Arts + Labor makes a home at the intersection of art and commerce
Alan Berg moves through the halls of Arts + Labor like the proud and affable director of a cutting-edge science laboratory, rapping on office doors that open to reveal creative types working on their latest projects.
Here is the award-winning writer-director Kat Candler polishing a screenplay. Further down the hall finds Joe Nicolosi, a filmmaker whose humorous short films recently received massive buzz at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival. Ensconced in the sound-proof room adjacent to Nicolosi sits sound designer and composer Eric Friend, busy editing the new "Beavis and Butt-Head."
The tour continues with brief stops at each of the offices that comprise the outer ring of Arts + Labor on the second floor of a modern building in the Midtown Commons in Central Austin. A casting agent listens as a young actress reads for a commercial. A group of 3-D animators offers a glimpse into the future with a project that boggles the mind and escapes easy description from a layman. In almost every crevice that can hold a laptop or chair, people engage in creative endeavors.
While all of these people work at the Arts + Labor building, none is an employee of Arts + Labor. The 20 people rent spaces that provide autonomy and a chance to work on a for-hire basis as part of the creative team at the 12-person production company Berg and his wife, Kristin Johansen-Berg, started in 2004.
"We want creative people around us that are working in film because that's what makes this place special," Berg said. "There's a lot of talent around here that's interacting, and there are things that come out of that. And you can't flowchart it or Excel spreadsheet it. It just sort of happens because people with different experiences and backgrounds get together and start talking."
Berg spent the first 15 years of his career as a political reporter and investigative journalist on TV. The bulk of that time was spent as Austin bureau chief for Dallas station WFAA. While at WFAA, Berg, whose northeast Texas roots are evidenced in a drawled twang that could lead one to mistake him as a relative of Luke and Owen Wilson, directed and produced a half-hour documentary about SXSW. That project would lay the groundwork for a 16-year relationship with the festival that eventually led to this year's Arts + Labor-produced feature-length documentary, "Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW."
As local TV news stations began to slash their budgets and their audiences moved to cable, Berg realized he did not have the time or the money to engage in the type of long-form journalism he enjoyed. The shift in the industry left him unfulfilled and looking for a new avenue for storytelling.
Berg left WFAA in 2000 and produced and directed "Addicted," an hour-long documentary about the fallout of the Plano heroin epidemic. The film received positive reviews and won an award at the Deep Elum Film Festival, but it didn't attract much financial support. However, the film did draw the attention of corporate clients who began to hire Berg to produce videos for them.
Quickly outgrowing the home office he shared with his wife, Berg moved to a building on Burnet Road in 2005. He sublet space to potential collaborators and those who he knew needed a place to work. But it wasn't until movie producer Jason Wehling, a former PBS employee, came on board in 2006 that the idea for Arts + Labor became more cohesive.
Wehling wanted to build a home for independent film in Austin and in Berg found a kindred spirit who shared his desire while realizing the need to bring in paid work on a consistent basis. The two men put together a group of creative talent that could offer freelance services to Arts + Labor on their corporate videos, while giving the filmmakers, including Berg and Wehling, a place to work and collaborate.
"Sometimes in the independent film world there's some preciousness that gets involved in people's dreams," Wehling said. "Alan is an artist but also a business man. He understands that sometimes you set aside your personal dreams and do what makes the most sense. And he seems to do that every step of the way. And I think that's reflected in Arts + Labor. You could just go do these corporate videos all day long — and they're fun and they're good projects and you can do really well at it — but he's choosing to do something more at the same time."
As the client list grew, Berg made University of Texas grad Yuta Yamaguchi Arts + Labor's first full-time employee in 2008. Craig Parks, a longtime Berg collaborator with an extensive background in corporate and marketing communications, joined the firm as a partner the following year.
"He and I just completely aligned with the way we were thinking," Parks said. "I'm not the guy with the huge idea. But if you tell me what the idea is, I love to go help build something. We are very different in our skills and capabilities. He's a visionary. I knew where his vision was and I knew I could help him grow this company."
Arts + Labor now has a dozen full-time employees that work on the paid corporate projects, while gaining valuable experience on other projects. Long-time writing partners Erik Horn, who co-founded video collective Super! Alright!, and former Alamo Drafthouse programming manager Brad Parrett serve as creative directors. Horn and Parrett dismiss the idea that their work for corporate clients restricts their creativity and say they attempt to bring a vision to every project.
"I want to create a lot more branded content that is just pure, creative entertaining content that just happens to be paid for by a brand. I think that's where it's all moving," Horn said.
The branded content work Arts + Labor did enabled them to do more independent filmmaking. In addition to "Outside Industry," Berg directed the 2006 documentary "A Place to Dance" under the Arts + Labor umbrella, and the group recently wrapped filming on their first two narrative features — Chris Eska's "September Morning," a follow-up to his award-winning "August Evening," and Spencer Parsons' "There's No Such Thing As Ghosts," a satiric horror film.
Berg recognizes the difficulty in making profits in independent film, but says if he were primarily concerned about his finances he would invest his money in real estate.
"I'm gonna empower filmmakers. We believe that if we enable artists to fully realize their vision that something will come out of that," Berg said. "One of the reasons we decided to start funding stuff - there are a lot of people with bad ideas who are not filmmakers... Spend 20 minutes with Jason and Chris; you realize that the level at which they're talking film is a whole different parallel universe."
When Arts + Labor begins a new project, Berg and his team decide what their needs are and who is available from their roster of in-house collaborators and then determine the best match for each individual project. Berg says the process benefits Arts + Labor, the independent contractors and the clients, as the corporate clients have access to quality artists while the filmmakers can earn a wage when they're not working on their own projects.
"It is much easier to get help from someone down the hall than driving across town," said Friend, whose work on the new "Beavis and Butt-head" can be heard when the TV show airs this summer on MTV. "File sharing is easy, and so is communication. Walking down the hall and talking to your client is much more efficient than email."
Prospective tenants should take note, however, that a rental space at Arts + Labor will not lead to a permanent stream of steady work. The benefit, Berg says, comes from the opportunity to share creative space with so much talent while putting yourself in position to be part of Arts+ Labor's corporate work as well as the host of independent projects that arise. Wehling finds the proximity to the wide array of creative talent inspiring and motivating.
"Creatively it's a benefit because we all share creative brain power," Wehling said. "Inspirationally it's a benefit just to have someone next to you working all the time because sometimes it's hard to get up and go when you don't know if you're going to get paid on this project or not. But when we're all doing it kind of becomes like a force and you have to do it."