Austin Studios Takes Flight
How Mueller Airport Became the Site of the City's Biggest Film Boost
It's the kind of serendipity you don't stumble across much in the real world these days, neatly encased in a Hollywood dream-factory sheen of its very own: A city council suddenly finds itself with 700 acres of prime real estate when an old airport closes and a new one opens on the other side of town. Coincidentally, the city's a hotbed of filmmaking, with more than its share of top-notch professionals in town and a lengthy slate of big-budget local and out-of-town productions vying for shooting space.
This being a tech-boom kind of town, real estate of any sort -- residential, commercial, or otherwise -- is virtual gold. There's so little space available that film productions are struggling to find indoor shooting locales and staging areas. The Hill Country has plenty of room for those panoramic Panavision vistas, but when it comes to constructing a working indoor set, filmmakers are continually hampered by space. There just isn't any.
Enter the local film society, who, in a light-bulb epiphany worthy of an old Chuck Jones two-reeler, latch on to the entirely conceivable notion that, hey, this old airport, with its massive hangars and existing office buildings, might make a pretty good film studio.
The city council is presented with the idea, promptly falls in love with it, and hooks the film society up with the airport's local neighborhood group, who also realize a dream prospect when they see one. Six months later, the site is a fully functioning (okay, almost fully functioning) studio, with two major productions in the can, one currently shooting there, and a litany of major productions begging for entrance. City-booster Quentin Tarantino couldn't have written it better himself (though he'd more than likely script in Ving Rhames to set a charge to that big airport tower looming in the background -- more on that later).
This is Austin I'm talking about, of course, where the past year has been witness to an amazingly cooperative tag-team project between the Austin Film Society, the Austin City Council, and the Mueller Neighborhood Coalition that -- as of now -- has resulted in a superstar studio setup that could well change the very fabric of filmmaking in Austin. This isn't just big, it's tremendous, with potential revenue benefits for the city and myriad filmmaking possibilities flung wide and suddenly, almost magically within reach. It's like waking up on sleepy Sunday morning and discovering you have a 500 lb. gorilla in your back yard -- and he wants to help you do the dishes.
Most people interviewed for this article credit the husband-and-wife director/producer team of Robert Rodriguez and Elizabeth Avellan (El Mariachi, Desperado, The Faculty) with taking the initiative in late 1999, when they rented out a hangar at the old Robert Mueller International Airport as a sound stage for their children's action caper Spy Kids (due out in March 2001) By all accounts the Mueller shoot went perfectly and saved the production a bundle. By the time the film wrapped this past summer, Avellan, along with her husband, was already looking into the possibility of creating an Austin-based film studio from the ground up, and she turned over the piles of feasibility and financial studies the couple had been conducting to the Film Society, in effect saying, here's what we know, now you take it and run with it.
The Big Idea
Avellan, on the phone from no less than Skywalker Ranch, where Spy Kids is getting a final tweaking, says, "I think I just kind of helped the Film Society realize that building something like that, from scratch, would not happen in Austin. It costs so much money to build something like that and then you're at the mercy of a huge bank loan over your head. What if the film business dries up? I mean, you never know. What if we have the actors' strike? And it lasts nine months? There could be huge repercussions for somebody who has a six-, seven-, eight-million-dollar bank loan. It is not the best use of your funds, especially when there are already hangars available."
Avellan's idea took root, as good ideas do, and before long Austin Film Society members such as Executive Director Rebecca Campbell and Board of Directors President Louis Black [also editor of The Austin Chronicle] were joined by members of Richard Linklater's Detour FilmProduction, and a plan of action was formulated. The question quickly became not "Why?" but "Why not?"
Longtime Detour FilmProduction projectionist/mastermind Stan Ginsel had been thinking and speaking along these lines for years and doubtless had a hand in steering things in the right direction long before the initial proposal to the Austin City Council, though since then, by his own admission, he's had a falling out of sorts with Linklater and the AFS.
