Lights! Camera! Satisfaction?

How young Texas moviemakers affect Hollywood’s bottom line.

June 1999By Comments

Hollywood is the place where dreams come true and millionaires are made overnight, right? So it was perhaps prescient that as a kid, Owen Wilson was already dreaming of big-screen riches, performing the Gatlin Brothers’ “All the Gold in California” with his brother, Luke, at his parents’ dinner parties in Dallas. Two decades later, the question is whether Owen and his screenwriting partner, Houston native Wes Anderson, will be able to reprise that hopeful duet. Their two movies together, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, cost a total of $15 million but have grossed only about $17 million so far. Still, the show-biz powers that be have apparently concluded that the duo’s future efforts will be more successful, because Walt Disney Studios has signed them up to make their next picture.

But is that kind of optimism straight out of Fantasyland? Are these young Texas filmmakers and others like them a good investment? How you answer depends on whether you understand Hollywood’s convoluted economy, where making money—as in, literally turning a profit—has been an antiquated notion ever since Star Wars first arrived in theaters. Here’s how things work these days: You get a studio to finance your movie for, say, the current average, which is $53 million. The studio then spends about $22 million to produce prints of the movie and to advertise and market it. So immediately the pressure is on for you to earn back not just $75 million in ticket sales but more, since studios don’t collect 100 percent of the box office (theaters collect a small percentage). Almost every movie that grosses more than $100 million—a “hit” by current standards—now costs more than $100 million to make.

Fortunately domestic box office is no longer the only source of revenue. There’s foreign box office, an ever-growing piece of the profit pie; many action flicks and star-studded vanity pics that do only moderately well here go great guns overseas. There’s also video, which makes studios money in film rentals and direct sales to the tune of about $16 billion a year. Then there are what’s termed “ancillary markets,” which is anything else a film can sell to make money: laser discs, pay-per-view, cable and broadcast rights, T-shirts, consumer product tie-ins, toys, fast-food deals, and so on. With all these extras, a movie is either a franchise or a flop. That’s why studios rarely take risks on newcomers or unconventional story lines. They want something that’s certain to work—and when it works, they want to do it again and again.

Yet they have to grow new talent at some point—laws of nature, you know—and this is when they look to the opposite end of the spectrum, at independent film. Projects in this realm start with mere initiative and budgets ranging from $500 to $10 million. Distribution companies “buy” the films in their completed or near-completed forms for purchase prices that rarely stray above the Sundance Film Festival record of $10 million (1996’s Care of the Spitfire Grill, starring ex-Texan Marcia Gay Harden) or $2.5 million with a percentage of the gross profits (this year’s Happy, Texas, which, now famously, is set in but was not shot in that Panhandle town). Since these indie films are advertised in fewer places at a lower rate, and since prints cost less because they appear on fewer screens nationwide, it’s easier for them to turn a profit. Studios, especially the smaller distributors that specialize in the indies, snap up dozens a year, hoping that a couple will hit big and gross $20 million or even $100 million, as Pulp Fiction did. Increasingly, these films are the ones that garner Academy award nominations, and that can mean tens of millions more in profit (though you have to subtract the cost of an Oscar campaign; Miramax reportedly spent $15 million—successfully, it turned out—on Shakespeare in Love). In the end, for a relatively small investment, Hollywood can lap up dollars, make ancillary profits for years, and scoop up the newly minted talent for future projects.

While this strategy has its star players from coast to coast, a handful are Texans: Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater, and the team of Anderson and Wilson. How do they rate on the industry scale of worth?

Rodriguez, who turns 31 this month, has the best numbers. His major directorial debut, El Mariachi, cost $7,000 to make. Columbia Pictures paid $150,000 for the rights to the film and spent around $300,000 to finish it and around $250,000 to market it. It made $1.1 million in domestic ticket sales, which would be good even if the film didn’t have such a long life. Columbia’s glossy remake, also directed by Rodriguez and renamed Desperado, cost $7 million and has thus far grossed about $25.6 million. Elizabeth Avellan, Rodriguez’s wife and producing partner, says international sales of both titles now run close to $60 million, and the money is still coming in. That’s a lot of mileage out of one idea hatched by a student at the University of Texas at Austin.

