Hooray for Hollywood, Texas

The players in front of the camera. The powers behind the scenes. The myths and the realities. A special report on our booming film business.

IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR EVIDENCE that Texas filmmaking has transformed itself into a full-fledged industry, consider the scene at Austin’s Paramount Theatre on March 14, when Twentieth Century Fox staged a gala world premiere for The Newton Boys,  Richard Linklater’s period flick about bank-robbing brothers. Vintage cars lined Congress Avenue just down from the Capitol, Sixth Street—size crowds craned for a peek at the rich and famous, and bright lights were everywhere: four search beams, a glowing marquee, and popping flashbulbs. Even brighter were the teeth of the movie’s stars, including ex-Texans Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke, who grinned broadly for the cameras and told anyone who’d listen how glad they were to be home.

Welcome to Hollywood, Texas. While it’s true that most films don’t get such a red-carpet rollout—and few have such a strong home-state pedigree (Texas director, Texas actors, shot in Texas, based on a Texas author’s book about Texans)—clearly something is going on here. Finally, it seems, we’re living up to our billing as the Third Coast, a friendly alternative to the schmooze-’em-and-abuse-’em ways of Los Angeles and New York. In Austin last spring, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting McConaughey, Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, Julianna Margulies, Vincent D’Onofrio, or Dwight Yoakam of The Newton Boys or Sandra Bullock, Harry Connick, Jr., Gena Rowlands, Forest Whitaker, or Lynda Obst of Hope Floats. San Antonians welcomed not only The Newton Boys but also another historical tale, Two for Texas. Dallas played host to two of 1998’s most buzzworthy releases: Robert Duvall’s The Apostle and the forthcoming Bruce Willis blockbuster Armageddon. Tim Robbins, Jeff Bridges, and Joan Cusack were in Houston this spring shooting the political thriller Arlington Road,  and Dallas native Robert Benton plans to be there later this year with a movie set in Galveston in the forties.

It isn’t all about stargazing, of course. In 1997 projects filmed  in Texas—not only big-screen features but also made-for-TV movies and miniseries, TV shows, and commercials—had combined budgets in excess of $210 million, about half of which was spent in the state. (Although many assume that Austin rules the roost, Dallas actually led all cities last year, thanks largely to Walker, Texas Ranger, which spent more than $20 million in Texas.) In the past four years films shot in Texas have spent more than $500 million here. Factor in the so-called multiplier effect—each dollar earned is respent at least twice more—and we owe the film business a billion and a half thank-you’s.

Who’s responsible for taking Texas from backwater to back lot? Part of the credit goes to Linklater, whose Austin Film Society and Texas Filmmakers Production Fund give statewide cinemaphiles intellectual and financial nourishment. (Also, by not ditching Austin for L.A., he sends a message that it’s cool to make art in Texas.) There are the hordes who slave in anonymity behind the scenes, the set designers and costumers and location scouts who don’t make the big bucks but make it possible for others to. There’s Mother Nature, whose generosity with good weather makes Texas a great place to shoot movies year-round. State officials deserve credit for keeping Texas affordable by passing sales-tax breaks for filmmakers. And then there are the people of Texas, who view the arrival of so many outsiders as an economic opportunity, not a cultural threat—despite the clamoring of a few xenophobes.

On the following pages, you’ll see how far Texas film has come since the mythic days of The Alamo and Giant, and you’ll meet the people who give the business its breadth and depth. Get to know them. If history is any indication, they may be coming soon to a theater near you.

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