"I was the person who originally conceived the program 18 months ago," says Ginsel. "I wrote a short synopsis outlining how the existing airport facilities could be used for film production. After many disappointing meetings, I finally received word through the city's film liason, Gary Bond, that the mayor had heard of the project and liked the idea."
Ginsel then took the idea to Linklater, and after the AFS was corralled as the proposed studio's nonprofit overseer, Ginsel says he was slated to serve on the operations committee for the studio. Somewhere along the line, however, the plans for the studio committee fell by the wayside, and along with them, Ginsel's position there, which eventually went to former SXSW associate Suzanne Quinn.
"The only explanation I was given," recalls Ginsel, "was that [the AFS] felt the job was too big for one person to handle and decided to split the job duties up between two people, the studio director, the person ultimately in charge of everything, and the facilities manager, who would work under the studio director and basically be a custodian."
When offered the latter position, Ginsel turned it down and instead agreed to work with the studio as "a consultant on an occasional basis."
"It was really several different people who had the idea at more or less the same time" is how Campbell recalls it. "The Film Society didn't come into it until enough people at City Council were excited and it was obvious that it was going to be possible. The council said that this ought to be a nonprofit organization that oversees this, and can you create one? And I thought, well, we've already got the AFS. I distinctly remember Rick [Linklater] kind of creeping into my cubicle at the AFS office and saying, 'What would you think about it if the Film Society was the nonprofit that managed this?' It didn't take a whole lot of agonizing."
The next step was the drafting of the proposal, which was then taken to the Austin City Council. Mayor Kirk Watson, Mayor Pro-Tem Jackie Goodman, and Council Members Raul Alvarez, Daryl Slusher, and others read the proposal for use of the airport site and almost without hesitation recommended that the city and the AFS go ahead with plans to begin work on what would later be known as Austin Studios. The AFS, as overseer of the project, was given a 10-year lease (with an option for more time after 2010) on 20 acres at the old airport grounds off of East 51st, including six hangars and two office buildings.
With a viable plan in the works, the AFS then met with the Mueller Neighborhood Coalition (which comprises 14 distinct neighborhoods in and around the airport).
According to Coalition head Jim Walker, "Early on the Film Society approached the City Council and then were redirected to us, which was great. This has been a relationship that we've been working pretty hard to maintain with the city. AFS met with us several times over the course of a year or so, came to us early on, and were very sincere and real in wanting to work with us. Our biggest issue was that everybody be very clear that this was a long-term interim use, even though the paperwork says it's a 10-year lease with an extension option, we very much needed to retain interim use so that if [the studio] doesn't work out, for any reason, then that property rolls back into the Mueller conceptual masterplan, which the City Council has adopted."
Like everyone interviewed for this story, Walker was effusive in his praise for both the City Council's actions and those of the AFS.
"The way the Film Society folks went about their actions with us is something that we really enjoyed," says Walker. "It went as smoothly as it could go, and we'd like to use that as sort of a precedent process as we go here.
"One of our hopes is that they do very well. And that as some of the residential stuff comes on-line and some of the commercial space becomes available, the film studio's success will spin off residents and businesses. They're a fairly diverse and potentially exciting industry to have there."
Chronicle Editor Black echoes Walker's praise. "One thing that surprised me was how easy this went with the city and the neighborhood groups when we initially approached them. There was literally no opposition whatsoever. We went to one of the Mueller Neighborhood Association meetings, and, I'm not going to lie, I went reluctantly every single time. I was always surprised at how educational they were, essentially. We're on a very steep learning curve here."
In early November, the studios had their official opening, although the Donald Petrie-directed, Sandra Bullock-starring comedy Miss Congeniality (opening Dec. 22) had already shot many of their interiors there over the summer, and The New Guy, a teen comedy directed by There's Something About Mary scribe Ed Decter, was (and is) currently utilizing the space. Even before the hangar doors officially swung open, the rush to use the facility had already begun, and it continues unabated.
