Unless you’ve been locked away in the basement of an Italian castle like Giorgio in Castle Freak for the past three months, you’re probably well aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has consumed every fun thing in our lives we ever took for granted. Chiefly among the things we’ve lost, though temporarily, is the simple pleasure of seeing a movie with a crowd the way God intended.
The week of March 16, when the world shut down as the Coronavirus began its stranglehold on planet Earth, movie theatres in the United States and around the globe began closing their doors. Only recently, as various regions begin the slow and cautiously optimistic process of reopening, have movie theatres followed suit and reopened their doors to an industry that in its response to the pandemic’s call for empty theatres, pushed back new releases and big summer blockbusters to later this year and into 2021.
For a business that literally requires as many people as possible crammed into the same room, it currently has nothing new to show those people as they start trickling in. You don’t have to be the hallucinogenically clairvoyant Valentina in Death Walks At Midnight to know these are challenging times for the movie theatre industry. And with little or no new releases in sight for a while—even Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is being pushed back after a staunch promise to open in the first weeks of July—many theatres and drive-ins have resorted to showing blockbuster hits from the past.
But perhaps the strange times we’re living in—face masks, moonshine hand sanitizers, and a new vocabulary that could’ve been cooked up by Rod Serling or Philip K. Dick—call for strange measures that include even stranger movies. Perhaps these days of slim pickings in movie theatres call for a resurgence of the macabre, the weird, and the bewildering, and now is the time to capitalize on the desire of people wanting to get out of the house and offer audiences the chance to experience and embrace more unusual theatre fare. And the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) is just the organization poised to make some of our weirdest days on this earth seem less so by offering weirder movies than the times we’re living in.
“The movies we offer are guaranteed fun, especially for a knowledgable crowd,” says AGFA Theatrical Sales Director Bret Berg. “I hope there’s a time in the near future where theaters and drive-ins can look toward vintage genre films to get a new audience, but it’s going to be a slow uphill road.”
The American Genre Film Archive is a non-profit organization located in Austin, Texas, dedicated to the preservation and distribution of some of the most fun and weirdest movies in cinematic history, offering theatrical rentals of DCP (Digital Cinema Package) and film prints of everything from Donnie Darko to Phantasm to Re-Animator to even more obscure titles such as Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, and more. And while that prospect might seem challenging to some theatres and drive-ins, Berg and his team are also prepared to assist theatres in selecting the movies that are right for their crowds.
“The trick with AGFA and the theatre part is to really know which titles will bust through that barrier of the audience in a town. The movie may be obscure, but if we get behind something it’s because it has certain elements that will be great for discovery with a crowd together,” says Berg.
Having access to all box office reports, AGFA knows what works in what cities and with that comes the knowledge of what plays and what doesn’t, allowing Berg and the AGFA team to know how best to help theaters select what’s right for their audiences.
“Not only are theatres going to get the movie, but we offer all the assets available to us that we can share to help theatres promote these screenings. We provide them with stills, a trailer, and a thorough synopsis,” says Berg. “We’re the only distributor that does repertory at this scale that tries very hard to have all promotional assets for every title in our catalogue. We’re doing everything we can to help you sell the movie you want to show. It’s a subtle thing that gets people to come back to us.”
Berg also suggests that even if theatre owners aren’t as knowledgable about these more obscure films, if there is enthusiasm towards showing them, these tools will further help sell it to people.
“The success of say an Al Adamson film in a theatre would be based on the label’s enthusiasm, our enthusiasm, and someone at the venue or the community in the town that fosters the community,” says Berg. “There needs to be someone on the ground who champions it and a confluence of excitement to transfer that to the audience—a cheerleader.”
AGFA began in 2009 as an outgrowth of the Alamo Drafthouse called Heroes of the Alamo Foundation. As the Alamo Drafthouse expanded, this group organized to save the original location where the Alamo Drafthouse began. Though unsuccessful, the effort snowballed into what eventually became the American Genre Film Archive, so the group is certainly familiar with making the best of tough situations.
