Reel One: Sprocket Society Flickers to Life at the Ritz

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By Stefan Gill

On a toasty August Sunday, a group of film fans filled the small second theater at Alamo Drafthouse Ritz to experience the premiere of what is sure to be another great Alamo tradition: the Sprocket Society. The concept is as old as the movies (or at least, as old as the movies shown in the theater that day): projecting rare films in their intended format.

Tommy Swenson, the mastermind of the wonderful Drafthouse pre-shows -- which both make fun of and glorify the film the audience paid to see -- brought this idea from his backyard, where with the help of a 16mm projector he collected and showed actual film prints to friends, both to display the beauty of original formats and to empower film lovers to pay it forward and discover buried film treasures on their own.

The goal of the Sprocket Society is as raw as the prints on display: For the first screening, several short programs of varying types and decades were projected, including a Flash Gordon serial, an 8mm documentary on an African tribe dangerously building a bridge (the first film Werner Herzog ever saw), a rare Western filmed in San Antonio and directed by Georges Melies' brother Gaston Melies, and the trippiest (and most mysterious) student film ever made, Omega.

Swenson -- along with his co-host Lars Nilsen, the head of programming at the Drafthouse, and Dr. Caroline Frick from the Texas Archive of the Moving Image -- made it very clear that the goal of starting the Sprocket Society was more than just to show off his own stuff, but for a community of film appreciation to gather as a group and discover knew things in unison. Sure to be a staple of the Society is sharing information on the best places to purchase film prints and projectors, as well as the latest discoveries in the film archiving realm. It will be interesting to see something rare from a movie lover in Austin who never had an adequate, or at least as quite so public, way to show off his or her collection.

This experience was certainly a pleasure for me, as someone who has had the joy of watching classic films on 35mm prints -- which really highlights how good films have always looked -- but still a novice in the ways of film preservation and collection. Tommy Swenson and company made it apparent that they want Austin to take the bull by the horns and make the society something truly communal, and it was evident that a level of excitement brew both from those who had no idea what to expect from the first Society screening and those who already heeded the message of the projector.

I myself have never collected prints nor do I own a projector, but I can already imagine the joy of flickering something to life not simply to critique or watch, but to explore how time has treated the past of prints. Unlike digital, film dies, but does digital truly live quite like a film print? Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson would say no, and the Sprocket Society would like you to think so, too.

Stefan Gill is an apprentice at the Austin Film Society.

Small Correction

I'm co-founder of The Sprocket Society here in Seattle, WA. We're thrilled to welcome the new chapter in Austin, excited by the positive response there, and we wish everyone the very best. But kindly note the following small correction. As noted, The Sprocket Society grew out of backyard movie parties (starting in 2005 -- we just had our 17th one), where we show 16mm films. However, the prints shown at these parties were/are from my own collection. Tommy began attending several years later, and subsequently became involved in the Society in 2009, a year or two after we began public screenings. Best regards...

Thanks for adding that info.

Thanks for adding that info. I knew there was more to the story but I was speaking from my audience experience at the screening and from memory, so any info on the Sprocket Society's past is great to hear.