The Austin Chronicle

An Entertaining Thought

Can Chamber Task Force Sell Our City?

By Amy Smith, June 21, 1996, Screens

How that the big wigs downtown recognize entertainment as a legitimate growth industry, what's the next step? "We don't know," is the response from Darrell Glasco, vice president of economic development at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. "We're on a big learning curve here. Right now we're at step one."As a volunteer business organization and community booster, the Chamber's gig has always been to promote Austin's entertainment virtues, not to understand what makes the industry tick. But today's Chamber movers -- younger and maybe a little hipper than past leaders -- have endeavored to hunker down and help the entertainment scene reach new economic heights. Of course, this is stuff that's all been said before. Only this time, we are told, they really, really mean it. "Entertainment has never been defined economically here in Austin," Glasco says. "That's what we're going to try to do. We're asking ourselves, `What role can we play in this?' We don't want to duplicate other efforts that weren't successful in helping the industry grow." The first order of business is to study the local multimedia market; multimedia because, one, it embraces such a wide range of components that contribute to entertainment, and two, because the industry is easier to track than, say, a scriptwriter holed up at home. "No one has really taken the time to go out and see how much of the multimedia industry is really here," Glasco says. "So that's where we're going to get our feet wet. Our focus in general is on the entrepreneurial side of the business. We're going to look at what's in our backyard and then go from there."

Glasco is acting as the business liaison to the Chamber's Entertainment Industry Task Force, a loosely knit group of Chamber and non-Chamber types who represent film/television, music, multimedia, the arts, financial institutions and support services. Dwight Adair, chief operating officer of Granite House Inc., an Austin film production company, chairs the bunch. The group evolved last year out of another Chamber task force that focused specifically on the music industry. The latter, Glasco asserts, lacked focus. "It was a learning experience for the Chamber, realizing not everyone in the music business got along." Uh, oh. Now there's an even larger, more disparate group of folks coming to the table with their own agendas. There was even a push at one recent meeting to change the group's name to something more Information-Age-chic, or whatever. In other words, the group's broader-based purpose and identity still hasn't quite jelled.

For whatever it's worth, a set of lead players has emerged alongside Adair and Glasco. They include: Fred Schmidt, a multimedia consultant and former vice president of business development and general manager of Origin Systems Inc.; Ellen Wartella, dean of the College of Communication at the University of Texas; Pebbles Wadsworth, director of UT's Performing Arts Center; bassist/singer Ernie Gammage; and Tom Hopkins, who oversees the software business segment at KPMG Peat Marwick. Hopkins, by the way, is putting together a big conference slated for this fall called ICE -- Information, Communications and Entertainment -- which could further validate entertainment's role in the local economy.

Adair points out that the Chamber's involvement in the overall entertainment business got its kick-start last year when a group of locals made its first marketing trip to the West Coast to meet with film industry reps and the like, which is something the Chamber does routinely with other business segments, like high-tech. The mindset is that, unless Austin has the necessary framework -- the soundstages, recording studios, agents, friendly investors and what have you -- the city will never gain world-class status as an entertainment mecca.

Still, how much good can come from a Chamber-led task force? Without a healthy budget and city government support, probably not much, says Tom Copeland, director of the Texas Film Commission. "Meetings are great, but the thing that's missing here is a commitment by the city. There needs to be somebody who steps in and says, `We're going to fund this and we're going to run with this.'" The worst thing Austin can do for itself is grow complacent with its filmaking popularity, Copeland warns. Austin lags behind Dallas, Houston, San Antonio -- even El Paso -- in funding local film commissions. The San Antonio film office, for example, boasts an operating budget of roughly $300,000. How much does Austin have to play with? "Oh, about $6,000," says the city's film liaison, Gary Bond, of the amount left over after salaries and benefits for two full-time staffers, which include Bond and music liaison Bob Meyer, and one part-time employee. Bond and Meyer will be seeking at least a $33,000 increase for the next budget year. "We need funding not so much for promotions but for year-round services to the film industry," Bond says. When a film crew is in town, service is the most important function a city can provide." When compared to other cities, it's likely Austin will never come close to matching San Antonio's hefty film budget, unless the city revamps its hotel bed-tax structure. San Antonio's convention and tourism division (which includes the film office) reaps all the benefits of bed taxes, while Austin's convention and visitors bureau (under which the film and music offices also exist) gets only a portion of the bed-tax pie divvied up among several local entities.