The Early Stages of Development
One of the first duties falling to the AFS Board of Directors was to find a suitable person for the unwieldy position of studio director. They chose former SXSW marketing head Suzanne Quinn and installed her in a spartan single-wide trailer (desk and phone included, but only just) right next to the new AFS double-wide trailer parked in front of the sprawling, 28,000-square-foot Hangar 4 (or "D," depending on whom you talk to. Either way it's currently serving double duty as a paint and construction shop for The New Guy).
Walking around the studio grounds the other day was a bracing experience. Quinn, remarkably amiable considering the daunting tasks that lie before her, pointed out the various hangars and what they were currently being used for (The New Guy, natch), as well as that film's bustling production office, situated between hangars and with a convenient, if a bit shaky-looking, kid's swing set lolling on a patch of grass outside. I ask her how many people she has working under her at this point and I get a laugh in return. "No one," she says. "I've been joking that I've been dealing with broken air conditioners, plumbing, broken gates, all this on top of trying to develop a Web site and a marketing campaign."
At this admittedly early stage the "sound stages" still resemble disused airplane hangars more than the high-dollar, fully outfitted stages common to, say, the Warner Bros. back lot. Clearly, there's a lot of work to be done, but the carpenters from The New Guy crew didn't seem to mind the birds roosting in the girders above them as they touched up the film's prison set, one crew member ambidextrously smoking a Camel and wielding a pneumatic nail gun.
"The production office is one of the most attractive features of the property," notes Quinn, "because it's just here and ready to go. A new production can just move right in. I hope over time to make it more of a plug-and-go operation, but for now everything you see was brought in by The New Guy.
"One of our goals for the future is the development of the hangars as sound stages. We're planning on actually giving rent abatement in exchange for improvement. Had I negotiated the deal with The New Guy, which I did not because they arrived in August and we weren't out here [the city negotiated it] I would have said, okay, it sounds like you think that insulating and soundproofing the roof is most important, so then, say, that might cost $50,000 and then we'd give them the hangar for free the whole time they were here in exchange for fixing the roof. We're also hoping to load up on improvements that are left behind, because some of the big items that are brought in -- rafters, lighting poles, and things like that -- are actually cheaper to leave behind than to ship back to Los Angeles, if they weren't rented out in the first place. It's really expensive to do what's going to be necessary to make this into a real soundstage. There's the subflooring, insulation, soundproofing, lighting grids, flood proofing. All that has to be done somehow, and if we can strike these deals with incoming productions, so much the better."
And it's not going to be just big studio productions in the future, either. Black, Quinn, and Campbell all mentioned that the AFS was eyeing the possibility of installing various other media arts projects inside Austin Studios as well, including (but hardly limited to) digital video production, possible gear rentals, and AVID editing bays. These are all scheduled in that gray area known as "down the road sometime," but they're there nonetheless.
"From the outset we envisioned what we've been calling the 'tech building,'" says Campbell. "It would be a large building that could house a variety of things that you would need to support film production: screening rooms, editing suites, perhaps an additional production office so that more than one film could be there at the same time. Right now, you can do post-production in Austin, but if you're a Hollywood movie you rarely do the post in Austin -- you usually go back to Los Angeles where they have all the gear in one place. So, what if Austin decided to position itself as a place where not only could you shoot your film here but you could also stay to edit it? That's what we're thinking of with the tech building."
Apart from the fact that we suddenly have a film studio in our midst, one of the most promising aspects of Austin Studios is the AFS internship program that comes with it. Wanting to offer an "in" of sorts to young people who may have an interest in film but no real way of gaining admittance into the often insular filmmaking world, the Film Society will begin offering a series of three internships at the studio in January 2000. The catch? The positions are being made available only to high school kids in the 78723 and 78702 ZIP code areas that border the studios, an area of town not normally known for its stellar internship opportunities.
