Permanent Midnight: You (Yes, YOU) Can Help Save Exploitation Cinema's Forgotten Gems From Extinction

Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League discusses the American Genre Film Archive's preservation mission.

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Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.

The lucky few who caught the repertory screening of Miami Connection at Fantastic Fest in 2012 can attest—the folks behind the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain really know how to throw a party.

Every September, genre movie lovers flock to Austin, TX, to attend Fantastic Fest, but in 2012 they weren’t just greeted by the latest and strangest international horror/sci-fi/action/WTF cinema. They were also exposed to the aforementioned Miami Connection, an obscure, long-forgotten 1988 martial arts film about motorcycle-riding ninjas mixed up in Miami’s cocaine underworld. It’s extremely low-budget, totally dated, and wonderfully ridiculous.

Before Fantastic Fest 2012, few people outside of Drafthouse CEO/founder Tim League and his dedicated staff of movie-obsessed programmers had ever heard of it. By the festival’s end, though, Miami Connection had hundreds of new fans, open-minded cinephiles who attended the once-in-a-lifetime concert from the film’s heroic rock band, Dragon Sound, reunited after 24 years. In addition to their performance, Miami Connectionstar/director Y.K. Kim slugged it out with League in a boxing ring and sliced up watermelons with a samurai sword before the screening.

It was the quintessential Alamo Drafthouse experience. League and his staff don’t simply screen movies they love, which also happen to predominantly be overlooked treasures from the 1970s/1980s exploitation era—they turn movies into in-theater fiestas.

That Drafthousian adoration of cinema’s oddities also fuels the American Genre Film Archive, launched in 2009 by League, his wife, Karrie League, and few of Austin’s key programmers, including Drafthouse alumni Zack Carlson and Lars Nilsen. The AGFA’s mission is simple: locate as many old 35mm and 16mm film prints as possible, keep them safe inside Austin’s Drafthouse venues, and do their best to preserve the reels and, best case scenario, loan the prints out to other like-minded movie-houses, and give passionate genre buffs the chance to see crazy films like Vampire Hookers (1978), The Deadly Spawn (1983), and Goliath and the Dragon (1960). Without them, potential cult classics like Miami Connection would remain unknown.

AGFA membership isn’t exclusive to the Drafthouse crew. Last week, it was announced that acclaimed filmmakers Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will be Blood) and Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Drive) have joined the American Genre Film Archive’s official advisory board.

And now, showing newfound strength in numbers, the AGFA is looking for your help. They’ve started an Indiegogo campaign to raise the funds necessary to properly restore the 3,000-plus prints in their library. First up is The Astrologer, a 1975 film from self-financed writer/director/real-life astrologer Craig Denny, in which Denny charts a fictionalized and surrealistic course to consulting the U.S. President. There’s only one existing print of The Astrologer left, and League’s AGFA outfit wants to ensure that Denny’s time-capsule of a film doesn’t fade away. If the goal of $15,000 is reached by May 30, the AGFA will be able to digitally restore The Astrologer and circulate copies.

By contributing cash to the Indiegogo, supporters will both help keep the late Denny’s film alive and receive one of several rewards, ranging from a professional astrology reading to a shelf in the archive named after them or the chance to “Adopt a Print,” a la those old Sally Struthers’ Children’s Fund commercials.

Down with the AGFA’s cause, I spoke with Tim League about this crowd-sourced initiative, what makes The Astrologer worthy of restoration, and the worthwhile difficulties of rescuing movies other people deem forgettable.

Did the American Genre Film Archive initially stem from the Drafthouse’s endless stash of old film prints?
Like lots of things in my personal business career, it was sort of slapdash. Things in my career have typically started out as one thing and then evolved into something else. I started collecting films back in 1994. Our very first theater was an old theater and it had probably six prints and maybe about 20 or 30 trailers. I was just fascinated by these things, these little time capsules. I’m a collector by nature, so I just started figuring out how to collect film.

I subscribed to this magazine called Big Reel, which was specifically for 35mm and 16mm film print collectors. I got to know the various people and kept my ear to the ground for warehouses and treasure troves of old films that were being discarded. When we got into the Alamo, I started collecting more and more. It didn’t get serious until the late ‘90s, when I heard of a stash in a warehouse in Southern Missouri that my friend had tried to acquire but failed. He told me about it, and I drove up to Missouri, negotiated a cash deal with the guy and took 400 prints in a U-Haul trailer back to Austin. That’s when I realized this was getting a little bit obsessive. [Laughs.]