It should be noted that the Chamber isn't dipping its toes into entertainment for the sheer excitement of it. Lord knows they've had plenty of opportunities before now. Rather, the effort is a strategic move to diversify the city's economic base, particularly now that Austin has properly matured into a global center for microchip production. Even with the newest crown jewel -- Samsung Electronics Co. -- turning dirt on a $1.3 billion plant in Northeast Austin, business forecasters warn against an over-dependence on high-tech, given the cyclical nature of the business. "The entertainment industry here has been a quiet giant, and the Chamber is starting to wake up to its existence," Adair observes cheerfully.

Actually, musician Gammage is given a large measure of credit for pushing the Chamber into action as early as 1983, which led to the formation of the Austin Music Advisory Committee a year later. Gammage, then with a band called Plum Nelly, was in the men's room at the defunct Castle Creek on Lavaca when he overheard two Nashville music kingpins chatting up Austin's music scene. Then they ticked off the reasons the scene wasn't going anywhere -- no recording studios, no booking agencies, no publicity enterprises, etc. At the time, the city's tourism heads were putting out poor excuses for music brochures. "They were still promoting shit that was going on in the Seventies, and most of the bands they listed weren't even around anymore," Gammage recalls. Finally, he says, he found a willing participant in convention and tourism booster David Lord, who convinced former Chamber president (and ex-mayor) Lee Cook to begin lending to the business group's efforts to building the local music industry. Gammage acknowledges Austin is still lacking the infrastructure to build a bona fide music industry, but he doesn't blame the Chamber for that. "You ask 10 people in the music business what the Chamber should do for the industry and you're going to get 10 different answers," he says.

Nevertheless, Austin has bragging rights to many success stories that weren't wrought by the Chamber's hand -- look at Austin City Limits. Also, entrepreneurial wunderkind Doug Foreman managed to get Ranch Studios, a movie soundstage outfit, up and running on his own. Adair, meanwhile, hasn't given up on his own well-publicized efforts to raise capital for a movie soundstage. While he and Foreman profess to like one another personally, they acknowledge their differences on how a soundstage project should come together. Adair thinks Foreman's 12,000 square-foot studio, formerly a boot-scootin' dance hall in Capital Plaza, is too small by Hollywood standards, which run in the neighborhood of about 15,000 square feet. "His plan was `Let's start crawling before we run.' My concern is whether or not a facility of that size is enough of a first step," Adair says, adding he intends to use Foreman's facility, nonetheless.

On the other hand, Foreman thinks Adair's plan to build a complex containing three soundstages and offices is unrealistic for a budding film town like Austin. "They (Adair and Granite House) were talking about an investment of $15 million, and I thought that was too big of a risk, economically. Our capital investment is a lot less than that. We're trying to be a catalyst to attract more business to the area. I'd welcome Dwight's soundstage and anyone else's. It doesn't make sense to think we're going to corner the market on soundstages."

Foreman, who created Guiltless Gourmet Inc., and then made a killing when he sold it for $15 million, isn't real big on Chamber-led task forces and studies. But then, what would a millionaire need with a chamber of commerce anyway? "A lot of things have been done without the Chamber," he says. "That doesn't mean it can't be done with them. It won't hurt. But when it comes to trying to organize people and doing studies until, gee whiz, it's time to do another study -- I can't sit for that. I go with intuition. Then I pick up the phone."

Can the Chamber's task force succeed in promoting the entertainment industry in a manner that -- as the group's mission statement declares -- benefits local businesses and citizens? We're not sure. By most accounts, the group's members are trying to do what the Texas Film Commission and the Texas Music Office have done on the state level, only their reach seems to have exceeded their grasp. But with nothing budgeted to ensure the success of the task force, at least the Chamber isn't losing any money. n

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