Coolest Internship Around?
Working with the AFS (where the internship program has been spearheaded by Cathy Crane) members of the AISD School-to-Career Department have distributed brochures at a recent Garza High School career day, and -- no surprise here -- interested kids are already lining up to be interviewed. What's more, the internships are paid, a rarity in this and nearly every other field that offers these sorts of programs. You get to work around movie stars and get paid for it. How cool is that?
"One of the things that really appealed to the City Council about our proposal," says Campbell, "was that we said we would use the facility to provide access to the film industry to people that traditionally don't have access. Not having access is sort of a twofold problem: One problem is that if you don't have enough money in your family where you can afford to work for free, how are you ever going to get the experience to become viable? And secondly, if you don't know anyone who works in the film industry, how do you find someone? So, we figured we could set up a program for paid internships, we've got the access right there, and we could really make a difference in the lives of young people who live right in the Mueller neighborhood. We put together a task force of people who know the neighborhood, who know the schools, people who represent AISD and their school-to-career program, and people who actually work in the film industry, which are IATSE members, and people who work in the local film community. We got them all together and sat them down to design a plan of attack and get it going. Ted Whatley, former AISD school board member, is on the task force, Tad Smalley, Cathy Crane from Detour FilmProduction, and Elaine Shelton and Carol Means from AISD.
"So we've all met and what we came up with was this: It would be a little too abrupt to go straight from high school to working on a film set so we've designed a multiphased program where your first experience would be somewhere friendly like the Film Society or Detour, and then if you showed that you were pretty well able to show up on time and be a friendly presence, then we would get you onto a film set where you would then be working under a union member. So we're out there, we've dedicated some funds to it, we're hoping that we're going to get three people from Garza High started in January. You could spend three years designing it and writing grant proposals, but we figured, hey, let's just do it and put it into operation right now."
Like the original proposal, the internship process is running smooth and on target. Which, really, is the remarkable thing about the entire Austin Studios project: For a multitiered project of this size and scope, the entire undertaking has gone almost preternaturally well. Unlike almost every other aspect of Austin politics-meets-people, there's been nary a harsh word murmured in regard to literally any aspect of the Austin Studios proposal from day one. That the City Council, a nonprofit organization like AFS, and an entire neighborhood coalition could come together in, well, perfect harmony is not only a rarity, but it's also darn near unimaginable. And yet here it is. A studio with the likes of ex-punk rocker Henry Rollins, old skool rapper Kool Moe Dee, and skateboard icon Tony Hawk all rehearsing their lines one day (for The New Guy) and Sandra Bullock and Quentin Tarantino walking around the next.
Which brings me, now that I think of it, back to that flight control tower way off in the distance back there. Originally word had gone out that the city had offered it to Tarantino to "blow up" in an upcoming film should he so desire. It's now become apparent, however, while talking to Jim Walker, that the folks living in and around the airport have become rather fond of the skyline-imposing monolith. According to Walker, the Mueller Neighborhood Coalition is now working on plans to have the tower -- and a wooden, early 20th-century air hangar as well -- saved for posterity. C'est la vie, Q.T.
Whether the Austin Studios will, indeed, finally put the city smack-dab on the Hollywood map it has for so long been on the periphery of remains to be seen, though to judge from the infectious "anything goes" attitude that positively permeates every inch of ground out there right now, it's hard to think otherwise. So far the project seems to have been blessed from the beginning, and at this time there are no serious obstacles in sight.
As to the future? "I really hope that we're going to be able to have some space for media-arts nonprofits out there, as well," says Rebecca Campbell. "There is a provision in the lease for a certain percentage of the square footage of the Tech Building to be made available to nonprofits. That involves coalition building and working and fundraising.
"We're going to sit down with our Board of Directors in January and do our annual revisitation of our strategic plan, and now that we actually have the airport our strategic planning can really begin to take off. This is just the very beginning."