Building a Film Community at Renegade Studios

Austin filmmakers create a one-stop production space in Taylor

"We're filmmakers, not landlords." Morgan Fryer, Aaron B. Koontz, and Kriss Phipps of Renegade Studios, the Austin area's newest production space (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Before Aaron B. Koontz was a studio president, he was a filmmaker – and he still is. A producer on cult horrors like Sacrament and Starry Eyes, when his first feature as a director, Camera Obscura, came out in 2017 he said that many members of the Austin film industry had offers to move to L.A., but they resisted, because they wanted to be here, in this scene, right now. At the time, he told me, "If we stick together, we can have something special."

That's what Renegade Studios, the area's newest filmmaking space, is designed to provide. Just off Fourth Street in Taylor, a few blocks away from Louie Mueller Barbecue, Koontz and his team have quietly built a new one-stop production space, aimed directly at Austin's indie filmmakers.

It's the single most common conversation in Austin film circles. "Why didn't you shoot here?" "Well, we would have loved to, but we couldn't find a space." Or, "Well, we would have loved to, but we couldn't make the finances work." With Renegade, Koontz and the team aim to solve both problems. "That's why we call it the new Texas incentives," he said. "It's about how we're helping the Austin film community."

The building is a series of tall, broad, interlocking rooms, several with doorways large enough to back a truck through – not surprising, since it was built around 1950 as a tractor factory and showroom for International Harvester, later housing the massive machines of a print works. "And after that," Renegade COO Kris Phipps said, "it was just sitting here, waiting for something special to happen."

The something special is Renegade. "We're filmmakers," Phipps added, "not landlords," and they're making sure that what's there is what filmmakers really need. They're waiting on the delivery of a three-ton grip package and truck, containing all the cables, lights, stands, and clamps that a midsize production needs. Koontz said, "We want to have convenience. If people shoot here, we don't want them to have to drag stuff back and forth from Austin."

“You go into a restaurant or a salon or a bar and go, ‘Gee, I’d really like to shoot in here,’ and rather than them being ‘Wow, Hollywood’s here,’ they go, ‘Oh, yeah, you can park your grip truck out back.’ They just seem to know.’”

The plan is for a true one-stop shop. When Koontz and Phipps started construction, they assembled a think tank of local filmmakers, asking them exactly what they wanted. Discussions have already begun with chefs in town on catering for productions, using the break room/kitchen. One of the conference rooms is easily adaptable into a screening room. Plus, Phipps said, "We can build sets here, custom for the client. We can do prop building and effects makeup, creature design. ... Filmmakers can come in, and we can build whatever they really need."

That's a key component of the project: not just that the studio will offer those services, but that each production will provide employment opportunities for fabricators and technicians and artists within the Renegade extended family.

In March, the construction team under chief fabricator Morgan Fryer started the conversion, and the buildout is in its final phases. The space isn't officially open yet, but there are already ongoing productions, with props for Phipps' upcoming short "Extension" in the fabrication workshop next to the green room. Yet Renegade isn't erasing the building's history, because that's part of the appeal. The high, vaulted roofs naturally dampen sound, and the brick and tile walls provide a perfect setting for production offices. Even the buildout is embracing the classic industrial vibe, like the new, massive, double mock-metal doors to the street. Phipps said, "Everything we added to the space, we wanted to accent off what's here."

The current heart of the facility is the main soundstage, with its 64-foot-by-18-foot pristine, white cyclorama wall. The lighting rig is a state-of-the-art Kino Flo system, which can switch from tungsten for interiors to daylight to replicate exteriors, and even change color with one touch. "If we want to do green screen, we just hit a button," said Phipps, "and to our knowledge we're the only facility in town that has that."

Yet if the cyclorama is currently the heart of the studio, there's a transplant coming. At the back of the complex is a huge workshop, a few hundred feet long, and part of that space will be designed for set storage. Say a filmmaker wants a bathroom set: Most studios would build a set for that film, then trash it. But at Renegade, those sets can be made in-house, then broken down and stored. Because those sets will be owned by Renegade, they'll be able to lease them to filmmakers for a fraction of the cost of a new build. Koontz said, "Seventy percent of it is built again, so that will save you $7,000 in construction costs and a week, minimum. So there are so many things that we can leverage."

When Phipps says that Renegade is the only facility of its kind "in town," he means the greater Austin area. The team looked within city limits for a suitable location, but it's no secret that there's a dearth of easily convertible buildings within city limits. Soundstages need space, parking, power, and a degree of privacy, all in short supply. So they looked farther afield, and settled on downtown Taylor. It wasn't just a matter of finding the right building. The team found that many of Austin's filmmakers have been moving north, including to surrounding communities like Pflugerville, Round Rock, and Manor – making the trip to Taylor about as long as getting to South Austin. Moreover, Taylor is part of the Film Friendly Texas initiative, under which the Texas Film Commission educates and supports local communities in learning how to work with filmmakers. Phipps said, "You go into a restaurant or a salon or a bar and go, 'Gee, I'd really like to shoot in here,' and rather than them being 'Wow, Hollywood's here,' they go, 'Oh, yeah, you can park your grip truck out back.' They just seem to know.'"

That's very similar to the Austin filmmaking experience, and while cities don't come more film friendly than the ATX, there's a severe lack of space for making movies. At over 200,000 square feet of production space. Austin Studios is by far the largest facility. However, that space is already fully booked through April of 2019, and even their new Stage 7 (currently being renovated within the bones of the old National Guard Armory) will not be available until May. There are other facilities around town: AFS, which runs Austin Studios, also manages two smaller stages at the city-owned Austin Public. Then there are a multitude of smaller commercial facilities, like Omega Broadcast and Picturebox; and, of course, the 200-acre New Republic Studios in Bastrop, which owner John Robison hopes will rival Atlanta's Pinewood Studios, home to megaproductions like the Marvel films (see "Can New Republic Studios Be a Game Changer for Austin?" Nov. 21, 2017). But even with all those facilities, Koontz and company don't see Renegade as competition: Instead, what they're building will strengthen the moviemaking ecosystem.

The gap they aim to fill is a very specific one. As AFS fosters long-term tenants like Rooster Teeth, out-of-town productions, and first-time filmmakers, and New Republic will eventually swing for the blockbuster fences, Renegade will support filmmakers just like Koontz and his advisory board, the ones who already know how to make a film, but had to shoot in New Mexico, or Arkansas, or Louisiana. This means they can stay here, and that old conversation about leaving home to make an Austin movie should vaporize – or at least become less common. "We know how to make movies on a budget," said Koontz, "and that's what [filmmakers] will get from us. They'll get our mindset of how to do it, not how we can nickel-and-dime them."

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Renegade Studios, Austin filmmakers, Aaron B. Koontz, Kris Phipps, Taylor, Film Friendly Texas

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