New Plans for Bastrop Film Studio Hope to Overcome Its Volatile History

Can new management help Spiderwood Studios rise again?

Spiderwood Studios films (clockwise from top): It's in the Blood, Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah, Bad Kids Go to Hell

Thirty minutes east of Downtown Austin, along the winding frontage road FM 969, three inconspicuous steel-frame buildings house what could become the next filmmakers' paradise. At least, that's the vision for the new owners of Elgin's storied Spiderwood Studios 969.

Opened by producer Tommy Warren in 2009 (its name a portmanteau of Warren's middle name, Glenwood, and the yellow garden spiders that call the site home), it was bought by Spark River Entertainment LLC in February 2022. A year and the end of a pandemic later, president and Chief Creative Officer Christopher "Chiz" Chisholm says the company is on track to roll out the first phase of a massive mixed-use expansion that will attract artists and executives from across the nation.

Spiders, Streams, Plains, and Bluffs

Central Texas is in the middle of a studio construction boom. Just down the road from Spiderwood, planning is underway on the new Bastrop 552 facility, while San Marcos will become home to the 12 soundstages of the proposed Hill Country Studios. The plans for Spiderwood begin with adding a podcast studio and two new, state-of-the-art, 35,000-square-foot soundstages, one of which will contain a digital "volume" wall, the same technology used to film The Mandalorian.

Spiderwood already boasts two soundstages and production space that will be renovated as part of the expansion, but its success so far has hinged on the diversity of its 152-acre backlot. That's what Warren saw when he staked out the land at 140 Utley Rd. as a full-service motion picture alternative to the barren lots of Hollywood. Its varied terrains mean it can impersonate a range of regions, from the sprawling plains of Montana to the rocky bluffs of the Carolinas, Chisholm said. "There's big cactus fields. We've got streams, brooks, and open fields ... It's very diverse with lots of room for war movies, Westerns, zombie movies, or Civil War films. Anything – it is limited only by your imagination."

“It is limited only by your imagination.”   – Chiz Chisholm

It's also ideal for purposes outside the film industry. In April, Spiderwood hosted Ecstatic Forest Festival, a five-day music and camping jamboree. The city of Bastrop's mayor, Connie Schroeder, uses the in-house talk show studio for a weekly YouTube series promoting events and hosting local business owners. A Bastrop County Emergency Services District No. 1 fire station is also conveniently located at the studio's entrance along FM 969. "We have warm relationships with the community," Chisholm said. "Our commitment in coming here is our philosophy that to be successful, business must include the four pillars of education, employment, philanthropy, and community."

All this is just the underpinnings for Chisholm's expansion plan. Spark River Entertainment, however, isn't the first company to acquire Spiderwood Studios with aspirations of titanic renovations.

Under New Management

In 2017, another company, New Republic – led by another industry veteran, Hollywood Movie Works Chair John Robison – bought Spiderwood from Warren outright. They rebranded the studio in hopes of attracting new investors and building a campus for vertical integration of all stages of production. The $170 million project had some initial success during its three-year run, producing several commercials and building a reputation for its on-site grip and electric lighting. However, between an oversaturated studio market in Central Texas, dismal funding for the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, and the pandemic, those expansion plans never materialized, and the space defaulted back to Warren in 2020.

Two years later Chisholm, with Spark River co-founder and CEO Maria Espinosa Booth, bought the property from Warren, keeping the original name but with plans to expand the studio both in terms of employment and infrastructure. Chisholm, a 35-year industry veteran, said the reason he chose Spiderwood was "quite selfish" thanks to the variety of content they can produce: commercials, music videos, podcasts, video games, and digital multimedia. Chisholm said Warren "had many suitors for this property and the fact that he chose us showed his trust in what we were doing."

More Than Sound Stages

Those plans go beyond just studio space, as Spark River is forging ahead with development of a huge mixed-use destination that will encompass upscale retail shops, fine dining, a boutique hotel, an amphitheatre, and affordable housing for crew members. "We have a four-phase plan to realize that vision in the next three, five, seven years," Chisholm said.

After that first initial studio renovation, following phases will require teaming up with developers and entertainment companies to build a 5,000-seat indoor amphitheatre with a capacity for 7,500 people. "There's no real live music venue to attract large audiences east of Austin ... to satisfy the massive growth and population of Bastrop County," Chisholm said. In the final phase, parts of the backlot will be divided up to erect a "Western town," a "New York cityscape," an artist's retreat, cast and crew housing, and an expansion of the RV park.

The success of Spark River Entertainment's renovations at Spiderwood, at least partly, will be linked to the growth of Texas as a film and TV hub broadly. The Legislature also just approved a total of $200 million for TMIIIP for the next two years, a step that could attract more productions to Texas and Spiderwood. Chisholm said, "The governor and members of the Legislature in Texas realize the value of this business because entertainment reaches the world, which means more revenue for the state and more employment for Texans. That's a really good thing, and it's good for our industry as well."

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