Once we collected over 1,500 films, I started taking it more seriously and started thinking about steps for us to actually legitimize what was my personable collection into a bonafide archive. I say “bonafide,” but if you go into, say, the UCLA film archives, we’re still by comparison very much a punk rock archive. Our film prints are housed in the various projection rooms, so it's private-controlled. If you go to most Alamo Drafthouse locations in Austin, they’re there. Projection rooms are generally pristine, but ours are loaded floor to ceiling with 35mm film cases. We’ve got about 3,000 film prints and 2,000 trailers in the archive at this point.

Are you already aware of these obscure films when you acquire them, or are a lot of them unknown even to you?
When we’re acquiring a lot of films, we take them all part and parcel, so there are going to be titles that we know of. For example, we acquired about 15 prints of Ms. 45. We knew about that film beforehand, and we put together a restoration and released that through Drafthouse Films. And then, we get loads of titles that you’ve never, ever heard of—some of these titles aren’t even on IMDB.

We acquire titles from other sources, too. Miami Connection was something we acquired from Ebay; it’s a martial arts film, it’s the ‘80s, the title sounded rad. [Laughs.] It was $50 to acquire, and once we actually put it up on screen, that’s when we went through the process of finding the rights-holder and acquiring it through Drafthouse Films.

Why does now seem like the right time to launch a crowd-sourced Indiegogo campaign?
We’re really dedicated to preserving 35mm. We lend out hundreds of films every year to universities, schools, theaters, and individuals who are doing screening series and film festivals all over the globe. But we don’t lend out the really rare things. We lent out a print of Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell [1968], it’s a really rare print, and it came back missing a reel—no fault of the person we shipped it to, but now it’s lost and we can’t loan that film out anymore.

The Astrologer is a perfect example. None of us had ever heard of this movie. It’s very rare, self-financed, and a regional film. It’s an absurd oddity. We’ve never heard of the film and never heard of another print of it, so we have this one 35mm print that we can’t loan to anybody, because if we do, it’s gone forever. This is our way of making a 2K digital copy of it, so if somebody wants to borrow this film, we can now do that and still keep the original master safe in our archive.

The Astrologer images via Alamo Drafthouse

In the Indiegogo campaign’s press release, there’s mention of you saving film prints from “landfills, incinerators, and from literally being tosses into the sea.” Is there any one example of that kind of extreme rescue that feels especially good for you?
With the changing landscape in the video industry, there’s one video company that put out so many amazing movies in the ‘80s and ‘90s, called Tai Seng—it’s a Chinese distributor. With the drying up of the home video market here in the states, they felt they didn’t need a U.S. presence. They were closing their San Francisco office and were going to just handle their business from Hong Kong. But they had an archive of some 500 prints and they didn’t want to pay to ship those back to China, so they were going to throw them away.

We went through the process of getting an appraiser and making an official donation to their non-profit so they’d get the tax benefit from the donation, and me, Zack, and Lars drove out to San Francisco, packed up 500 prints, and drove them back to Austin. If we hadn’t have done that, those films would all be gone.

The really cool thing about what the AGFA is doing is that you’re rescuing all films, not just ones you guys deem as “great” or “worthy.” It’s more about saving these films from total extinction than it is seeking out forgotten films of high esteem.
In the states, as opposed to Europe, there’s not as much governmental archiving. There are a lot of European countries that do a really great job of preserving their visual history, and we’ve got some great organizations in the United States, but it’s by no means comprehensive.

My particular taste in movies may be a little trashier than the normal archivist. [Laughs.] A lot of the movies most folks would say are of greater significance are much more easily saved. I like the nooks and crannies of the late 1960s, the ‘70s, and the early ‘80s. A lot of weird, regional distributors and producers put out films during those times, and that’s a great part of American film history. These were the movies that played drive-ins and seedier inner city theaters, so they’re often deemed “not as important” by traditional archives. That’s where the American Genre Film Archive really steps in.

