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FROM THE ARCHIVES: ‘Hope’ abounds in Smithville

Ann Hornaday
A bill board welcoming visitor's to Smithville reminds everyone about the movie Hope Floats, which was filmed there. 4/8/13 Nell Caroll/American-Statesman

Editor’s note: This story originally ran on July 15, 1997.

On a recent Saturday in Smithville, director Forest Whitaker, his head wrapped in a blue bandanna against the noonday heat, peered into a video monitor.

Whitaker, who is directing his second feature film, “Hope Floats,” watched Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr. walk down the street in a scene in which Connick's character asks Bullock's out on a date.

Smithville's tidy Main Street had been doused with water, giving it a dark sheen in the white- hot light. Bullock, dressed in a yellow shift and carrying a metal lunchbox, lightly fingered some dresses outside the Family Dollar as she weighed Connick's entreaty.

A block away, Lou Rose watched the proceedings with a grin of satisfaction -- not just because Bullock and Connick presented such a comely couple, but because Rose, who owns the Century House antique shop, has made about $1,400 since the “Hope Floats” production arrived in Smithville in April. 

“They bought a chest of drawers and rented a washstand and coffee pot, and bought over $1,000 worth of linens, glasses, tableware and dish towels,” Rose said. “Plus they've bought things personally. Sandra bought a porcelain flower bin and a green organdy tablecloth.”

Farther up Main Street, Adolph Ryza, who owns the Western Auto store, watched as Whitaker asked his actors for another take. The director had set up his camera just inches from Western Auto's front door, effectively obliterating a crucial Saturday of business for Ryza, who remained philosophical, if not exactly as thrilled as his colleague down the street. 

“It's knocked my business in the head, but we negotiated some compensation,” Ryza said. “It's nothing big, but I figured a sum that would make up for what I lost in business for the day.”

PART OF AN INDUSTRY BOOM 

The film industry in Texas has experienced a virtually uninterrupted growth spurt the past several years, and not just in film centers like Austin and Dallas. Small towns like Bastrop (”Courage Under Fire,” “Home Fries”) and Bartlett (”The Stars Fell on Henrietta,” “The Whole Wide World,”`”The Newton Boys”) have proven quite popular as locations. 

Until now Smithville (pop. 3,491), a railroad terminus an hour's drive southeast of Austin, hasn't had an opportunity to partake of the financial pie. But by the time “Hope Floats” leaves town later this month, city leaders estimate the production will have generated at least $1 million in direct and indirect business. There is also a more incalculable value: that of having millions of moviegoers see a picturesque slice of your small town and possibly decide to visit. 

In that regard, Smithville is taking its lead from other towns that have seen their tourism business boosted by the movies that filmed in them. More than 300,000 tourists, for example, have trooped to Dyersville, Iowa, since “A Field of Dreams'' was shot there. Movies such as “Deliverance,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “A River Runs Through It,” and most recently “A Time to Kill,” have attracted tourists to the locations where they were filmed. 

With its resuscitated historic district, attractive neighborhoods and quiet charm, Smithville seems ideally poised for its new identity. 

“We're trying to position ourselves so that the next time a movie films in Central Texas, they'll come to Smithville,” said Smithville Mayor Vernon Richards. 

It's more than tourism dollars that motivates Richards to tout Smithville as a movie location; it's the money that accrues in real time to the local businesses and residents who are selling goods and services or renting buildings to the production. 

Consider Robert Remlinger, who owns the Back Door Cafe. Remlinger, who moved to Smithville three years ago after being the executive chef at the Metropolitan Club in Austin, has been providing meals at $7.50 a person to Whitaker and about 15 other cast and crew members every day while they watch dailies (the film that was shot the day before). 

Remlinger also was hired to cook for four days at the beginning of the shoot, to the tune of $150 a day. Then there are the folks, either production people or onlookers from out of town, who wander in to the Back Door for lunch. 

“Normally I have about 30 people in here for lunch,” said Remlinger, who also has been renting a room in his house to a set dresser for $60 a week. “When I get 10 people extra, that's a shot in the arm.”

SIGNS OF GOOD BUSINESS 

Or take the case of Greg Jones, a muralist (Austin's Kerbey Lane Cafe and Chuy's are clients). Jones has been painting signs for the production, from the window lettering of “Honey's Diner” to huge “ghost signs” that art director Christa Munro designed to resemble old, faded wall signs. Jones estimates that he works on “Hope Floats” projects between three and five days a week, during which he makes $250 a day. 

