By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The lanky hostess eyed a couple of strangers and wondered aloud if they were narcs. In her rapid-fire fashion, she was soon promoting her husband's artwork to the two men. They weren't collectors. But they insisted that they knew an influential patron from the West Coast. In fact, they'd set her up the next afternoon with him.
She was only two years out of Waltrip High School, a community college student and part-time cosmetics worker at Foley's in Northwest Mall. But the young woman was skeptical when she met the patron the next day and was offered -- of all things -- a shot at becoming a movie star.
At that time, Houston's reputation in the film ranks was for raunchy porn flicks. No thanks, she thought, until it came time for the introductions:
The guys were in the city scouting locations for the filming of Brewster McCloud, the quirky tale of a kid who hid out in the Astrodome and dreamed of flying on his handcrafted wings.
Their art-collecting friend was Robert Altman, fresh from directing the Academy Award-winning M*A*S*H. And she was Shelley Duvall, who hadn't had a day of acting classes in her young life, but would soon be auditioning for a Brewster role.
The film gained cult status in some quarters. It launched Duvall's career -- and Houston's infatuation with all that was Hollywood. In the years to come, Jack Nicholson and Shirley MacLaine found their Terms of Endearment here; Travolta tried to ride his Saturday Night Fever fame atop the mechanical bull of Urban Cowboy; and Harry Dean Stanton dropped in from Paris, Texas.
Hollywood might script Houston's evolution in the motion picture industry much like that of Duvall's: an idyllic, happily-ever-after romance with the big screen.
Just this year, the Enron collapse was chronicled in a television movie. The latest Alamo epic will relive the Houston-area Battle of San Jacinto. And local screenwriter Tom Vaughan had his Nine Lives, an action thriller set in Houston, begin production with Wesley Snipes last month.
The cameras never came to Houston for any of those productions. The Enron flick was shot entirely in Canada. Santa Anna's troops will surrender to Sam Houston on farmlands near Austin.
And Nine Lives crews didn't even bother with background scenes of the Bayou City. The film is being shot on location -- in Bulgaria.
All the world's a stage -- and therein lies the problem for Houston moviemaking. Popular fantasies played out on the screen have little to do with deals that live or die on hard cash.
Tucked away at the north end of City Hall is the kitsch-loaded Houston Visitor Center, with its cliffs of brochure racks and novelties. The purpose is apparent: to give the region better visibility for visitors, guide them to their desired sites and help separate them from their travel money in the process.
Those same goals are shared with a small office behind the sports section of the gift shop. The only clues that this is the Houston Film Commission are in the framed posters of movies made in the heyday of Hollywood's fling with Houston.
In the corner room, the commission director darts between a table piled with scripts and notes and a telephone regularly cradled to his ear.
"Bill? Rick Ferguson here." The mellow, modulated voice goes downbeat. "Ah I see we're playing phone tag again. Now you're it. Give me a call. Let's talk."
Before his message ends, Ferguson is already scanning the thick bundle of paper that arrived two days earlier. It's a movie script, a German project. The period piece spans about 40 years ending in 1930.
Ferguson and his two assistants read the dialogue for every scene set out in the feature-length movie plot: Rich men stage boxing matches in the elegant, private domain of a fight club.
Commission staffers duck into a storage room holding some 45,000 shots they've amassed of the newest, oldest and oddest sights offered up in the greater Houston area. Using a rudimentary filing system, they've pulled their candidates for locations and carefully inserted them at the relevant places in the script.
"What do you think?" Ferguson asks, holding up a shot of a finely preserved Victorian home. "The evil, wealthy boxing promoter's house?"
As the shot of an old red-brick building emerges, Ferguson twists his face into a brief mock-demonic sneer from behind his blond-gray beard. "Ah, yes. Here we have the evil, wealthy boxing promoter's office." Then there's the refined, hardwood expanse of the Aston Villa -- the fight club itself.
By the next morning, those and other color print copies will be in the mail, along with more packets headed for the West Coast. They'll compete against scores -- perhaps even hundreds -- of other regions in their own fight club for the cinematic jackpot of hosting a feature film.
This crapshoot is continual, with $340,000 in table stakes -- the annual budget -- fronted by the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. Ferguson's crewmembers made their pitches about 1,200 times last year. They walked away with around 110 movie and video productions with an estimated $19.6 million in revenue destined for the Houston area. That's up somewhat from the previous two years, although it doesn't amount to half the bonanza of some years from the past two decades.