Richard Linklater Talks the Future of Cinema—in His Own Empty Theatre
For much of this past spring, the scene in Austin, Texas, felt like the dream that Richard Linklater describes in the opening monologue of “Slacker”—the early-nineties film that he wrote, acted in, and shot in the city. “Man, I just had the weirdest dream, back on the bus there?” his character tells a disinterested cabdriver. “There was nothing going on at all. Man, it was like ‘The Omega Man.’ There was just nobody around. . . . When I was at home, I was, like, flipping through the TV stations endlessly, reading.” Austin issued its first stay-at-home order on March 24th, as the number of coronavirus cases in Texas approached a thousand. Then, on May 1st, hours after reporting a record-high single-day death toll, the state initiated its reopening process. The governor, Greg Abbott, invited businesses to reopen at reduced capacity. In Austin, some shops and restaurants opened their doors immediately; Cisco’s, a popular Tex-Mex diner, used blue painter’s tape to block out alternating stools at the counter, while Texas Chili Parlor, a restaurant in the shadow of the state capitol, seated customers in its back room. Others were more reluctant. A.F.S. Cinema, the movie theatre run by the Austin Film Society—a group that Linklater founded, in 1985—was the first theatre to announce that it would remain closed. (“Whatever control experiment the government seems to want to be doing right now, we’re not going to be on the front end of that,” Linklater later explained.) Others followed suit: as of July, only five of the more than twenty theatres in the Austin area have attempted to reopen. The other day, Linklater drove forty minutes from his home, southeast of Austin, into the city, to go to the movies. He pulled up at a white-stucco strip mall that is sandwiched between chain hotels and empty lots, and headed toward the corner of the building, where the A.F.S. Cinema has operated since 2013. The theatre shows independent, foreign, and experimental movies, with a soft spot for films made in Texas. Linklater, the Austin Film Society’s artistic director, no longer calls all the organization’s shots, but he still curates screenings for the cinema—including a “never-ending” run of films from the nineteen-eighties. The week the theatre closed, in March, had originally been committed to screenings for the South by Southwest festival. (The entire festival was cancelled owing to the pandemic, too.)
“First venture out,” Linklater said, wandering through the cinema’s lobby, hands on hips. “Everything in suspended animation.” He wore a polka-dotted face mask, a short-sleeved button-down, shorts, and a pair of Keen hiking sandals. Days before the stay-at-home order went into effect, he'd finished production on his next movie, “Apollo 10½: A Space Age Adventure,” a story set in Houston during the 1969 moon landing. The film, inspired by Linklater’s memories, follows the mission as well as a group of children fantasizing about it from Earth. It was shot in live-action and will be partially animated using techniques similar to rotoscoping; Linklater had spent much of his time in quarantine editing the footage. He’d also been watching old movies with his sixteen-year-old twin daughters, such as “Gimme Shelter,” the documentary about the Rolling Stones on tour. That is, until his projector broke. “It’s about the worst time ever,” he said. “I hate to even mention it.” Like a dog sniffing out his old digs, Linklater scurried over to the movie posters hanging by the theatre entrances—“Kiss Me Deadly,” “Il Deserto Rosso,” an entire wall for posters made in Poland—all taken from his vast collection. He considered where to place a new one he’d bought in Paris (“There’s something about those Paris poster shops”), for the Blaxploitation film “Coffy.” “I thought it would be a nice mix,” he said. Then he eyed a crimson print from Jean-Luc Godard’s “La Chinoise,” wondering whether he should replace it. “We're a little too Eurocentric here.” The cinema was closed to the public, but it wasn’t empty; Aaron Malzahn, the technical manager, was around to tend to the equipment—the digital projectors and servers need to be switched on and off throughout the month, lest they lose their connection, like an idling car battery. Holly Herrick, the Austin Film Society’s head of film and creative media, was there, too, with a cloth napkin wrapped around her face. Like Linklater, she hadn’t visited the theatre since March. “I was a little worried at how emotional I’d be,” she said. “But I’m so used to walking through those doors that it doesn’t feel like much time has passed.”
“It’s definitely a lack, you know,” Linklater said, of the theatre being closed. “It’s like something has been removed. Then there’s the personal loss. You almost feel selfish, like, I need this. But this is one thing we all believe so strongly.” Linklater moved to Austin in 1983, and began taking film classes at Austin Community College. The University of Texas was a four-minute bike ride away from his home, and he used to catch screenings from the school’s different departments. He hit the ceiling of offerings quickly; one could find ways to watch “Wild Strawberries” and “Seven Samurai,” but rarely anything beyond the Film 101 canon. He and his friends persuaded the owner of Quackenbush’s, a coffee shop near campus, to let them use the building’s upstairs space, rent-free, to screen 16-mm. prints of films. As the screenings grew popular, the owner wanted to charge them, and so they moved out and floated around other city spaces. The group called itself the Austin Film Society.
