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Joe Ziemba On “AGFADROME” And Persevering Through A Pandemic

Monday, March 29, 2021 | Interviews


Since 2009, the American Genre Film Archive has emerged as the heavyweight champion of weird, wild, and off-beat cinema. Located in Austin, Texas, AGFA, according to its mission statement, “exists to preserve the legacy of genre movies through collection, conservation, and distribution” and houses over six-thousand prints of priceless and hard-to-find films.

Though, like the vast majority of the theatrical distribution industry, 2020 took a toll on AGFA, the Archive was able to improvise, adapt, and overcome through the combined efforts of its small but fiercely dedicated staff, and this upcoming weekend’s AGFADROME serves as something of a victory lap. A virtual fundraising telethon unlike any other, AGFADROME will boast a full day of programming, hand-selected from the AGFA vaults by each of its essential team members. We caught up with Creative Director (and Bleeding Skull! founder) Joe Ziemba to chat about the can’t-miss event and how AGFA has met the challenges of the past year.

From mixtapes to virtual screenings, AGFA has come up with some clever and novel ways to keep film fans engaged during the past year, but AGFADROME sounds like another beast entirely. Can you explain the concept and tell us how it came about?

Thank you! We typically do two big fundraising initiatives a year. Prior to the pandemic, this took the form of theatrical screenings. Since theaters have been closed for the past 12 months, we wanted to scratch our programming itch while providing a last hurrah for the era of virtual screenings. So we came up with AGFADROME, a virtual fundraising telethon where we have total freedom to let our passions run wild — all in the support of our non-profit mission.

For those who may be unfamiliar with AGFA, can you tell us a bit about its origins and non-profit mission?

AGFA is the world’s largest — and only — 501(c)(3) non-profit genre film archive and distributor. In addition to our massive 35mm print archive and full service film lab, we handle theatrical distribution for our friends at labels like Arrow Films, Vinegar Syndrome, Severin, Shout! Factory, and many more. We also have our own home video label and release around 8-14 Blu-rays a year.

COVID-19 has forced the festival/streaming/film industries to evolve fast. How has AGFA been weathering this storm?

The last year has been incredibly challenging. But it has also been the most rewarding in AGFA’s history, and that’s due to the incredible team we have. We are a small, but resilient group of people. When theaters closed, our number one source of income disappeared overnight. So the goal was simple: AGFA had to survive. We looked at what we had at our disposal to make that happen, and the answer was freelance lab work, licensing, increasing our home video output, and fundraising. We finally started breaking even at the end of 2020, which was a big accomplishment.

We also took time to restructure. Alicia Coombs, who was Head of Business Affairs, moved mountains in order to get us back to a healthy financial state. So she and I are now co-directors of AGFA — Alicia is Executive Director and I’m Creative Director. Sebastian del Castillo is now overseeing all of our restoration work as Head of Film Restoration. Ivan Peycheff handles all of our film cleaning and scanning, archive upkeep, and a million other things as Head of Film Preservation. And Bret Berg is the mad genius behind getting our catalog in front of as many people as possible in his role as Head of Theatrical. I could spend all day gushing about my co-workers at AGFA.

Can you tell us a bit about what we can expect from each team member’s programming blocks? Without spoiling too much, of course.

You bet! When you enter AGFADROME, you’ll hang out with all five of us as we each host our own two hour block of mystery programming. So it’ll be a ten hour event! Our picks were driven by 1000% passion, and you can expect everything from sneak peeks at future Blu-ray releases to recent restorations; from found footage mayhem to outlaw titles from our archive. It’ll be a mix of features, shorts, and everything between. We see this as our victory lap for navigating the pandemic, so we’re basically going nuts with it. No rules. We can’t wait.

What are you and the AGFA team most looking forward to post-pandemic? Any big plans for the archive?

I think we’re most looking forward to helping theaters reopen. Being forced to stay away from theatrical screenings for a year has only underlined how much we love those magical and impactful shared experiences. Thanks to our partners and in-house acquisitions, we added almost 500 titles to our theatrical catalog during the pandemic. On that front, we have some huge announcements coming this summer. We’re also grateful that our Blu-ray releases were successful this year, and they enabled us to ramp up acquisitions for home video. 2021 and 2022 will be our most ambitious yet, with some truly next-level titles on the way — at least for us!

For those who will, undoubtedly, want more AGFA after the event, what are your three favorite, must-buy titles from the catalogue?

I love everything we release, so this is a tough question. But if someone was holding a switchblade to my eye and I had to choose, I’d go with: THE FILMS OF SARAH JACOBSON, THE CURIOUS DR. HUMPP (an AGFA + Something Weird release), and LIMBO (an AGFA + Bleeding Skull! release). Those are my personal passion picks from each area that we cover.

How can fans continue to support AGFA and its non-profit mission beyond AGFADROME?

Great question! Donation-wise, every Blu-ray and download purchase feeds directly into the mission. You can also donate 24-7 at our official website. For daily transmission from the archive, follow us on Instagram and Twitter. And you can sign up for our mailing list to stay informed about releases, screenings, and fundraising events. Spirit-wise, one of the most helpful things you can do is love and respect genre films. And share those feelings with the world in a positive way, so that other people benefit from it.

AGFADROME takes place Saturday, April 3rd, 2021. Grab your tickets here, and visit The American Genre Film Archive online for merch, screenings, and more.

Rocco T. Thompson
Rocco is a Rondo-nominated film journalist and avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous. He penned the cover story for Rue Morgue's landmark July/Aug 2019 "Queer Fear" Special Issue, and is an associate producer on In Search of Darkness: Part III, the latest installment in CreatorVC's popular 1980s horror documentary series.