“A Very Vibrant Community”: On the Austin Film Community in the Time of COVID-19

Though the COVID-19 pandemic halted Austin’s film industry, it is slowly being restored to the way it was before the pandemic.

However, this restoration was not thought to be viable at the beginning of the pandemic. Its progression of over the past year has shown that filmmakers, and the theaters that show their work, were not faring well in the new world brought on by the pandemic. In fact, independent theaters like Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse and larger chains such as AMC were, and still are, either at risk for or have already declared bankruptcy. In spite of this, the film community in Austin seems to be weathering the pandemic. This has been made possible through institutions such as the Austin Film Commission and the Austin Film Society. The former helps filmmakers find the best locations in Austin to film, while the latter provides workshops for filmmakers and screenings in its arthouse theater– both of which have been rendered virtual due to the pandemic. Though the COVID-19 pandemic may hinder the Austin film community its spirit, according to AFS production specialist Max Benitez, will not be so easy to break. 

“If you’re a filmmaker in Austin, you feel like you’ve landed in heaven,” Benitez said. “Everything is here for you.”

This statement seems to be confirmed by the many locations in Austin that have been utilized by filmmakers for their films , mainly because of the city’s diversity of locations and easy-to-navigate downtown. For these reasons, Austin has attracted filmmakers since the mid-20th century.

But this sense of community is not only limited to those who make movies. The independent movie theaters that operate in Austin also act as a gathering place for those who love film. For this reason, the moviegoing experience in Austin has a bit of a reputation. This is exemplified in the Alamo Drafthouse, an independent movie theater chain started in Austin. With a formula combining restaurant-quality food served alongside the newest cinematic releases (and established classics) and special events, like sing-along screenings of famous musicals, it maintains a large following of those who want something different for a day at the movies. Even through they were forced to file chapter 11 bankruptcy in March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are still in operation, taking safety precautions, such as a two-seat buffer between patrons and a mandatory “masks on” policy when indoors, while also trying to go about business as best as they can.

Alamo Drafthouse does not have a monopoly on the independent movie theater industry in Austin, though. With a handful of locations in Austin, Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In offers patrons the option to watch a movie from the comfort of their own car– a choice that helps keep business alive during the COVID-19 pandemic (patrons are only allowed to leave their car to go to the restroom). In addition to their regular drive-ins, there are also special movie picnics, and other events that do not involve sitting in a car. Its location downtown (at the top of a parking garage) gives one the opportunity to watch everything from the newest releases to cult classics while offering a view of downtown Austin. 

These two examples, though brief, seem to report that independent cinemas in Austin are still in operation, despite the pandemic. This is represented by those who have a hand in running independent movie theaters, like David Gil, director of marketing and programing of Austin’s Violet Crown cinema, a local arthouse theater located in downtown Austin, who feels that going to the movies is a singular experience that will not be made extinct by the pandemic.

“There’s still something about sitting in a dark room experiencing a movie with a bunch of strangers. That’s something you can’t duplicate,” Gil said. “Therein lies the magic of cinema.”

Beyond independent theaters, film festivals in Austin, like the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW), were also impacted by the pandemic. Films featured at SXSW range from highly anticipated new releases from established filmmakers to those just beginning to cut their teeth in the industry and, though it is a local event, films shown at the festival come from all over the world. All of this is why it came as a great disappointment to many when the 2020 iteration of the festival was cancelled due to the initial surge of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. during March of that year. It was initially unknown how the festival would reemerge one year later. This is because the SXSW Film Festival is more multi-faceted than being merely an event where new movies are screened. There are also panels, discussions, and Q&A’s– all of which, with a festival that is as large as SXSW, are hard to replicate in a virtual setting. Fortunately the festival was able to to provide an experience that kept the interactivity and people-centric approach that the festival is known for. For Janet Piersen, who had a hand in helping with the festival, this proved to be no small task.

“We’re really a live event, and what people love about us is how we gather people together,” Piersen said. “They are not only meeting a great film community, but they’re also meeting everyone else at South by Southwest as well.”

At the beginning of the festival, there was an orientation that hundreds of filmmakers took part in– introducing themselves and their works via Zoom. Screenings of the films were held in Zoom breakout rooms, and afterwards, interaction with fellow festival-goers was possible via text chats, virtual clubhouses, and various other methods of online communication. All in all, Piersen is proud of the way SXSW was able to navigate the pandemic in order to bring the festival to life online.

“I feel like we got the essence of South by Southwest as best as one could online,” Piersen said. “We were able to present a really diverse range of programing.”

With an industry as multifaceted as film, it would seem that some facets of the industry are struggling more than others during the COVID-19 pandemic. While this is true, as seen by Alamo Drafthouse’s filing for bankruptcy and SXSW’s success in its online iteration, there seems to be a spirit of optimism within the community that the film industry in Austin will return to what it once was. This optimism seems to have reached Gannon, who is confident in the industry’s future.

“My hope is that it continues to grow. All points head that direction at this point in time,” said Gannon. “I think it’s just gonna continue to flourish.”

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