Linklater never left Austin, but he moved from screening films to making them; after “Slacker” brought him into the indie limelight, “Dazed and Confused” and “Waking Life” earned him widespread critical acclaim (and “School of Rock” more mainstream attention). He became known for his patience as a filmmaker, working with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy over the course of eighteen years for his “Before” trilogy, and with Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and Ellar Coltrane for twelve years while shooting “Boyhood,” both of which garnered Oscar nominations. The Austin Film Society, meanwhile, kept growing. Along with the cinema, the organization runs a production complex, as well as a media studio where locals can rent out film equipment and take classes. The society has built up a loyal audience of filmmakers and viewers that, Linklater believes, will return when it’s safe—whenever that might be. “For all of us who come here, it’s kind of our entire social life,” Herrick said.
“You have a great screening, and then it starts here in this room,” Linklater said, hovering his hands by the doors to the theatres. “Then it goes out there”—to the lobby and bar—“and somebody orders a drink. By the end of the night, you finally go to your car, an hour after the movie ended. You’re not to be processed. You’re to hang out.” Linklater has managed to enshrine, through cinema, the flow state of hanging out, whether in the hormone-heavy atmosphere of a college campus (“Everybody Wants Some!!”) or in the intoxicating, painful exchanges between two unlikely lovers (the “Before” trilogy). In his life, such moments have often happened because of cinema. It is impossible to replicate this without a physical space. “Film people are film people,” he said. “There’s no place they’d rather be than in a theatre.”
The “death of movie theatres” has been anticipated since the invention of television. But, in recent months, the threat has seemed more tangible: theatres are enclosed and, ideally, crowded, and most of their profits come from concessions, which are difficult to eat while wearing a mask. The commercial chains are perhaps the most at risk of mass failure; in March, AMC, Regal, and Cinemark, the largest theatre companies in the country, saw their stocks plummet. (AMC, nearly five billion dollars in debt, was rumored to be considering bankruptcy.) Movies themselves are stuck in the pipeline, too: the release of “No Time to Die,” the new James Bond film, has been postponed until November, and the première of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” has been pushed twice, and is now scheduled for August 12th. The big chains, trailing the films, have pushed their reopenings (masks required) to late July.
If theatres were to die, one could still blame it on smaller screens—more specifically, streaming services, which help explain a decline in movie attendance that long predates the pandemic. (Last year, there were 1.24 billion tickets sold in North America, representing a twenty-per-cent drop from the box-office peak, in 2002.) Instead of waiting for theatres to reopen, Universal Pictures released “Trolls World Tour”—a sequel to its 2016 movie “Trolls”—on demand, in April, and saw nearly a hundred million dollars in revenue within three weeks of its release, more than the original “Trolls” generated during its five-month theatre run. Afterward, Universal announced that it was exploring the possibility of releasing all future movies—even the post-covid-19 ones—in theatres and on streaming services simultaneously. AMC, in retaliation, announced that it would ban Universal movies in its theatres.
Art-house theatres are less flustered about “Trolls World Tour.” They worry instead about the difficulties of making rent, and the prospect of having to disband their close-knit teams—in March, A.F.S. laid off nine full-time employees. But these theatres also have more flexibility than a commercial chain. During the pandemic, many independent cinemas have opted for virtual screening platforms, on which viewers can stream indie films for a ticket price that goes partially to the local theatre. Some are selling curbside concessions. The Belcourt, in Nashville, has hosted watch parties on the streaming platform Twitch. A group of theatres in Pennsylvania came up with a digital “Family Feud”-style game called Reel Rumble, which pits cinema staffers against one another to answer movie-trivia questions supplied by their audiences.
Art houses are often nonprofits, and their audiences tend to be loyal; both of these qualities can come in handy during a crisis. In late March, the Criterion Collection and Janus Films launched a crowdsourced fund-raising campaign to provide financial relief to the hundred and eighty-four independent cinemas that had temporarily closed for the pandemic. The campaign raised more than eight hundred thousand dollars, with contributions from Linklater, Lulu Wang, Barry Jenkins, John Waters, and other filmmakers. Alison Kozberg, the administrator of the campaign, said that whether small theatres can survive—even with this influx of donations—depends on what burdens each one. “Do they have reserve?” she asked. “Do they own their building? Are they paying down debt? Do they have a forgiving landlord? All of those things are going to be tremendously impactful.”
