Studio City

Can plans for an Austin soundstage put Texas' film industry back in the spotlight?

April 2000By Comments

A THUNDERSTORM WAS ABOUT TO ROLL into Austin, and Rebecca Campbell, the executive director of the Austin Film Society, braved strong winds to show me around the now vacated Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. Campbell is part of a growing movement in the local film industry that wants to turn the facilities there into a movie studio. Where there are empty hangars, she sees soundstages. Where there’s a two-story building, she sees production offices and interior sets. Pointing out twenty or so burned-out cars that will be used in a demolition derby scene for Stewart, a film produced by Richard Linklater that’s currently being shot there, she asks enthusiastically, “It has that back-lot feel to it, doesn’t it?”

If the Austin City Council can work out the details with Campbell and her allies, the old airport could provide a welcome boost to Texas’ film industry, which has sagged over the past few years. Last year was the industry’s worst since 1993, bringing in only $194.5 million, down from a peak of $330.4 million in 1995. The number of projects has also dwindled, last year hitting the lowest level since 1992; only 32 projects were scheduled, versus a high of 57 in 1996. Those numbers translate directly into a loss of jobs in the state. “A number of people are out of work,” says Tom Copeland, the director of the Texas Film Commission.

So what happened to the film business in Texas, which was booming just a few years ago? The bottom line is higher costs. Austin gained fame as a cheap place to make movies after Linklater filmed 1991’s low-budget flick Slacker there, and its reputation as the Third Coast grew as filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez (who directed El Mariachi and From Dusk Till Dawn) set up shop and celebrities like Sandra Bullock moved in. Now the city is busting at the seams with technology and dot-com companies, making locations and cheap office space for crews hard to come by. As a result, filmmakers are looking elsewhere, particularly to Canada, whose financial incentives, cheap locations, and low-cost labor can cut a budget by at least 25 percent. “We’re losing a lot of projects to Canada,” says Roger Burke, the executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission. “It’s not a seller’s market anymore.”

The most stunning loss was Miramax’s Texas Rangers, a movie about the famed law enforcement agency starring James Van Der Beek that was scheduled to film in the state last year. Copeland says he was waiting to show the movie’s producers several potential locations when he got a phone call at home from one of them, who was in Calgary. “We’re not leaving Canada” is what he remembers the producer saying. The reason? “The weather [in Texas] was too hot, and we later discovered that the residuals paid to the unions were less in Canada,” Copeland says. In the end, Texas lost out, and the film was shot entirely in Canada.

Indeed, the growing presence of unions has also raised the price tag for shooting pictures here. Though Texas is a right-to-work state, unions have been pressuring film crews to join their ranks in return for union wages, health insurance, and retirement plans and demanding that movie producers pay them residuals, or a percentage of ticket sales. In February of last year, the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees went so far as to picket Bull Fighter, produced by Dallas native L. M. Kit Carson and his wife, Cynthia Hargrave, and filmed in Del Rio and Brackettville. The strike disrupted shooting for four hours, costing the production company tens of thousands of dollars. The filmmakers agreed to let their workers sign up, but as a result of the costs, they had to cut down on each crew member’s per diem and overtime to stay within their $3 million budget. “We really enjoyed working there, but we wouldn’t go back just to go back,” says Hargrave. “Why should we?”

Doug Foreman feels burned by his entry into the film business for another reason. After selling his Austin snack-food company, Guiltless Gourmet, in 1994, he converted an old movie theater on Cameron Road into a soundstage called Ranch Studios. He had some initial success: 1998’s Hope Floats, directed by Longview native Forest Whitaker and starring Sandra Bullock, shot its opening scene there, in which Bullock’s character learns on a Jerry Springer-like talk show that her best friend is sleeping with her husband. But after that, business dried up, and Foreman had to throw in the towel. He got out of his lease-to-buy agreement and eventually returned to the food business. He figures he lost more than a million dollars on his moviemaking venture. “I would have had more fun if I had bought a fifty-foot boat, put a million dollars on deck, poured lighter fluid on it, floated it out into the middle of Lake Travis, and then watched it blow up,” he says.

The rough times for the industry have not gone unnoticed by the political establishment. Last year Representative Norma Chavez, a Democrat from El Paso, proposed a bill that would have expanded tax breaks on equipment rentals used in films made in the state, and Representative Bob Hunter, a Republican from Abilene, sponsored a bill that would guarantee loans made by Texas banks to independent productions that spend 80 percent of their budget in the state. Chavez’s bill failed, but Hunter’s was signed into law. Copeland would like to see the state offer more tax breaks on transportation and office equipment and allow breaks on shorter hotel stays (most TV movies shoot for only eighteen to twenty days, he says). “Even if you did that, it would just be a drop in the bucket,” he says. “Everybody is going to have to give a little — the cities, the state, and the federal government — if they want filmmakers to stay.” Copeland would also rather attract small-budget pictures and made-for-TV movies as opposed to high-profile productions like Armageddon, Any Given Sunday, and Courage Under Fire. Why? Many of the big-budget movies bring in most of their own crews, while smaller filmmakers tend to use Texas talent. “We’d rather have ten $10 million movies than one $100 million movie,” he says. “We need to keep crews working.”

Keeping the crews working is one reason why the idea of turning public property like the former Austin airport into filmmaking centers may spread. There was talk about converting a naval air station in the Metroplex into a film studio, for example. Dallas already has plenty of facilities for filmmakers, though; it’s a center for commercials and made-for-TV movies but right now there’s not enough demand to keep them all busy. Many film boosters had high hopes for the Studios at Las Colinas. Constructed in 1982 by real estate developer Trammell Crow, who envisioned a bustling film studio and office complex, Las Colinas has been tapped by movie producers to film Silkwood, Robocop, and JFK over the years. Yet it hasn’t been able to attract a lot of business since it became the home of the popular PBS show Barney and Friends, partly because the six-foot-tall purple dinosaur has taken up so much of the production schedule. It also hasn’t helped that the complex has been through several owners — the most recent being Chris Christian, who bought the complex in 1992 and has turned it into what is mostly an entertainment and tourist venue.

As with all industries, of course, bad times come and go, and over the past nine months, business has picked up a bit. Dr. T and the Women, a Robert Altman film starring Richard Gere, Farrah Fawcett, and Helen Hunt, just wrapped up filming in Dallas. So did Twentieth Century Fox’s Where the Heart Is, starring Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd, which was filmed in Waco and the Austin area. Waking Life, which was shot around Texas last year by Richard Linklater’s Austin-based film company, Detour Filmproduction, is now in the editing process and is expected to be released this summer. And at least five upcoming feature films have a Texas connection: Stewart, a picture with Linklater and Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-head) as executive producers; Miss Congeniality, whose star, Sandra Bullock, is also serving as producer; Wakin’ Up in Reno, starring Billy Bob Thornton and Houston native Patrick Swayze, which despite its title was shot partly in Amarillo; and Spy Kids, a children’s action and adventure film being directed by Robert Rodriguez and produced by his wife and business partner, Elizabeth Avellán.

Indeed, if it weren’t for filmmakers such as Linklater, Judge, and Rodriguez, who are committed to doing their projects in Texas, and movie stars like Bullock and Matthew McConaughey, who both have homes in Austin, the state’s film business would be worse off. Even they are struggling to find cheap locations in which to shoot their pictures, however. “If not for the Austin airport, Stewart would have been difficult for them, because it provided available office and warehouse space,” Copeland says. But it may take more than an airport turned movie studio to jump-start Texas’ film business.

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