Jeff Nichols hasn’t lived in Arkansas in more than a dozen years, but the acclaimed filmmaker remains deeply connected to his home state. He visits family and friends in Little Rock regularly, and set and shot two of his five films, “Shotgun Stories” and “Mud,” here. His likely next one, “Alien Nation” — about “two intelligent species crashing together and trying to make it work,” he says — takes place in Arkansas, at least in the version of the script he’s working on now.
So it’s not entirely surprising that Nichols is behind the Arkansas Cinema Society, a new initiative aimed at helping foster Arkansas’s film culture. Nichols, who has lived in Austin, Texas, since 2002, wants to model the new venture on the Austin Film Society, founded in 1985 by Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused,” “Boyhood”). The AFS hosts regular screenings, provides grants to filmmakers and teaches people how to make movies. When Nichols first got to Austin as a fledgling filmmaker with no money, a slim resume and a lot of ideas, the AFS was where he found his community. Today, it’s where he meets up-and-coming filmmakers like Kat Candler, on whose 2014 film “Hellion” Nichols served as executive producer, and it’s where he sees screenings of films he’d otherwise miss. Nichols calls the AFS a “magnet” for people who are interested in “production or film theory or just watching movies.” The goal is for the Arkansas Cinema Society to be the same sort of hub.
The kickoff event will come Aug. 24-26, with a couple of well-known filmmakers coming to Little Rock’s Ron Robinson Theater and the screening of some of their movies. “The goal would be that they show a film that inspired them during the day and talk about it, and in the evening show one of their films. And possibly have midnight screenings, whether they attend it or not,” Nichols said, adding that he would moderate discussions with the filmmakers, whose names he’s not ready to reveal. Then, beginning in September, the ASC will host monthly screenings at Ron Robinson. Depending on the audience and the ASC’s budget, the screenings will later become twice monthly and then weekly. Perhaps around the holidays, Nichols will lead the first of three seminars on filmmaking — one each on writing, directing and editing. Nichols has had some practice. He recently did a master class at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and he’s dropped in a few times to a class on his film “Mud,” which is being taught at the University of Texas this semester.
Helping bring the ASC to reality is another filmmaker and Little Rock native, Kathryn Tucker. After working for several years as an assistant director on the likes of “Glee,” “This Is 40” and “Oblivion,” she moved back to Little Rock in 2012, and later met filmmaking brothers Josh and Miles Miller. She agreed to produce their feature debut, “All the Birds Have Flown South.” She and that film’s cinematographer, Gabe Mayhan, started dating and later married. They have a son who is nearly 2 years old. Tucker also produced the feature adaptation of Daniel Campbell’s “Antiquities,” with Mayhan again serving as cinematographer.
The formation of the ACS grew out of a meeting between Nichols and Tucker when Nichols was in town in November for a screening of his latest film, “Loving,” to benefit the Tiger Foundation of Little Rock Central High School, where he and Tucker were classmates. The conversation got around to what a shame it was that the Little Rock Film Festival called it quits in 2015. When Tucker mentioned there was interest in reviving the festival, Nichols suggested instead that they go for a year-round model.
Tucker is leading the ASC on the ground as executive director of the newly established 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Nichols is chairman of the board, for which Tucker and Nichols recruited an all-star membership that includes former Gov. Mike Beebe, Mary Steenburgen, local writer and television creator Graham Gordy, producer Jayme Lemons and Yellow Rocket Concepts creative director Amber Brewer.
Brent and Craig Renaud, the acclaimed documentary filmmakers who co-founded the Little Rock Film Festival, cited their busy professional schedule as a reason for shuttering the fest after nine years. Because of their workload, they didn’t have the time needed to raise money or manage the logistics of the fest. How will an organization led by two working filmmakers avoid the same fate?
“I’m going to see it through no matter what that takes,” Tucker said. “We’re building this thing slowly and laying a really good foundation. We’ve also got so many people on our board who aren’t going to let it fail.”
Nichols stressed the importance of community involvement and running lean. “I hope that Kathryn and I aren’t the engine for this thing. Or a better way to put it is, we build the engine, but the fuel is the community, and it will just sit there not running if the community doesn’t respond. If they don’t, we’ll move on and go do something else. But it’s on our shoulders to build something that runs on not much gas.”
