“You’ve got to pick what you think is important in this world and make sure it survives”: Richard Linklater on sharing the gospel of cinema

For our My Dream Palace campaign, the Austin, Texas filmmaker remembers his life at the movies, from his formative film-going experiences to the generations of congregants he has brought in to the Austin Film Society.

Richard Linklater on stage at the Austin Film SocietyCharles Ramirez-Berg

I’m not a super religious person but I imagine a religious person would think of the church they grew up in and how many spiritual experiences they had in that one space; maybe that church wasn’t any more extraordinary than any other church, but it was their church. So the cinema [whose memories I treasure] will always be the repertory theatre when I was first getting into cinema, the River Oaks theatre in Houston, back when they were showing just two films a night, the classics, and I got to really feast on the history of cinema.

The River Oaks theatre, Houston, Texas

I would sit really near the screen in those days, in the middle, a few rows from the front – I really like that seat where the whole thing [fills your vision]. It was often me and this other film nerd – we never really got to know each other, he was in the very front row, he was pretty hardcore. I remember watching Taxi Driver for the first time, leaving the theatre in a daze and missing the next screening of Mean Streets because I was in such a buzz – it must have been an early time there for me and I didn’t quite understand their schedule, so I had to catch up with Mean Streets a year later. I finally figured out the schedule – just never leave…

I’ve had so many profound experiences – at that one theatre, and others around Houston, and at others when I moved to Austin. And it’s been special starting the Austin Film Society, 35 years ago. We took a storage space above a coffee shop and made a little cinematheque out of it, with a dual 16mm projection system, good sound and at most about a hundred seats – fold-out chairs. We wanted to make something happen and, selfishly, to see a bunch of movies. We’d show films up there sometimes to very few people, but, even projecting those movies, I had a lot of really profound experiences. I still talk to people about screenings – you know, “Remember that time we showed Andrei Rublev on campus, back in 1987?” These are markers in your life, and they are tied to a space.

Richard Linklater, Lee Daniel and Bill Daniel in the mid-1980s early days of the Austin Film SocietyCourtesy Austin Film Society

It’s good to have your hands on the machinery sometimes. We had our public screenings but I got to watch the films in my living room, too, because I had a projector there. The films, if they weren’t [needed] anywhere else, would show up like two weeks before your actual screening date. So I’d be sitting there with a beautiful 16mm print in my living room and maybe I’d just watch it every night. This was before those films were on video or anywhere. That’s special – it’s like a visitor or a friend visiting you for a week or two, and talking every night. You really get to know a film.

Then… we were just a struggling non-profit: it’s hard to be in the retail business, [having to pay for] advertising and all that. So we were kind of nomadic; we would show in other people’s venues on our own schedule, rent the spaces or have some kind of profit participation. Anyone who owns a theatre knows: you just do deals, take in a lot of outside special programming; sometimes you make money that way. We could always promise our audience would come and buy concessions, so on an off night the venues would welcome us.

Richard Linklater at the launch party for Slacker (1990)Courtesy Austin Film Society

But that got increasingly expensive and we were an increasingly big organisation, and at some point we were like, “We gotta get our own theatre”, just on a practical level. We’d been building up to it for a long time. So these last few years it’s been great to have the Austin Film Society Cinema – Austin’s only official repertory arthouse. We have two screens – at least one is repertory; we show a lot of new stuff too.

I just love the idea that we have this space and after the screenings there are all these young people buzzing, hanging around… I’m just so happy we’re able to provide the same kind of a wonderful experience that’s gonna make a difference in their life. It is tied to that space.

Since the pandemic… well, we’re doing these kind of virtual screenings – sometimes these talks or Q&As. Everybody’s doing their best. The book industry’s doing their best, the film industry’s doing their best… but what can you say? It sucks. It’s terrible. I miss movie theatres; restaurants… It’s a depleted life on that scale. But maybe we’ll all appreciate it when it comes back, not go the rest of our lives taking it for granted. It’s an interesting time to reflect on that; it’s like, “Oh, you think everything’s your birthright, you think everything’s gonna be there forever.” Well, it’s not. You’ve got to pick what you think is important in this world and support it and make sure it survives.

Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater conferring at the movies

Things have spelled doom for the cinema since the 1950s – it does seem like the theatrical experience has been under assault, theoretical assault; it’s always been challenge, and it’s an industry that figures itself out. But now really feels like a true existential threat: a lot of theatres could close. It’s like there’s a war going on, on a couple levels – a biological war, but then there’s this economic war also, that could have this effect, and the shakeout could be pretty devastating. Things are bad enough as it is.

Most theatres in the US had a round of support, but that might have ended, so it’s going to get more desperate in the next few months. And I think a lot of the bigger film chains, the corporate entities, are really suffering – their business model is big, [some of them are] debt-laden, so they’re in trouble. In a way I’m confident that the arthouses will do better. Of course we all need whatever public cultural money is out there, but communities are more likely to get together and save the independents. As a nonprofit you have to just piece it together from all your possible sources, whatever you can do. I obviously hope everybody survives. It sucks when you have rent to pay and ongoing expenses for a place you can’t occupy.

We’re just talking about film, but there’s every other art form that’s struggling too, all their institutions. It’ll be a moment of self-definition for our culture, what we decide is important not to let fall by the wayside. For all of us, that’s the arts. That should be the first thing that comes back.

The Austin Film Society CinemaCourtesy Austin Film Society

I think it’s important to at least acknowledge the importance of the institution, the public space, because some people are kind of like “Well, everybody’s got pretty good home theatres now… Do you even need it?” That’s the big leap you just can’t make. Sometimes it’s hard to articulate [what makes cinemas special] but I always tell people it’s about life experiences… you have those great experiences with movies, and it’s the place, it’s the community around you, or even if it was a sparsely attended movie, it’s remembering the whole experience of watching it in a theatre. Ask people about their top movie-going experiences and no one’s going to say “Oh, that afternoon I sat on this side of my couch…” Even if they didn’t hit pause and go to the bathroom, it’s never going to be that, it’s always going to be a public space. We’re communal beings…

And not to forget, obviously, the presentation itself: the big screen, that perfect sound; hopefully a 35mm print, but I’m not going to be too high-horse about that; if it’s a digital projection of a more recent film that’s okay too. But the centrality of the communal experience is very important. We can all look at the great artworks of all time in books, but there’s nothing like being at the show. Twenty years from now, you’re not going to think back to that, “Oh, that Kiarostami retrospective, I saw those films in one week on my TV…” No, it’s, “Remember that time we were all watching that…” whatever; fill in the blank.

An audience at the Austin Film Society CinemaCourtesy Austin Film Society

I’m not saying anything original, but I’m interested in how we process the experience of cinema; how it lingers in the memory. It’s not just taking in information… It does sometimes feel like we’re on some sci fi [trajectory towards] getting information injected straight into our brains, like “I’ve seen every movie and read every book! I don’t remember it but they’re all in there…” Are you just taking in information or are you having a human experience?

The streamers were sort of in the driving seat even before the pandemic, so I think this just exacerbates that historical turn; it works well for them. I fear what the next round will be – I think most people do. I think we’re just trying not to go extinct here. I guess after extinction life comes back, usually in some different form, but hopefully we’re not the dinosaurs. Things can always be better but survival is at the top of the list right now. If we can have back the spaces, the theatres, the people going to movies, that’s a good start; then we can argue about theatrical runs versus streaming titles and all that stuff. That’s kind of a champagne problem at this point.

Richard Linklater in the Austin Film Society CinemaDavid Brendan Hall

But I think people won’t have forgotten the big-screen experience. I’d like to think we’re pretty mind-wired for it – for different content in different [contexts]. As far I can tell most people are streaming a lot of TV – the buzz is The Crown or whatever’s the latest thing… I don’t know, they could be changing. Netflix has premiered quite a few good movies. I’m doing a thing [at Austin Film Society] soon with Charlie Kaufman and his new movie. So I try not to be exclusionary at all. Filmmakers are just making their movies…

Personally, like a lot of people, I’m fine – it’s kind of petty, but I’m keeping really busy. I’m in post-production on some things, I’m writing… for us older guys, it’s a quieter time; you make the best of it. But I would hate to be a young person in this. I think of myself in my twenties: I’d be climbing the wall right now. It’s not the stage of life where you want to be locked up.

  • Richard Linklater was speaking to Nick Bradshaw