possible. Why don't you come to the Dobie and let's talk about it." These decisions were never decided upon over the phone -- they were too important. That is what I loved and admired most about Scott and his Dobie; he always thought what AFS was doing was important.

I would meet with Scott in the theatre (he was always too busy for lunch). I love being in a theatre in the middle of the day; it's like a casino -- no one cares if it's day or night. Anyway, Scott would either be coming from the projection booth, standing behind the counter (scooping the best popcorn in Austin), or talking on the phone with a disagreeable distributor.

"How are you, Scott?" meant how are the films doing. He would shrug his shoulders, "Oh you know ...." "Yeah," I would nod, pretending to understand the difference between showing inspired but little-known films as a business rather than a nonprofit (ad)venture.

"What do you want to show?" he would ask. It was my time to pause. I felt like I was asking for a handout from a farmer who was on the verge of having his land seized. I always wanted to say, "Scott, don't worry about it, we'll show them elsewhere; this is a business you are running here." But AFS had no place else to go. He would wait and write some notes, and I would make my pitch/plea, trying to be reasonable and not too overly excited ...

" ... a CinemaScope series featuring Some Came Running; a Drive-In Festival; a Bergman retrospective with Sven Nykvist attending; a Musicals and Melodrama series; an Independent Film Conference with Jon Jost, J.P. Gorin, Gregg Araki; a retrospective of independent films featuring Andy Warhol's two-projector wonder, Chelsea Girls and Robert Bresson's L'Argent ..."

He would smile and nod and say, "Yes, okay let's do it -- it's not going to be easy because I have to rearrange some films but I think you can have Tuesday or Sunday or Wednesday nights."

"Oh, thank you, Scott." I was always a little scared that he would change his mind once he realized that these films were obscure and that they probably wouldn't make much money. He never did. "I hope people come to see these films," I would reply. "Maybe they'll come -- this time -- you never know," Scott would say while he waved and said goodbye as the theatre beckoned him back to the phone or the projection booth or the popcorn scooper.

It was comforting living in a town that had a Scott Dinger who was willing to show films that were worth showing no matter the size, shape, width, or price. I don't live in Austin anymore, but I have my series of memories. Bye, Scott, I am going to miss knowing that you are at the Dobie Theatre, saying yes to desperately-in-love-trying-to-be-reasonable-film-nuts. --Katie Cokinos

Katie Cokinos is a filmmaker who now lives in New York; she served as the managing director of the Austin Film Society from 1990-1995.


Showmanship

Thinking back, I recall loads of things Scott pulled off during his tenure at Dobie, but the following two examples leap immediately to mind, instances that illuminate his passion not only for film itself but also film presentation.

The first occurred when Scott shrewdly latched onto a screening of Dario Argento's newest giallo -- Opera before the print was to premiere at the Toronto Film Fest. This was back in 1990, and the film had not yet secured distribution in the U.S., but here it was playing at Dobie, complete with wax subtitles hurriedly attached to the finished reels. Opera, in fact, never received domestic distribution -- Dobie Theatre was, to the best of my knowledge, one of only six stateside theatres to ever screen the film before it went straight to video. It was, above all, a coup, and considering Argento's penchant for the red stuff, a fairly bloody one at that.

The second was Scott's inspired idea to combine the regular Sunday morning critics' screenings (media and film critics tend to view new films at odd times: Dobie's schedule corralled us all in on Sundays) with semi-continental breakfasts -- coffees, bagels, and muffins served in the theatre's spacious old lobby -- and then open the whole thing up to the public as well. It was a way to rack up some more box office, sure, but it also made crawling out of a warm bed after an Austin Saturday night a hell of a lot easier. A slow drop-off in attendance curtailed the experiment after too long, but for a while it was heavenly, a bleary-eyed, caffeinated precursor to the now de rigueur film/food hybrid at such theatres as the Alamo Drafthouse.

Other things -- Quentin Fest, the Warhol film fest (complete with the a double-screen projection of Chelsea Girls), the revelation of Peter Jackson's Dead/Alive -- stick with me, but the two examples above seem to bear out Scott's hyper-imaginative and cogent outlook on not only his job as theatre owner but also his passion for the Austin film community. For that alone he'll be missed. --Marc Savlov

Marc Savlov is an Austin Chronicle staff writer and longtime film reviewer.


Chances and Opportunites

In June of 1994, I closed Chances [a well-loved, straight-friendly, live-music, gay bar/gathering place at the corner of Ninth and Red River]. I was at a point in my life during which I had lost many friends to AIDS, and all of the death and dying in the community was starting to wear me down. Not long before closing the club, Scott had contacted me and asked if I would be willing to help out with the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival, which he founded in 1987. At the time, he was forming the first aGLIFF board of directors, and he was soliciting various community leaders to join. I thought, what a great opportunity to transition out of the bar business and still contribute to the gay community.

After that first year with aGLIFF I was hooked. The reason? Scott, of course. Through Scott's energy and programming talents, the film festival has become the largest, longest-running gay community event in Austin. Scott has created an environment at the Dobie where lesbians and gays can feel completely comfortable, not only during the film festival but year round, just by virtue of the types of films he brings in.

Over the years, Scott and I have become so close, our friends tell us we act like an old married couple. While we're both hyper, Scott has this sense of boyish energy that is a joy to watch. Just before the festival, for example, he gets so excited he stands on his toes. You'll never see him on his heels. It must come from his high-school wrestling days. He also does that when he cooks -- he's a wonderful cook -- and he'll stand there on his toes at the stove while we talk about all sorts of entrepreneurial dreams.