For budget reasons, Nichols doesn’t want to see the ACS start a traditional film festival.
“When you throw a big event, it’s like throwing a big party. You’ve got to bring in a lot of people from out of town, and you’ve got to pay for their airfare, and you’ve got to pay to put them up in a hotel, and you’ve got to get cars to take them places, and you’ve got to have places to do multiple screenings, and you’ve got to sell tickets and have to have an infrastructure to sell tickets, and you have to have a big party and pay for catering and do the decorations. You have to do all this shit, which has nothing to do with getting as many people together to watch a movie.”
A model to grow toward might be Ebertfest in Champaign, Ill. Founded by the late film critic Roger Ebert, the fest does no counterprogramming and isn’t competitive. It’s a tightly curated event. When the critic was alive, it was “Roger Ebert saying, ‘Hey, take a look at these films,’ ” said Nichols, who screened “Shotgun Stories” there in 2007. He and Tucker say the August kickoff event could grow into a version of Ebertfest down the road.
But don’t look only for indie movie fare at it or at ACS screenings throughout the year.
“I’m not simply a guy who loves European arthouse films,” Nichols said. “Movies are fun. They’re amazing and they can open your mind and they can be a blast to experience in a room with other people, and I want the programming to reflect that. For every Cassavetes series, you have one that’s a Sam Raimi (“The Evil Dead,” “Spider-Man”).”
Tucker echoed a similar sentiment. “I feel like a lot of film nerds — a term I use lovingly because I’m one of them — who program film festivals, show things that are way too obscure for our audience. They want to show the beauty of these crazy Japanese films and these terrible horror films, and they say, ‘If only people would just see these, they’d see how awesome they are.’ But a lot of people don’t.” She said she thought a lot of people either wanted to see how “Spider-Man” was made, or they want to see films getting buzz at festivals.
Though Nichols and Tucker want the ACS to grow responsibly, they have grand visions for the nonprofit. Most immediately, they hope to partner with and help promote all existing film festivals and screenings throughout the state. They encourage anyone with ideas for partnerships or anything else to connect via arkansascinemasociety.org.
“If you’re from Arkansas and you’re into movies, that’s awesome. All ships rise, is my philosophy. That’s how it’s been in my film career,” Nichols said.
Once the ACS has made some strides on fundraising, Nichols said, he wants to start a grant program modeled on one at the Austin Film Society. “If you can prove that you’ve been to a film festival with a film [or been accepted to a festival], we’ll give you a grant to help out with travel. Even after it’s done. I remember with ‘Shotgun Stories,’ I was so broke. [The AFS] gave me something, I can’t remember exactly what, maybe it was $250, but it was a chunk that really helped. You don’t have to put a committee together to judge. It’s, ‘Cool, you made something. Cool, you got it into a film festival. Let us help you.’ ”
Down the road, he said, he’d like to create another grant program modeled on the Texas Filmmakers Production Fund, where a panel would review submissions for support of creative material or productions in process. “That’s later down the road because that’s more complicated,” Nichols acknowledged. “And you have to raise a certain amount of money just for that.”
Another dream: working with single-screen theaters in smaller towns throughout Arkansas. “How amazing would it be if we could help those places out?” Nichols asked. “If we could help them stay open or improve their screening capabilities. Maybe in exchange for that, we get to show a movie there once a month or once in a while. Admittedly, this is coming from a guy who has made movies that typically play in one or two places and people have to drive to see them.” Even more far out would be following the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema’s Rolling Roadshow model, where the ACS would have a massive inflatable screen and a cinema-grade projector to take on the road throughout the state, Nichols said.
Nichols calls the demolition of the Cinema 150 on South University Avenue in 2015 “a travesty.”
“In my dream world, you’d flash down the road 15 years, and we’d have a single screen dome theater, with Arkansas Cinema Society offices in it, a restaurant, maybe one of John [Beachboard]’s breweries.” (Beachboard is a longtime friend and Lost Forty co-owner.)
Tucker might know a real estate guy. Her father, Rett Tucker, of the development and real estate firm Moses Tucker, is a member of the ACS board.