vive la cinematheque
Austin Cinematheque looks for a new home (and, for the first time, beyond 35mm)for their eclectic, classic film screening series
On Monday nights, every month or so during the school year, the theater inside UT's Texas Union transforms. The lights dim, and the generic looking space becomes a classic arthouse movie theater, screening gorgeous, largely forgotten films in a dying format: 35mm film.
A student group, Austin Cinematheque, has spent the past few years chasing down prints to share with the public, entirely free of charge. Screenings are generally crowded, and the audience ranges from UT students to couples old enough to have seen some of the group's French New Wave offerings in their original runs. The range of films on offer has run the gamut from the silent comedies of Buster Keaton to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a Thai film that won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year.
Like many student organizations, Austin Cinematheque faces an annual challenge when it comes to fundraising. Some years, UT awards them all they need to show around a dozen films. This year, funding hasn't quite met their needs for next spring. They face a bigger challenge, though: the Texas Union is undergoing renovations and, for now, the theater can't be used. The group is looking for other venues for their spring 2012 programming. Trouble is, 35mm projection is increasingly rare these days—and rare means expensive.
But in this case, adversity might bring unique opportunity for Cinematheque. Anand Modi, a graduate student in UT's film department and one of Austin Cinematheque's programmers, says the difficulty in finding affordable 35mm projection means the chance to try new things.
"This is an opportunity to do some things we've talked about, but that didn't quite fit with our mission [to screen rare or forgotten 35mm prints]," says Modi. "We often get asked to do more experimental programming... Those films are often shot on 16mm." The Union theater doesn't have a 16mm projector, but UT does have a few 16mm projectors elsewhere on campus, and Cinematheque are exploring the possibility of screening a series of shorter experimental works in that format.
The group also wants to screen more of another genre of film. "I think in five years we've shown two documentaries," said Modi. Following that urge might result in another sidestep from Cinematheque's mission. "The charter of the organization is all about showing things on 35mm," said Modi. "We can hold to that spirit, if not to the letter of our mission. We agreed that if a documentary is shot on video, we can show it on video."
So what about that funding shortfall? The Cinematheque crew are passing the digital hat around via a Kickstarter campaign. They've almost met their minimum fundraising goal of $1,000. With film rentals generally running $250-600, that money will go a long way.
As celluloid is replaced by digital formats, archival prints of older movies, like the ones shown by Cinematheque, become harder to screen. "The major studios are sort of salivating at the thought of never having to rent a print again," says Modi. "There's not a lot of money in a one-off screening to a group like us." Since Austin Cinematheque doesn't charge admissions for its screenings, it pays a flat rate to rent a print, but doesn't pay any additional money based on the number of ticket buyers.
"For them to dig through their archive and evaluate the quality of the print isn't really part of their business," Modi says. Since Cinematheque operates on a small budget, producing just a handful of single screening presentations throughout the year, they use a third party to rent prints, and they don't always get what they want.
"There's tons of stuff we would love to show," said Modi. "But for things that are not from smaller distributors, we have maybe a 10 to 20 percent yield rate." While major studios help eulogize their own creations by getting rid of their film archives, Austin Cinematheque will still be around, dusting off beautiful prints from a medium they still want to celebrate.
For more information on Austin Cinematheque, take a look at their Kickstarter.