On the eve of SXSW’s opening night, the Austin Film Society will present its 17th annual Texas Film Awards, which spotlights the org’s programs and honors a group of stalwart Texan filmmakers. But this year’s event will also look forward to the completion of an initiative first announced at last year’s ceremony, as the Austin Film Society prepares to open its own dedicated, full-time two-screen cinema later in the spring.
For Richard Linklater, who founded the AFS 32 years ago, the cinema will be the culmination of years of planning and fundraising, and will allow the society — whose programs encompass everything from artist services to grants, education programs, an ongoing screening series, and a home on Austin’s public access TV station — to have a real public-facing hub.
“It was just a great leap that we had to make,” Linklater says. “We do that about every 10 years, where the organization takes a great leap forward. At year 10 it was the production fund, the grants we give out. Ten years later it was starting the Austin Studios. So it seems about right that we’d take the leap to having our own cinema.
“Austin’s a wonderful cinema town, and we have wonderful relationships with all the places where we show our movies. But to have your own two screens gives you a lot of leeway, for special programming, to hold films over. Kinda like our Austin version of the Film Forum in New York, where a documentary can actually have a theatrical run.”
As for the Texas Film Awards themselves, this year’s honorees, who will be inducted into the organization’s own Texas Film Hall of Fame, encompass a wide range of filmmakers. Hector Galan (“Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement,” “The Hunt for Pancho Villa”) will be the first documentarian to be honored, a move that AFS CEO Rebecca Campbell calls “long overdue.” Shirley MacLaine will receive the society’s lifetime achievement award, as well as accept the Star of Texas award, given to a quintessentially Texan film, for “Terms of Endearment.”
The other three honorees — director Jeff Nichols, producer Sarah Green, and actor Tye Sheridan receiving the Rising Star honor — will need no introduction to one another. Green has worked with Nichols on his previous four films (including last year’s “Loving” and “Midnight Special”), and gave Sheridan his first film role, as producer of Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life.” (Sheridan would go on to work with Nichols in “Mud.”)
Campbell notes that the connections among the three offer proof of “that sense of our regional film culture being really strong, growing, and continuing to be home to and attract top-caliber talent.”
Additionally, Nichols is the first Texas Film Awards honoree who was himself a recipient of one of the AFS’ grants, back when the Arkansas native had recently arrived in Austin. He applied for a travel grant to hit the circuit with his debut, “Shotgun Stories.”
“Those were really lean times,” Nichols says. “I had what you would hope for as a first-time filmmaker, which is that amazing worldwide tour of festivals you get to take. But it was a situation where you’ve got $37 in the bank and you’re about to board a plane to Slovenia. It’s like, ‘I really hope there’s some free food when I get there, because I don’t even think I can afford the exchange rate on my debit card.’
“So their grant was very intelligent and very specific for me. It got me through a couple months, to be honest.”
Nichols was soon to meet the Gloucester, Mass., native Green, who came to Austin while working with Malick on “The New World,” and took to the city quickly. Green will be on hand the day after the Texas Film Awards to unspool Malick’s SXSW-opening “Song to Song.”
“I’ve shot a couple of movies in Austin,” she says. “We shot ‘Tree of Life’ just outside of Austin in Smithville. And then of course we shot ‘Song to Song’ there, and that was very much influenced by the town itself. … We didn’t even consider [shooting] anywhere else, because it was so inspired by the place and the culture and the musicians coming through.”
Green has shot elsewhere in the state, and lauds the Texan film community and the professionalism of local crews. Like most producers, she would like to see more robust tax incentives to encourage more shooting, but she sees plenty of value in Lone Star filming all the same.
“It’s got a decent incentive, though certainly not one of the better ones in the country,” she says. “But whenever I think about shooting, I have to weigh the value of tax incentives against the rest of the infrastructure — what does it bring in terms of film commission support, what does it bring in terms of other types of infrastructure and rebates and everything else, and Texas is very strong in all those other key areas. And when you do the math, it probably makes up for their lesser tax incentives.”