The Lights Are On at AFS Cinema

After 16 months of closure, the arthouse indie cinema reopens this weekend


AFS Cinema’s new and improved lobby (Photos by Jana Birchum)

Mark your calendars and grab your seat. AFS Cinema, the Austin Film Society's two-screen theatre, is back. After 16 months of pandemic shutdown, the movies return to the beloved arthouse institution on July 15.

The cinema shuttered on March 17, 2020: the day the city of Austin limited all in-person gatherings to 10 people. Picking a reopening date was a complex challenge, filled with major headaches. "The biggie was that we couldn't afford to open twice," recalled AFS Head of Film & Creative Media Holly Herrick. The society was already going to have to hold a big fundraising campaign to de-mothball the cinema, "and we did, and it was awesome." The Next Picture Show campaign raised $155,378 from 809 donors via GiveLively, comfortably over their $150,000 target, but it would be tough to go back to members and friends and ask for that kind of cash all over again. Moreover, AFS could not and did not want to open before both the staff and its audience were going to be comfortable and as safe as possible coming back, and this meant waiting until "a post-vaccinated period. ... When did it feel like the right time for the community to gather again inside?"

That wait-and-see, safety-first approach meant keeping the cinema closed, and that was a full-time job for AFS Cinema Director Aaron Malzahn. He explained, "When everything first shut down, we cleaned up and stored any leftover concessions and turned off appliances to save power, knowing that we could keep the place dark and walk away for a week or two without hurting anything." As weeks turned to months, he set up maintenance routines, from keeping the dust at bay to checking the projectors to running steam through the espresso machine. "A building is a lot like a car sitting in the driveway," he said. "If you don't turn it on and run it from time to time, you will find that it just rusted out right under your nose."

That maintenance turned the cinema into an unexpected refuge for Malzahn during the winter's big freeze. When the power went off in his apartment, he checked through apps and found that the electricity and water was still on at the cinema, "[so] my girlfriend and I decided to brave the icy roads." However, they couldn't just hunker down in the warm. The cinema needed protecting from the cold, too. "[I] needed to check on the building itself and make sure there were no frozen or burst pipes, no leaks in the roof from the snow, and to try and turn off all the equipment that we could to save power and protect from any electrical surges.


With the screens dark, AFS innovated and set up its own virtual cinema platform, AFS@Home. Rather than sending their films to conventional VOD, smaller distributors partnered with arthouse and indie cinemas like AFS to stream titles, providing a revenue stream to help keep that vital section of the distribution ecosystem alive. "There was a success story narrative about virtual cinema," said Lead Film Programmer Lars Nilsen, "but there was no way near as many people seeing it in virtual as would have seen even if we played it on a Monday night."

However, just because it was a limited success doesn't mean AFS@Home ends once the cinema reopens. The team was surprised by how many viewers were renting from outside of Austin, in Dallas and Ft. Worth, and they are looking forward to innovative programming, like providing a home for films that played at festivals but never got a distribution deal. Herrick suggested it could become "a supplementary screen" that will complement what's playing on the big screen. "Being able to put something on digitally that connects to what we have in the theatre is just another canvas for us to work on."

The priority now is getting the lights on in the cinema. Behind the scenes, regular maintenance and upgrades made demothballing easy and, Malzahn said, "Front-of-house, we have a full Cinema staff in place, newly trained and ready to welcome and assist all guests." However, there have been subtle challenges, such as reconnecting with old vendors and contracting with new ones. He added, "Supply shortages are hitting many different distributors, and a lot of smaller businesses we used to order from are no longer around."

“Sitting in here, having it pumped up just a little bit louder than most movies? That’s going to be a little bit special.”– AFS Cinema lead programmer Lars Nilsen

Programming will also be a vital element of reopening. Since opening the cinema in 2017, AFS had established a particular reputation – a niche based in diversity – that continues post-pandemic. There will be new releases such as Tower director Keith Maitland's Dear Mr. Brody, and Without Getting Killed or Caught by Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield, exploring the life, love, and legacy of Guy Clark, the dean of Texas songwriters. The Essential Cinema series returns with Eric Rohmer's era-defining "Tales of the Four Seasons," and the cinema can finally show the long-anticipated restorations of Wong Kar-Wai's core works. However, Nilsen and his team will be playing close attention to the reception within the programming, so they'll know where to put the most emphasis as the cinema gets back to normal. "It's more poetry than science," Nilsen said. "We're not really sure what quadrants of the audience is going to come back and in what order. Could it be that older folks are a little slower to come back to the theatre? Could it be that the younger folks are broke?"

For now, the team is just looking forward to the joy of the communal cinematic experience. Nilsen beamed about seeing the big opening weekend title – Questlove's stunning documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival, Summer of Soul ( ... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) – with a crowd. "Sitting in here, having it pumped up just a little bit louder than most movies? That's going to be a little bit special."


AFS Cinema reopens July 15. Tickets and info at austinfilm.org/afs-cinema.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

AFS Cinema, Austin Film Society, Holly Herrick, Lars Nilsen, Aaron Malzahn, Keith Maitland, Tamara Saviano, Paul Whitfield, Dear Mr. Brody, Without Getting Killed or Caught

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