In the years since Linklater started A.F.S., Austin has emerged as a major hub for indie film. The South by Southwest festival, which started in the city, in 1987, is one of the most sought-out platforms for young filmmakers. (This year’s cancelled festival also leaves a hole in Austin’s economy; last year’s event brought in more than three hundred and fifty million dollars.) The Alamo Drafthouse, the eat-while-you-watch chain with forty-one locations throughout the U.S., began in an old parking garage in Austin, in 1997. The four-screen Violet Crown Cinema, in the city’s downtown, was “believed to be the number one movie theater in the country in terms of dollars generated per seat,” according to a 2013 Texas Monthly article.
Some theatres on the outer edge of the city, and others elsewhere in Texas, have taken a chance on reopening, even though the state is currently struggling with a second wave of the coronavirus. EVO Entertainment, a Texas-based chain that plays mainstream studio films, is gradually putting its locations through trials: alternating rows of seats have been blacked out, and theatregoers are being given temperature checks and are asked to confirm that they’re symptom-free. The Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In never closed, and has been consistently screening “The Goonies” through the pandemic.
Meanwhile, others have shut down for good. Bill Banowsky, the founder of Violet Crown and the former C.E.O. of Landmark Theatres, owned another theatre, called Sky Cinemas, just outside of Austin. It closed permanently in May, unable to keep up with its rent payments. “The problem with the small, independent art theatres is they suffer in the best of times,” Banowsky said. “It’s going to be a very different industry when we get to the other side.”
Linklater and Herrick walked into the older of A.F.S. Cinema’s two theatres, which has a small stage and moody red-velvet walls. They settled into the front row, four seats apart, trying to gauge what felt safe. “Maybe it’ll be about this many?” Linklater asked, leaning on his armrest toward Herrick.
A.F.S. has discussed what socially distant showings might look like, but it’s still trying to figure out whether members would want to attend them. The organization estimates that the cinema won’t reopen until 2021 at the earliest.“To go from flourish mode into survival mode, you just realize how vulnerable you are,” Linklater said. “That could be any of us in this life. You’re one little accident or injury or illness away from that.”
“It was a curveball,” Herrick said. She looked at Linklater, a former college-baseball player. “Well, I don’t know if that’s the right term.”
“It was a hit by pitch,” he said. “In the eyeball.”
The A.F.S. Cinema has certain advantages that smaller, scrappier art-house theatres do not. Linklater references do not plaster its walls, but the director’s presence is rarely forgotten; his films are often screened at the theatre, and celebrities, such as Renée Zellweger, a Texan who had a small part in “Dazed and Confused,” occasionally pass through. Independent theatres tend to advertise offerings that viewers cannot get from a multiplex experience (alcohol, usually). But a celebrity can go a long way, too. (At the New Beverly Cinema, in Los Angeles, purchased and revived by Quentin Tarantino, in 2007, fandom for the director and the theatre blur together.)
Linklater is hesitant to be the face of A.F.S., but understands that his involvement helps raise funds that can go to younger filmmakers—those who, during the pandemic, have lost the opportunity, ever rarer, to publicly screen their work. A.F.S. has continued to distribute grants to Texas filmmakers during the pandemic; “Miss Juneteenth,” Channing Godfrey Peoples’s critically acclaimed directorial début, recently released on demand, was one such awardee, in 2019. “I think of how my life might be different,” Linklater said, “if, at the moment my first film was coming out…” He trailed off and shook his head. Even so, he’s adapting to the industry’s changes. Netflix recently purchased his moon-landing movie; even if it does première in theatres, it will also stream online. As theatres struggle to stay afloat, streaming services offer a space where films can live seemingly forever.
Over the past few decades, Linklater has watched many of the theatres that he grew up with disappear. There was one in Huntsville, the small east Texas city where he grew up, where John Wayne movies would pass through once a week, which closed in the early nineteen-seventies. There are others that he frequented, in his twenties, that have survived; he still enjoys returning to them. “It must be like going back to the church you grew up in,” he said. The theatres he sees withstanding covid-19, and continuing on after, are the ones that make moviegoing a matter of devotion—those that have earned their reputations and audiences over time, and can maintain the kind of obsession, and fidelity, of a screening above a coffee shop.
Despite this optimism, Linklater spoke about cinema in terms of the past. “I think that cinema was always so successful because it replicated this dream state,” he said, looking at the screen as it flashed with colorful promos for “infinite popcorn” and A.F.S. membership. “You didn’t have to explain it to people. They got it. Dark room, totally immersed. The lights would come up, and I forgot who I was for the last two hours.” It’s a cliché, he acknowledged, but there was something to it nonetheless. It’s not the dream on the bus, nor is it the haze of the quarantined apartment, both born of isolation. It’s the co-authored dream, started by the filmmaker and finished by the viewers, in a space that we now understand to be more fragile—where we agree, together, to gather silently for something. “I think people know that, on some level,” Linklater said. “Because they keep going.”