Austin Film Society Executive Director Rebecca Campbell submitted this essay as part of our Imagine Austin's Future series.
Make. Watch. Love. Film. That's the Austin Film Society's motto.
So, as we look into a crystal ball, what does the future hold for Austin’s film-loving community?
Imagine, maybe two or three decades deeper into the 21st century, an Austinite who is eager to leave his or her home and pay to sit in a big dark room, surrounded by strangers and watch something on a screen. What lies in store?
They will almost certainly be watching an image that is digitally created, projected and delivered. The switch away from 35mm is not just happening for the new releases. Over the last five years or so, our Director of Programming has had more and more difficulty in getting 35mm prints for the older titles the Austin Film Society screens as part of its Essential Cinema series. Some studios have stopped sending out their film prints entirely.
But beyond the technical format, what is this future Austinite actually watching? What is our dominant mass art-form like in the next generation?
Perhaps we can find clues by considering the fate of dominant mass art-form of the 19th century, theater, as it moved into a new century.
As theater lost its mass popularity, along with the rise of the “talkie,” Hollywood hired hundreds of playwrights and raided their bodies of work to find stories to film. The craft of the playwright — dialog, dramatic structure — gained new life.
Nor did theater itself die. It did change, growing both bigger and smaller over the course of the 20th century. Broadway went big, making plays louder, broader, splashier, cranking up the spectacle. In the '80's, "Miss Saigon" brought helicopters on stage. Today, "Spider-Man" has actors swinging over the audience's heads. Essentially, that is what is considered necessary to make Broadway profitable.
Meanwhile, outside of Broadway, the rest of theater in the country is non-profit, smaller, and a lot more interesting. Experimentation and artistic excellence, rather than commercial success, is the driver. When foundation, governmental and philanthropic support combines with the enthusiasm of the artists and smaller but more passionate audiences, great theater is produced.
So could it go with the movies. Already, Hollywood relies even more heavily on sequels and remakes, or movies derived from pre-existing franchises, comic-books, video games and even board games to remain profitable. BATTLESHIP as a movie? Really? The hundreds of millions of dollars generated for Hollywood by these films will do nothing but encourage them to reach for spectacle even more.
Certainly in Austin, there is still a great appetite for films that are not all flash and bang. But Hollywood has conceded much "grown-up" storytelling — those dramas, comedies or thrillers based in the real world and not an effects-driven fantasy world — to television.
This results in high-quality shows like MAD MEN, THE WIRE, THE SOPRANOS, BREAKING BAD that look, sound and feel like movies. This trend will most likely continue as more and more talented, acclaimed actors, writers and directors are drawn to television for the creative freedom and financial stability it provides.
Also thanks to the digitization of our media, a film-lover in 20-30 years will probably be able to access large swaths of cinema history on-demand via an internet based subscription service. One could program an entire Almodóvar retrospective without leaving one's house.
That’s all cool. Now let’s get back to that endangered species, the filmgoer who wants to leave their house and sit in a theater (but not for two hours of ear-splitting, eye-popping visual effects in three, if not more, dimensions). Will there be anything playing, in any theater for this person to see?
Here is where Austin is in a virtuous cycle. Already film-culture-rich, Austin’s appetite for serious, adventurous cinema should sustain the Austin Film Society for another 25 years. Along with our internationally renowned film festivals—SXSW, Fantastic Fest and the Austin Film Festival—audiences will continue to be exposed to alternate fare. Because they’ll demand it, these resources will thrive. Vulcan Video and I Luv Video will retain their storefront presence. One of the most well-known and well-loved independent movie theater chains in the country, the Alamo Drafthouse, will be the Whole Foods of cinema, reflecting much glory on Austin, its original home. The Second Street district and is new independent movie house, the Violet Crown theater, will be nicely worn in and host a new generation of art-lovers.
The future Austin film-lover will be well-served by all of these groups, and more that we don’t even know about today. As serious cinema follows the trajectory of serious theater and becomes more daring, more creative and ultimately more interesting to serve as an antidote to Hollywood. The audiences may ultimately shrink but especially in Austin, their passion will remain the same if not grow.
We already have the enthusiastic and talented artists here, so if the governmental, foundation and philanthropic support can keep pace, Austin has the potential to continue to grow as vibrant hub for people who make, watch and love film, regardless of its number of dimensions.