Rodriguez’s next film, the road-movie-cum-vampire-thriller From Dusk Till Dawn, cost approximately $18 million and grossed $25 million. But it lives on too. It spawned two straight-to-video progeny made with Rodriguez’s blessing but not directed by him: the just-released Texas Blood Money and the forthcoming Hangman’s Daughter; each cost $10 million but is projected to triple that in revenue. Adding to the hype, but not necessarily the take, was the $500,000 documentary Full Tilt Boogie, about the filming of the original. It didn’t make back that much in its brief theatrical release, but if you’re going to lose money on a film, better that it have only a mid-six-figure budget. Rodriguez’s most recent project, The Faculty, cost $15 million and is at $38 million and counting. Even with a $30 million marketing blitz, the movie will—by the time it makes it around the world and onto video—turn an okay profit. These numbers mean that during Rodriguez’s seven years in the film business, he has generated around $250 million in return for a $75 million investment. That’s a modest amount, but in ancillary profits from his soundtrack deals, laser discs, and the like, Rodriguez has raked in a lot more. And thanks to both From Dusk Till Dawn and The Faculty, he’s probably at least partly responsible for the boom in horror flicks, particularly those of the teen variety, which have been worth about a billion dollars to Hollywood. In the coming years he might, directly or indirectly, pump more money into the economy than a retired Michael Jordan. Bottom line: Sign him up forever.

Disney is hoping Anderson and Wilson, who are both thirty, turn out as well. Rushmore, a quirky comedy shot in Houston, couldn’t have looked good on paper—certainly not any better than Bottle Rocket, a $5 million investment that earned back only $560,000. Why would anyone have wanted to work with these guys again? “I guess what the studios bet on is that they’ll have people who do original stuff,” Wilson says. “Every once in a while maybe they’re going to come up with a Fargo.”

The real answer may have more to do with the self-effacing charm of Anderson and the growing recognition of his talent and Wilson’s from the likes of veteran producer James L. Brooks; comedian Bill Murray, who did a star turn in Rushmore; and scads of film critics who proclaimed it one of the best films of 1998. Disney is banking on the prospect that Anderson and Wilson will ultimately be hot comic properties, but after only getting a little ahead on Rushmore, which cost $10 million, and getting snubbed by the Oscars, that day has not yet arrived. As it happens, Wilson might hit bigger solo on the forthcoming comedy Making Amends, which he is co-writing with Larry Sanders vet Judd Apatow. Anderson, meanwhile, is continuing to make movies, alone and with his pal, but at a slow, steady pace. “He’ll keep making the movie the boss,” says Brooks. Since that means talented people will want to work with him regardless of his mainstream street cred, you never know where it’ll lead. Bottom line: Wilson and Anderson will get a few more shots.

Strangely, the 38-year-old Linklater—one of independent film’s pioneers—is in something of a holding pattern. Once viewed as the voice of his generation, he is now smarting over losses on his last two pictures. His 1991 debut, Slacker—a prototypical low-budget, high-concept flick whose title coined a phrase and whose plotless plot style has been repeatedly copied ever since—cost $23,000 and grossed $1.2 million. His follow-up, the $6 million period piece Dazed and Confused, grossed $8 million, but its impact was greater: It gave seventies nostalgia a new respectability and helped launch the careers of Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, and Parker Posey. The metaphysical ruminations of Before Sunrise produced Linklater’s biggest hit: That $2.7 million Generation X love story grossed $25 million. But then things went awry. He grossed just $600,000 on subUrbia, which cost $2.5 million. And remember The Newton Boys? The director would probably prefer that you didn’t. According to Variety, it was one of 1998’s biggest losers, earning back only $10 million on a $27 million budget. Not that we should count Linklater out just yet. “People don’t live or die on one film,” says Variety reporter and box-office analyst Leonard Klady. Indeed, Linklater is quietly developing two new films, and he is, after all, a proven money maker. But can he get back on track before another young filmmaker from Texas pushes him aside? Bottom line: To paraphrase McConaughey’s character in Dazed: It would be a lot cooler if he did.

Related Content