It's hard to imagine the Dobie without Scott's creative vision and high-energy presence, but I can't wait to see what his next project will be. I know it will be as innovative and as monumental as the Dobie. --Sandra Martinez

Sandra Martinez is the executive of the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival and the former owner of Chances.


The Price of Quality

I knew nothing about the existence of any film scene in Austin before Rick Linklater called me in 1990. He sent me a tape of Slacker along with the news that somebody named Scott Dinger had agreed to collaborate on an opening at something called the Dobie Theatre. Slacker, Dinger, Dobie -- it all sounded a little suspect. Months later, the surprising film was still playing there, and a key indie distributor, Orion Classics, had picked it up. Flash forward almost exactly eight years, and too many direct-with-filmmaker openings to count, and Hands on a Hard Body starts its road to success the same damn way.

And that's why I'm so damn mad about Scott Dinger selling out. He certainly deserved to earn a reward for years of hard work. Film exhibition is a grueling 24-hour-a-day job when you're not just playing Shakespeare in Love on three screens. When the Dobie sale was first announced, the Chronicle tried to spin out some story about Landmark Cinema and quality film, blah, blah, blah. But I knew Scott would be gone in a matter of months because it's nearly impossible to work for any master when you've been a hands-on, 100% complete independent for over a decade. With Mr. Dinger gone, you film aficionados of Austin better buckle up because it's going to be a bumpy ride. Landmark is owned by an uninterested, financially strapped parent company. I guess the next Rick Linklater or S.R. Bindler [director of Hands on a Hard Body] will just have to be discovered somewhere else -- or not at all.

Of course, I hope Scott Dinger cashed out big time. And more importantly, I have every faith that we will soon experience his bold and original passion for film in another arena. --John Pierson

John Pierson is the legendary producer's representative who handled the sale of Slacker (and many other indie film classics), and is currently the host and co-producer of the TV show Split Screen.


Let No Screen Be Idle

Scott encouraged me to show my slides during the intermissions between films at the Dobie. I screened my work there from approximately 1986 to 1991. It was the first time my work started to get noticed, and it also provided me with unbiased feedback from a viewing audience. I could sit in the theatre between movies, without anyone knowing I was the person who took the photos they were looking at, and the way people would respond to my images was priceless.

I even once read in the Chronicle about a musician who had moved to town and one of the first places she ended up was at the Dobie; she caught my Buick MacKane vs. Pork slide show, and she knew this was the town for her to be living in.

Scott's willingness to open his theatre to all visual artists, in addition to filmakers [the intermission slide shows were a regular Dobie attraction and local art exhibits used to hang in the lobby of the old theatre], has always made me feel that the Dobie is the most "Austin" theatre we have. He gave it personality ... a vibe, if you will. He was always working ... maybe we will see him around town a bit more now! --Todd V. Wolfson

Todd V. Wolfson is a photographer and frequent Chronicle contributor whose images accompany this story.


The Man Behind
the Curtain

As the director of public relations and promotions, I worked with Scott Dinger at the Dobie Theatre from November 1995 until January 1998. Scott and I shared an office the size of a large bathroom, which allowed me to get to know him very well in a short amount of time. While I was employed at the theatre, Scott worked about 70 hours per week; a sick employee, a stopped-up toilet, a broken popcorn popper, a missing film were all his responsibilities, as well as the tribulations of being an independent theatre owner. The movie-distribution business isn't kind to owners who don't have a large company to back them up. I know this firsthand, since I practically grew up in the arthouse theatre my mother owns in Virginia. Independent theatre owners have the deck stacked against them by large corporate distributors in this age of "Independent Films." And yet Scott, and the Dobie, thrived. Anyone who can do what Scott has done for over 10 years deserves recognition.

I can honestly say that I have never met anyone as passionate, dedicated, creative, or understanding. I'd walk in to the office every weekday morning, usually at least 15 minutes late, and Scott would be there with a grin on his face. Owning a business staffed by employees who are mostly in college, I guess you get used to tardiness and mini-dramas on a daily basis. His employees are the most loyal I have ever seen (some, who are over 30, have worked there since college). I think patrons can feel the sense of pride that Scott's employees have when they attend a film at the Dobie. They love the theatre and care about what is going on there. They are almost overprotective, often chasing down people who bring in outside food and drink or gladly kicking out people who sneak in.

The Austin community respects and admires Scott for his willingness to show films that don't have distributors. The Dobie has frequently been a supporter of the underdog, giving validity and a voice to filmmakers whose films may have otherwise gone without recognition. He has done tireless work with the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival and his dedication to making sure the Dobie is run smoothly (even if that means being there from 9am-2am) always comes first. I respect him, not only for those things, but as a compassionate and patient person, not to mention a wonderful boss with a sense of humor that always remains intact. No matter what they say, the Dobie will never be the same. --Jody Hunsaker

Jody Hunsaker was the Dobie's director of public relations and promotions from 1995-98.


The Dobie Don

There are lots of reasons to admire my friend and colleague Scott Dinger -- his instrumental role in getting local film festivals off the ground; his willingness to take chances; his good-natured approach to just about everything -- but I guess that I admire him most for his tenacious vision of creating a first-class venue for filmgoing in Austin. I don't think of the Dobie Theatre as an "art theatre," as others do, but rather as an establishment that caters to both the highbrow and the lowbrow, all in the name of the love of movies. In my capacity as a film reviewer and as a patron, I've seen some great stuff at the Dobie Theatre. And, on occasion, I've seen movies that, to put it politely, stunk to high heaven. But regardless of whether its films were a hit or a miss, the Dobie Theatre had a mission: to be more than just a place to see movies. And, I think with Scott at the helm, the theatre achieved that goal and more. It made its mark. --Steve Davis

Steve Davis is a longtime Chronicle film reviewer.

Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.