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Austin film industry needs incubator to thrive, leaders say

Film festival, projects attract talented artists, but how do we get them to stay?

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

The days of doing video production work in exchange for a free gym membership and thus a place to shower will seem like a lifetime ago for local filmmaker Eric Hueber when he attends tonight 's world premiere of his movie "Rainbows End" at the 17th annual Austin Film Festival.

Hueber, 36, spent six years working on the experimental narrative, which tells the story of East Texas friends who follow their individual dreams to California. During that time , the Stephen F. Austin University graduate and his producing partner, Andy Cope, moved to Austin from Nacogdoches, where they established a roster of advertising clients with their Alonestar Films.

While he continues to make commercials and take freelance production jobs, Hueber is at work on his next film and has multiple ideas percolating for future productions.

But Austin Film Festival director Barbara Morgan worries that without a more cohesive infrastructure in place to cultivate and nurture promising filmmakers like Hueber, Austin could see many of its bright talents leave the state for other opportunities.

"There's only so many of those people who can go and create their own business to do it, just so they can stay in it," she said.

For every Richard Linklater or Robert Rodriguez — local filmmakers who have found a way to thrive outside of Hollywood — there are talented artists like Mark and Jay Duplass, Margaret Brown and Kyle Henry who have left Austin to advance their careers after getting national attention.

The bolstering of state film incentives has been an integral piece in drawing outside production interest to Texas, but Morgan said Austin needs to focus on actually creating its own industry as opposed to simply hoping to get major Hollywood films shot here by outsiders.

"An industry isn't just people coming to shoot movies here and leave. An industry by nature is keeping (the work) here. The product has to be coming out of this place," Morgan said recently at her office in East Austin. "And that product in the case of film is the writer-director and the creative group that is the birth of the film."

The University of Texas — with its Michener Center for Writers and its radio-television-film department — and a host of other film programs across the city (including the Austin Film Society, the Austin Film Festival, the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival and the City of Austin's Cultural Arts Division) have helped attract a large amount of writing and production talent to Austin. But Morgan thinks the city lacks a unified structure.

"I think we need to be acknowledging that we have the pieces for it here. I feel like what's happened is that we have all of these different pockets, but they're not connected," Morgan said. "I think first people have to acknowledge that all of those pockets are leading to something, and it would be a heck of a lot easier if those little bubbles were working together to create a bigger bubble."

Morgan said she would like to see a development incubator that could help identify good local talent and provide these people with resources to produce their films here. Beyond requiring a guiding hand in the form of experienced mentors, such a program would depend on a financial investment to help fund productions and offer filmmakers income opportunities.

Other creative Austin industries have also struggled with how to come up with a better business model to protect and encourage artists. A group of promoters, club owners, musicians and others recently launched Austin Music People , a nonprofit lobbying group.

But the Austin film industry is at a far more critical juncture than music, especially with incentives possibly facing renewed debate in January, local movie leaders say.

Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League, who co-founded Fantastic Fest, also believes in an incubator idea, but he envisions a smaller-scale enterprise. Acknowledging that the idea of trying to create a "Hollywood Southwest" in Texas is unrealistic in scope, League said he would like to see a collective space — possibly through the 20-acre Austin Studios at the old Mueller Airport or the former Seaholm Power Plant, which is being redeveloped — where creative groups can have room to work.

The space could be partially underwritten by the city and have a rental rate and function as a semicommercial venture that is funded privately and publicly, League said.

As opposed to large, feature-length productions requiring dozens of staff members, League said, the space could be home to advertising, marketing and Web design work that could offer creatives the opportunity to do semiprofessional work that could lead to more small paychecks and the chance to work on passion projects, much the way Hueber and Cope financed "Rainbows End."

Without a proper infrastructure in place to offer regular work, League said, there will be no bridge to getting proper production facilities here, making it harder for Austin to build a self-sustaining film and television industry and draw and retain talent.

"You do it by showing the real success out of other economies" such as music and technology, League said. "It's an investment. Money has to be spent if we want to remain competitive.

"We had the business, but we lost it because we didn't stay competitive. An interesting example is (director) Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth"). He wanted to stay in Austin, but he wasn't at a state in his career that he could work here. If it was a more filmmaking-friendly town, we could have had Guillermo Del Toro here."

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said the city is "working on a variety of efforts to help support the local film industry," including possible greater local film incentives and support for a creative industry incubator.

"I am very interested to continue discussions on the different options to develop a creative industry incubator. It seems that an incubator would have to be a public/private partnership for it to become a reality," he said. "For Austin to play a leading role in the film industry, we have to find more innovative ways to support and promote our local talent."

One local filmmaker who has found a way to remain in Austin is David Modigliani. The director of the documentary "Crawford" co-founded Flow Nonfiction, a company that creates and produces short documentaries for nonprofit and corporate clients.

"I have experienced over the past year that branded content, particularly short-form work, is a way to make a living while simultaneously working on longer-term projects," Modigliani said. "As Austin's economy grows, we as filmmakers need to convince these companies to keep their money here, investing in local filmmakers for branded content."

Morgan said, however, that with a limited corporate culture and finite resources, there is not room for everyone to take the route of a Modigliani or a Hueber.

"It is a for-hire industry for the most part," she said. "That's why the indie guys — the guys who are making their own stuff — actually have a little bit of a leg up if they can start having an outlet for their material, which is tough, too."

Of course, the hopes for the growth process — whereby smaller production work builds a vast pool of talent, which eventually leads to greater financial investment and more local feature productions — will probably hinge greatly on the state incentives.

Although the $62 million in incentives for film, television and video game production approved by legislators since 2007 (including the $40 million infusion in 2009) has led to an influx in production work in the state, early budget projections for 2011 include a shortfall as high as $21 billion.

In September, the governor's office proposed $9 million in cuts in film and TV incentives for the 2011 state budget, which will be debated at the legislative session starting in January. Any drastic cuts would strike a significant blow to the film scene — not just in Austin but the entire state.

"That really has to be the core for anything substantial to happen," League said of continuing the incentives.

In the meantime, Hueber and Cope continue to diversify in search of ways to generate income, as they work with their own clients, produce material for advertising agencies and take freelance production jobs.

"I don't have any intention to move," said Hueber, an East Texas native. "I like Texas. Most of the stories I've written, like 'Rainbows End,' occur in Texas. I'm really just in love with the South, in love with the people here. I don't want to make movies about people from New York or L.A. I want to make movies about people from Texas."

modam@statesman.com