Austin, Texas– While many Austin businesses will begin to open their doors again beginning May 1 amid mounting fears of the Coronavirus, don’t count on finding the bastions of the city’s legendarily rich film culture among them.
Just after Texas Governor Greg Abbot rolled out the phases of his back-to-work policy on April 27– one that encouraged, but did not order, the immediate reopening of restaurants, grocery stores, shopping malls, and movie theaters- , two venerable old pillars of Austin’s vanguard film programming community presented a united front.
The Austin Film Society was the first to speak out. Founded as an offbeat cine-club by college student and future indie auteur Richard Linklater back in 1985, the AFS has grown in step with the filmmaker’s impressive career. In addition to programming independent and foreign cinema (often with special guests in attendance for discussions), the AFS awards annual grants to Texas filmmakers, owns and operates production facilities, and is active in educational programs and community outreach. After years of hosting screenings in a small screening room at their Austin Studios offices and in local theaters like the Alamo Drafthouse, the AFS eventually graduated to renting its own theater space in central Austin. In 2017, Linklater and company closed the deal, with the AFS purchasing the same space they had occupied for years and officially re-christening their two-screen arthouse venue AFS Cinema.
Almost immediately after the Governor’s announcement, AFS CEO Rebecca Campbell responded with the following statement to the Austin Chronicle:
“The fractured federal response to Covid-19 left cities and local governments grappling with limited information and resources as the virus rapidly spread right under our noses. Texas is the state with the fewest number of tests issued per capita, Travis County Covid-19 cases are on the rise, and experts from around the world are warning about the dangers of reopening too early. We are shocked at the decision of the governor to declare it safe to open movie theaters, even at 25% capacity. The AFS Cinema will remain closed until further notice as we do our part to prevent the spread of this deadly virus.”
Later the same day, the edgy Austin-based cinema chain Alamo Drafthouse followed suit in a statement posted on social media:
“We will not be opening our Texas theaters this weekend.
Opening safely is a very complex project that involves countless new procedures and equipment, all of which require extensive training. This is something we cannot and will not do casually or quickly.
But know this – when we do open, we will be providing the safest possible experience for both our staff and our guests, and we can’t wait to see you all again.”
Following this announcement, Drafthouse founder and owner Tim League almost immediately issued a separate statement saying that he would be stepping down as Alamo’s CEO, effective May 1.
The Alamo Drafthouse arose from the same punkish Austin cineaste culture as the AFS, beginning as an unofficial loft venue in downtown Austin where young film buffs gathered for screenings of vintage film prints in the pre-internet days of geek culture. Since 1997, owner Tim League has expanded his operation to include 41 multiplex franchises around the nation, as well as a prestigious international genre film festival held annually in Austin (Fantastic Fest), a record label and graphic art brand (Mondo), and a film distribution wing (Drafthouse Films).
Charismatic, funny, and knowledgeable, League has long been a beloved fixture of the local film community, and maintained a vigourous social media presence until a series of sexual misconduct allegations surrounding the Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest back in 2017 prompted him to withdraw as a public figure and move into damage control mode (League was not directly connected to any of the allegations, but the fanboy culture of misogynistic, sexually explicit and graphically violent cinema he has regularly promoted was viewed by many as a catalyst).
As the mainstream multiplexes around Austin begin reopening with social distancing restrictions, the fate of Austin’s famed progressive film culture remains uncertain. The historic Paramount Theater near the State Capitol on Congress Avenue has also cancelled or postponed all events for the coming months. The beautiful venue that once hosted Harry Houdini has struggled to maintain its preservation efforts over the years while hosting an eclectic schedule of film screenings, concerts, and other performances and events.
The general uncertainty is further compacted by the last-minute cancellation of the South by Southwest Film and Music Festival back in March due to growing concerns over the Coronavirus. SXSW has always marked the high season for venues like the AFS, Alamo Drafthouse and the Paramount, as well as countless other local businesses. The first ever cancellation of the famous fest since its inception in 1987 presents an ongoing logistical and financial nightmare for the city, and truly signals the end of an era for Austin. Amid these troubling times for all, here’s to an even brighter future ahead for the progressive film scene that has become synonymous with Austin. May the eyes of Texas be upon you again soon.