The Austin Film Society Unveils Its New Home for Cinema
Two-screen theatre will showcase the best of new and classic arthouse cinema
It's final touches time at the new Austin Film Society Cinema: fine-tuning the projectors, training staff on the ticketing system, installing the lights, and spraying a shimmering, golden fan pattern, a nod to the Golden Age of picture houses, on the arch above the door. This weekend, the old Marchesa Hall & Theatre reopens as AFS Cinema, a two-screen theatre dedicated to the society's mission of bringing the best of new and classic international and independent cinema to Austin audiences. Opening weekend includes a celebration of Lone Star cinema under the Texas Christening banner, a dip into 1960s Italian comedy, and starting June 2, the local debut of Ken Loach's acclaimed new drama, I, Daniel Blake: all films that might otherwise have stayed in the vaults, or bypassed Austin altogether.
It's a big day long awaited at AFS. "Finally," said CEO Rebecca Campbell. "It's only taken 32 years."
When AFS was founded in 1985, the nascent society didn't need and couldn't afford a permanent home, so it bounced between venues. Over time, Austin developed a reputation as a great film-watching town, fostered by a diversity of programming at venues: first on the UT campus, then through the rise of the Alamo Drafthouse, and a plethora of festivals. However, while it didn't have a permanent home, AFS played a key role in that growth, filling in the gaps left by other theatres with one-off screenings. Lead film programmer Lars Nilsen said, "We would look and say, 'OK, UT has this covered, but no one has brought this in,' or, 'There's a niche here that really should be exposed, and hasn't been.' So AFS has responded by being so alert."
During the remodel, head of film & creative media Holly Herrick found a list of AFS screenings at the now-defunct Dobie Theatre on the Drag, and she was struck by how consistent the mission has been. She said, "It's the new arthouse releases from Thailand and Japan and Germany. Those were going to the Dobie, and those are the filmmakers that we've been showing, and are showing, and will continue to show."
These nomadic years built a loyal and growing audience, and just as the city has grown, so has AFS. Herrick said, "We just saw that Austin needed a full-time, dedicated arthouse that is showing repertory, and new independent and international releases that are not mainstream commercial fare. We just needed the space to do that."
The site they picked is one steeped in Austin cinema history. Since the Lincoln 3 opened in 1985, it expanded to six screens, closed, split in half, reopened as the Monarch Event Center, had two of the remaining three screens converted into exhibition space, and was renamed the Marchesa. It's remained a film hub throughout, via festivals like SXSW and Cine Las Americas, and one-off screenings by groups like AFS. In 2013, the society formalized the partnership by establishing AFS Cinematheque at the Marchesa, and upgrading the projection and sound. Yet this was still only a temporary and occasional home. So when the Marchesa management announced last year that it was giving up its lease, Campbell said, "It meant either going forward into creating our own space, or backwards into the nomadic days."
Forward it was, and for Campbell and Herrick, it all came down to one word: feasibility. Years of one-screen pop-up shows established an audience for AFS's booking sensibilities, and a dedicated home base was always in their blue sky plan. Now they had the almost impossible luck of finding a building in Central Austin with a functioning screen and projection booth, and ample parking. Campbell said, "The bones of the place were really well suited for doing this in the most economic fashion possible."
It's still been a laborious seven-month process, with early hopes to open in time for SXSW in March, and then Cine Las Americas in April, fading as the realities of construction set in. Herrick said, "It was tough to scale down, just because there's been so many titles that didn't come to Austin because we weren't programming them."
The first job was to renovate the existing 270-seat main screen – which, courtesy of the 2013 tech upgrades – mainly involved a lick of paint, a new screen and masks, and a rigorous spring cleaning for the seats and walls. A far bigger task involved digging out the concrete in what had become the annex hall, and restoring it to its old role as a 160-seat screening room, complete with 4K projector, and dedicated control/camera booth for Q&As and live-streaming events. Campbell said, "I walked in there the other day, and it was like it had never not been a theatre."
For the moment, the new screen will carry the bulk of the daily screenings, while the larger room, fitted with a 35mm projector, will host archival and restoration programming. Meanwhile the third room, the main hall, stays an event space for hire: That's an important part of AFS Cinema's long-term economic future, as the society is still fundraising to pay off the remodel. Yet, having the new screens, and the ability to book multiple screenings a day, will completely change AFS operations. In 2015, the last full year of programming, AFS had 255 screenings and hosted 18,577 audience members. Current plans call for over 1,600 screenings in 2018, with projections that the audience will more than quadruple.
The final and vital part of the remodel is the new-look lobby, designed by Austin architect Michael Hsu. Some old fixtures remain, like the wall of soundtrack album covers, and the framed Polish movie posters, but the old, worn space has had more than a fresh coat of paint. There's a new ticket kiosk, and a new bar serving new signature cocktails and a new menu with dishes prepared by head chef Peter Klein from a new kitchen, plus more vintage posters and even original art from AFS co-founder Richard Linklater's personal collection. Nilsen said, "People who go there once a month will be impressed, and people who go there three times a week will feel at home."
The space adheres to AFS's core mission of building a community of film lovers. Campbell said, "Our theatre is explicitly designed to hang out before and after in the lobby. Having a place where like-minded people can go and find each other, and we can facilitate that, is incredibly exciting for us."
View more photos of the new AFS Cinema here.
AFS Cinema is located at 6406 N. 1-35 #3100. For full schedule and to purchase tickets, visit www.austinfilm.org.