The Waiting Game

With its campus soon expanding, Austin Studios hopes city funds will take the facility to the next level

Rebecca Campbell at Austin Studios
Rebecca Campbell at Austin Studios (Photo by John Anderson)

Everyone loves crowdsourcing, but Austin Studios cannot depend on Kickstarter to renovate the neighboring National Guard Armory when they expand into it in October. Instead, they're hoping to find space in the city's November bond package for the $7.5 million needed to build a new creative hub.

Austin Studios recently had some great news: ABC Family announced a second season for the facility's biggest tenant, The Lying Game, with filming starting this summer. But big, long-term tenants like that are few and far between, and studio films – although great for business and the facility's reputation – are cyclical and often short-lived. Taking on the armory gives the studio a lot more space and potential. After five decades of military use, it's scarcely in a rentable condition, but with a little work the space could be ideal. A helicopter hangar becomes stage seven, and there will be new space for production vendors – freeing up their temporary home in stage one. The studio will also have space for its first dedicated postproduction facilities, and there are long-term plans for a visitor and exhibition center, as well as a larger screening room. For Austin Film Society Executive Director Rebecca Campbell, the biggest boon will be the extra rentable office space, more than doubling what they already have. She said, "We can have lots and lots of small businesses and artists that can be steady renters."

The current Austin Studios were built out of five aircraft hangars at the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, leased from the city of Austin, so the armory conversion is just more of the same. However, that takes money. Originally the plan called for $16 million in upgrades, but with the city's Bond Election Advisory Task Force still trying to cram $1.6 billion of citywide needs into a $200 million to $400 million package, AFS sliced its proposal to a bare-bones $7.5 million. Getting the armory up to code costs $6.1 million – the rest will cover essential heating, ventilation, and air conditioning upgrades on stages three and five, general campus maintenance, and improvements to the trailers that house the studio offices. Since the last bond in 2006, the studio has brought in productions generating $290 million in economic impact; that translates into on-set jobs for crafts people, plus spending at local stores, restaurants, and hotels. "That's a great return on investment for tax payers," said Campbell.

The studio management took some heat when they signed a long lease with Nashville, Tenn. based Soundcheck Austin for stage four (see "Split Decision," July 3, 2009), but the space is a model for Campbell's plans for the expanded studio. It has been divided into a series of offices, filled with an array of small creative-industry tenants. It's the same story over in the iconic Red Building: Rather than sitting empty awaiting a single big production, now talent agencies sit side by side with casting firms, with video production firms down the corridor. There are even a few indie producers in residence. While Campbell was giving me a facility tour, producer Paul Jensen stuck his head out of his office to thank her for hosting a screening of Natural Selection, a multiple award winner at the 2011 South by Southwest Film Festival, while David Hartstein excitedly gave her updates about The Happy Poet and his new project, a documentary about touch football in Israel. Campbell's dream scenario is that filmmakers can lease small offices, then expand as production ramps up. Conversely, bigger tenants can access small spaces for one-off events.

Even without the bond, Austin Studios will take over the armory on Oct. 1 – but the renovation would be limited, take longer, and require private investors for what remains city property. The studio would initially be forced to rent out the armory as little more than unfinished space, and that would cut into the plans for a true creative incubator. Bond money would make it easier to attract big productions and anchor tenants, whose investments would hold down rents for smaller firms who don't need a full sound stage. Campbell said, "They just need a little corner, or they just want a 250-square-foot office because they need to get out of their house and they need to be in a community while they're trying to get their creative project off the ground."

For maps of the existing Austin Studios campus and the expanded campus after October's land transfer, see austinchronicle.com/screens/pip.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Studios, Rebecca Campbell, National Guard Armory, Soundcheck, The Lying Game, Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, Paul Jensen, David Hartstein

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