When you talk to other, more traditional archivists, do they ever question your tastes? As in, “Why the hell would you want to save The Astrologer?”
[Laughs.] I think we have a pretty good relationship with most of the bigger archives, and we aspire to have their level of budget, if you will, to properly preserve films. One thing that we’re going to try to do is to make sure everything is in archival conditions. We’re rescuing a lot of these films from pretty bad situations, things that have just been sitting in tractor trailers or unconditioned or moist spaces for decades. Most of the other archives respect what we’re doing.

The people who work in preservation are happy when anything gets preserved. Although we’re a little bit outside the formal system, our heart is in the right place. As we grow, I hope that we can get respect in terms of our procedures, as well. We’re doing the best we can with the budget we have. Our primary mission is to preserve and never say no. If there are films that are in jeopardy, I will always find a means or budget to bring them into the collection.

Are some old, beat-down film prints beyond saving?
That very first collection in Missouri, one of the problems with it was that the bottom shelf in the warehouse had been underwater, so there were about 70 films that had been underwater for a long period of time, and film doesn’t react well to water. So those were all destroyed—there’s no bringing those back. But we were able to donate almost all of those to a visual artist who liked the decay of the frames and incorporated that into his art pieces.

There are certain things that happen to films over time. There’s color change—if you’ve seen repertory screenings of exploitation films, you’ve seen purple prints, red prints, and spotty prints. Those are still OK with us, but the one type of decay we can’t get around is this thing called “vinegar syndrome,” where the print is literally warped and not playable—you can’t put it through a projector because it’s so warpy.

The AGFA’s advisory board recently added filmmakers Paul Thomas Anderson and Nicolas Winding Refn. How big is the board now?
It’s still pretty small. There’s an active board, where we meet once a quarter or twice a year. We’ve got a chief archivist, it’s a salary position while everyone else volunteers.

The advisory board is what we’re just starting to grow now. Lars, Zack, and also Paul Thomas Anderson and Nicolas Winding Refn, and we’re probably going to invite a few other people who have been to the theater over the years and are really dedicated to shooting on film. It’s important to preserve our celluloid history, not just our digital history.

With someone like Paul Thomas Anderson, what will his role be? Is he more of a consultant than a hands-on participant, or is he 100% involved?
With Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s whatever opportunities come his way. He’s very, very interested in film—he shot The Master on 70mm and loves shooting on film. So there will be opportunities that will come his way because of his status. The plan is we’re going to come together once a year to talk about the long-term initiatives of the archive and brainstorm ideas for funding and restoration projects. Nic Refn, for example, is super-obsessed with Andy Milligan and Andy Milligan’s movies, so we might be able to do something with him down the line on that front, because we have a ton of Milligan’s films in the archive.

Drafthouse Films gave Miami Connection a full, legitimate release, with theatrical showings and loaded DVD/Blu-ray packages. What qualifies one of the archive’s films for that kind of treatment?
It’s a lot of factors. Miami Connection, we felt that was a pretty special film and that we could get a bigger audience for it, and we were able to secure the rights for it.

What’s different about The Astrologer is that I have no idea how I would even find the rights. The director is long since deceased and he self-financed it—you’d have to go through a private detective to figure out who owns it. It’s got some possible music issues, with this huge soundtrack by the Moody Blues and it’s questionable if that’s legal or not. It’s a film that we want to make available to all the festivals and such, but to go through all the hurdles of actually releasing it on home video, that’s a whole other ball of wax. It’s easier for us to preserve these through the archives than it is go through all the steps you have to do to release it formally.

Keeping in line with the Alamo Drafthouse’s everyday attitude and strategy, this Indiegogo campaign offers donors who pledge a certain amount of cash the chance to program exploitations films at an actual Drafthouse location. How important is it for the AGFA to maintain that kind of Drafthouse-specific user experience?
One of the things that’s really important to us about how we’re approaching this archive is that it’s an archive to be shared. For better or for worse, there are archives out there that are dedicated to protecting and preserving but don’t really lend out stuff out easily. We’re in love with this content and we want to share it with as many people as possible. The idea of celebrating these films we restore is very much part of the mission.

Hopefully we’ll continue to do this and make more and more restorations. We’ve got about a dozen films in the archive that are super rare and will blow people’s minds. We want to get them out there in a wider way.

To contribute to AGFA's Indiegogo campaign, click here.

Interview by Complex senior staff writer Matt Barone, who tweets here and spends at least one five-minute period per day wishing for an Alamo Drafthouse theater to open in his Northern New Jersey hood.

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