In 2014, AGFA’s two employees at the time, Sebastian del Castillo and Joe Ziemba crowdfunded a film scanner, and the rest is history. The organization is now a five-person operation with a variety of experience that effectively uses their combined history of exhibition and knowledge of the home video industry to seek out the titles that AGFA preserves and distributes.
“What AGFA does is not physically possible without it being a 1000% team effort,” says Berg. “Our success points the necessity of a healthy team, which is rare in this business.”
Currently, AGFA’s catalogue consists of around 1,000 titles and continues to grow each month as the organization works closely with home video labels such as Arrow Video, Severin Films, Vinegar Syndrome, and Shout Factory in obtaining the rights to these films.
“Lots of theatrical venues would come to home video labels and say they want to play their movies and those labels would have to go out of their way to service the booking with a DCP because it wasn’t part of their workflow,” Berg says. “In 2016 AGFA came along and said, ‘we’ll do that for you.’”
Berg adds, “We’re a distribution company of archivist which is very rare and I think that history is too often neglected. The whole reason why these labels exist is because they’re plucking these films out of the ether that people have totally abandoned or forgotten about. If we don’t do it, there’s really no one else who would.”
As the world shut down as a result of the current pandemic, AGFA quickly saw the effects of the mass exodus of society into their homes.
“We saw our theatrical revenue which was approaching a six-figure sum monthly dwindle to zero” Berg says. “For the first two to three months of the lockdown, our theatrical revenue was 100% cancelled.”
But as a crafty organization whose very existence is based on the challenging notion of relying on interest in the obscure, the AGFA team wasn’t about to let a pandemic get them down and got cracking on new ways to stay afloat in these ever-changing, strange times.
“Because we now have a relationship with Vinegar Syndrome beyond theatrical—they’re now our disc distributor—that’s brought us a new client base because of Vinegar Syndrome’s position as a public sales space,” says Berg. “We’ve chosen to up the number of home video releases, taking the movies we do have streaming rights to, which is our home video catalogue and finally pursuing broadcast and streaming sales for those titles.”
During the last few months of the lockdown, AGFA posted three compilation selections known as AGFA Mystery Mixtapes featuring greatest hits moments from the best of exploitation and genre cinema at the low price of $0.99 and the option to donate as much as you like. Recently, as part of AGFA’s partnership with the film distributor Something Weird Video, the organization now offers the option to purchase that company’s title The Embalmer for streaming for the same pay-what-you-want pricing as the mixtapes. And in light of the recent resurging civil rights movement, AGFA is currently offering the 1944 race film Go Down, Death from African American filmmaker Spencer Williams with all proceeds going to Black Lives Matter.
And as theatres are indeed starting to carefully open back up, some to thinner audiences and often with appropriate restrictions, AGFA has begun to see venues reschedule theatrical screening dates. AGFA’s theatrical revenue is still five to 10% of what it was, but with the Something Weird preservations for streaming and the home video releases available through Vinegar Syndrome, the organization is utilizing all of its resources as well as the ones developed as a result of the global lockdown, and like responsible theatre venues, remains cautiously optimistic. Berg says the group is continuing to pursue their streaming resource and will keep preserving films because “it’s what we like to do best and we’re good at it.”
The AGFA team is out there for cinema and genre fans to discover, and with its ever-growing archive of some of the wildest and even most thought-provoking films ever made, has something for just about everyone, available just about anywhere.
“The best thing about my time with AGFA has been the willingness of people to say yes,” says Berg. “Not only working with heroes but showing those same people that their work has another life beyond putting it out on disc. We took the theatrical part deadly serious, and we knew every facet of how to put on a show for both the distribution and exhibition perspective. The fact that we’ve gotten so many people on board with us is the greatest delight and greatest surprise.”
Visit the American Genre Film Archive at www.americangenrefilm.com.
Words by Lucas Hardwick