Now Celebrating 15 Years, the American Genre Film Archive Keeps the Fringe Alive

In 1968, Joe Dante and Jon Davison (who would later team up to make “Hollywood Boulevard” and “Piranha”) created “The Movie Orgy,” an early found footage extravaganza made up of bits and pieces of film they had collected — trailers, movie clips, commercials, and whatever other random footage they could splice together to create unusual juxtapositions the original filmmakers never imagined. The compilation evolved over the decades, expanding and contracting in size as film deteriorated and different pieces got swapped in and out (at its longest, “The Movie Orgy” ran over seven hours), and there was only one print, which Dante kept in his possession. You could only see it on the intermittent occasions when Dante screened it publicly (always for free, since rights issues prohibit any kind of commercial release), and eventually “The Movie Orgy” attained a kind of mythic status among cinephiles, most of whom despaired that they would never get to see it.

In the last year and a half, however, “The Movie Orgy” has screened dozens of times at venues all over the world, including the Academy Museum. That it has suddenly become available is thanks to the work of the American Genre Film Archive, a non-profit organization devoted to the collection, preservation, and distribution of genre movies — most of them works made on the margins of the mainstream film industry — that is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. The archive’s collection currently holds over 6,000 films, many of which it distributes theatrically to repertory cinemas, and AGFA makes many of its titles available to home viewers via its physical media label. More importantly, the archive applies its resources and technical expertise to vital restorations of films that might otherwise be lost; the movies of important directors like Doris Wishman and Jon Moritsugu have been restored to their original glory, and the collected works of George and Mike Kuchar are up next.

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“We are mission forward and about making sure that these films and their filmmakers’ legacies are kept alive,” AGFA executive director Jackson Cooper told IndieWire. The archive is particularly interested in transgressive movies that take full advantage of the freedom inherent in independent filmmaking; it’s also a repository for a wide range of voices. “The filmmakers are so diverse: we have BIPOC filmmakers, queer filmmakers, trans filmmakers who use these movies as a way of expressing themselves and their identities.” As a non-profit, AGFA is able to take a particular approach to its work and help its partners get the most interesting movies possible in front of the public. “It’s not transactional, it’s always personal,” Cooper said.

AGFA holds the theatrical rights for titles from a number of boutique home video labels, like Arrow, Severin, and Vinegar Syndrome, so when you see a film like Stuart Gordon’s “Re-Animator” or Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” on the repertory circuit, you have AGFA to thank. Theatrical sales director Bret Berg handles the distribution end for AGFA and sees his job as making sure the revival scene remains robust. “We understand what movie theaters are facing right now, and we’re really thoughtful about helping them curate,” Berg told IndieWire. “We want to make sure it’s not just a one-off, that there’s a sustainability of audiences and getting people in the doors and excited about these films.” At a time when movie theater attendance is down, Berg feels that AGFA’s holdings can help bring customers back. “We have thousands of movies we can help theaters curate to rebuild audiences.”

In fact, the devastating effects of the pandemic and the strikes have had one positive side effect, which is a greater demand for repertory programming as the studios’ output shrinks. “Recently, we’ve experienced the highest number of bookings in our history,” Cooper said. “A lot of theaters are seeing these films as a gateway for bringing people back to the theater, this hit of nostalgia that is comforting and brings people together.” Berg adds that in cities like Los Angeles, the repertory community is bigger than ever. “Right now, in 2024, the L.A. filmgoing scene is as expansive, diverse, wild, exciting, and inviting as it’s ever been, and a few years ago, pre-COVID, I don’t know if I would have felt the same,” he said. “There’s such a wealth of new places showing movies.”

AGFA's 'The Last Slumber Party'
‘The Last Slumber Party’AGFA

Even if you don’t live near one of the metropolitan areas where repertory cinemas thrive, you can take advantage of AGFA’s work via its indispensable home video label, which releases not only gorgeous restorations of feature films and shorts (their recent edition of the regional ’80s horror gem “The Last Slumber Party” is particularly essential viewing) but expertly curated trailer and ephemera collections — the archive’s variation on what Dante and Davison created with “The Movie Orgy.” Working off of masters across a wide range of formats — not just 35mm and HD but VHS, Super-VHS, 16mm, and more — AGFA is doing the work of cinematic archaeologists, consistently unearthing hidden treasures and giving them the best possible technical presentation.

And the collection keeps expanding. Right now, the archive is hard at work preparing new reissues of films by punk feminist filmmaker Sarah Jacobson, and it recently released the “Hey Folks! It’s the Intermission Time Video Party” compilation on Blu-ray to showcase hours of vintage movie and drive-in ads from the old “Something Weird” video label. The key, according to Berg, is to keep approaching the films with the same degree of enthusiasm and freedom as the filmmakers who are being celebrated. “To me, the release of ‘The Movie Orgy’ represents what we can do if there are no rules,” he said. “The only ceiling to what we can accomplish is people saying, ‘No, I don’t want to do that,’ but I’m glad to be on a team that allows creativity to flourish.”

To learn more about the American Genre Film Archive, visit AGFA’s website.

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