“That's usually what I make professionally,” he said “But in that situation 50 percent goes to overhead. This is clean money: No driving around, no talking to the customer, no getting supplies or preparing boards.”

Jones said the added business hasn't made a huge financial difference for him, “but it has expanded my career horizons. I'm a member of the (International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees Local 484) union now.”

Other Smithville businesses, including a lumberyard, stationery shop, gas station and the Family Dollar itself, have made up to $15,000 above their usual take since filming began in April. A cleaning woman has made an extra $100 a week cleaning production offices; the local barber, who gives coveted hot towel shaves, has seen his traffic increase. 

Dixie Stuart, a florist with Marrs-Dean Florists, helped arrange flowers for a recent funeral scene that cost $1,000, and she estimates that the “Hope Floats” cast and crew have spent about $750 on birthday arrangements and other floral odds and ends. 

“They're good business, and they're so easy to work for,”  she said. “They're easy to please. You wouldn't think they would be, but they are.”

More than half a dozen homes and buildings have been leased to the production, including Jimmy and Tylene Trousdale's home, which has a starring role in “Hope Floats.” The eccentric-looking mansion overlooking the Colorado River is where Bullock's character returns to her mother, played by Gena Rowlands. Rather than receive the customary weekly fee that homeowners usually get from movie companies, the Trousdales are getting thousands of dollars' worth of renovations to the 1915 house. 

“Basically, nothing had been done to the house since the 1970s,'' Tylene Trousdale said. ``The carpet, the green and gold paint colors, the paneling -- it all had a '70s look about it.'' 

The movie crew will leave the Trousdales with hardwood floors, papered walls, cream-painted kitchen cabinets and new drywall on the ceiling. 

In addition, the production is paying the Trousdales' rent and storage fees while they lease a small cabin near Flatonia. 

NOT ALL SWEETNESS AND LIGHT 

If the Trousdales are benefiting from all the ruckus, a recent visit to their neatly kept neighborhood -- which has been turned upside down by the production the past three months -- uncovered some frayed nerves. 

Not wanting to come off like spoilsports, the Trousdales' neighbors declined to go on the record, but they clearly were ready to bid the “Hope Floats” people a fond -- but firm -- farewell. 

“It's been like a circus around here,'' said one resident, who recounted late nights of bright lights and noisy trucks, and strangers constantly cutting through his lawn. “I moved here because it was quiet and a good place to raise kids. I'm ready for it to be over.”

Inevitably, there has been resentment on the part of people who have not benefited directly from the “Hope Floats” windfall. 

“We won't sell a riding mower or a washing machine or a set of tires to curiosity seekers,” said Ryza of Western Auto. 

Still, Ryza might find that someone who has made money off the production decides to splurge on a new mower, and that's where something called the multiplier effect kicks in. A rule of thumb is that for every $1 a production spends on location, $3 are spent as a result, whether as capital investment or disposable income. 

Remlinger provides a classic example: “Now Greg Jones is able to come in and eat here more often,” he said, “and I can afford to hire his stepdaughter to help out.” (Remlinger also said he has treated himself to a new pair of Birkenstocks, but that's where the profligacy stops.) 

This is why, Richards said, “the Visitors Bureau worked for years to get a movie in Smithville.” Ten years ago, the city embarked on a program to rehabilitate its historic district. 

“Everything you see today is a result of those planning efforts,”  said Smithville City Manager Bob Miller. “The old-fashioned streetlights, the sidewalks. Half of Main Street then was vacant -- now all the stores are occupied. It's one of the few small towns that has not had all its commercial business flee to a strip center on the highway.” 

The development plan has paid off: When “Hope Floats” producer Lynda Obst was scouting locations, Smithville was her first choice. 

“It's a wildly integrated town, which works so well for our movie,” she said. 

Obst said she realized Hollywood had made incursions on Smithville culture when “Hope Floats” filmed at the local elementary school. 

“On a blackboard in one of the classrooms there was a list of ‘Things to Do in Smithville in May,’” she recalled. “First on the list was ‘Take a walk with your parents to look at the birds.’ No. 2 was ‘Invite a movie crew to your house.’”