Film Buff

The naked truth about why Houston isnít the third coast

"It's a whole different ball game than it used to be," Ferguson sighs. "That's when we were the place where all the productions were running away to, when they were running from California."

Now the exodus from Hollywood has mostly bypassed Houston and other American cities for more economical foreign destinations. As business has dried up, several U.S. film commissions have folded or slashed their staffing.

"Certainly, we're getting our proverbial piece of the pie," Ferguson says. "It's just that those pieces of the pie are much smaller than they used to be."

Pearl Harbor used the Battleship Texas for 
some of its scenes.
Courtesy of the Houston Film Commission
Pearl Harbor used the Battleship Texas for some of its scenes.
Houston actress Karen Schlag doesn't get paid unless 
her movies turn a profit.
Lew Carr
Houston actress Karen Schlag doesn't get paid unless her movies turn a profit.

Texas got its first, best taste of Hollywood's morsels in 1927, when director William Wellman and his cinematic corps marched on San Antonio. The result, Wings, marked the silent debut of Gary Cooper. It also won an Academy Award, the first Oscar ever bestowed for Best Picture.

Texas learned from San Antonio, which drew 11 movie productions before the Roaring Twenties even arrived (according to the Internet Movie Database). Some 20 films over the years have enabled moviegoers to remember the Alamo.

Houston hardly warranted notice until it began asserting itself as a major urban player in the '60s. Tucked away in filmographies is the 1961 indie Tomboy and the Champ, shot with the venerable Ben Johnson in Houston and Katy to praise 4-H clubs. In it, a critically ill girl recovers after an inspiring visit to her room by a bull.

A handful of horny aliens showed up in 1967's Mars Needs Women, before John Wayne waded in against oil field blazes in Hellfighters. But the Astrodome, as the world's only indoor stadium for years, held the real allure. Several films -- including The Bad News Bears Breaking Training -- were shot there.

NASA gave the region more staying power. Even as Hollywood was beginning to cool to Houston, the Johnson Space Center was drawing them in with the likes of Apollo 13, Apollo 11 and Armageddon. Clint Eastwood made his day in '99 with Space Cowboys.

While Houston snared assorted big films, some of the state's greatest successes came on the small screen. J.R. Ewing stuck a Southfork into the psyche of the nation and beyond in 1978. Dallas was vital in transforming Big D into a regional production hub that used local talent to lure in other business to enrich that city for the next dozen years. Walker, Texas Ranger added to the bounty with a seven-year run that began in 1993.

Meanwhile, the Bayou City hosted various television pilots or series, but none made it big. Last year's Houston Medical died of the same depressed ratingitis that killed off its hospital predecessor, Cutter to Houston, in 1983 (one of the trauma unit docs was a young Alec Baldwin). And the cop drama Houston Knights was born and died in 1987. (Now Mary Lou Retton is taking a tumble with PBS's Flip Flop Shop, while attorney Larry Doherty hopes to win the viewers' verdict with Texas Justice.)

Just how far Houston, and the state, had advanced was obvious at the 1984 Academy Awards. Terms of Endearment won a bevy of Oscars. In the Best Picture category, it beat out Texas rival Tender Mercies, shot in Waxahachie.

By the time Houston fell deep into the heartbreak of the oil bust, movies mattered even more to the region. Even government had been enticed into the game.

Texas had climbed onto the cinematic scene early; in 1971 it was only the third state to create a film commission. Over the next 20 years, the prestige and pure monetary attraction of pursuing the movies pushed up the number of commissions or offices, U.S. and foreign, to more than 300. There's even a Barents Euro Arctic Film Commission in northern Scandinavia.

Every major city in Texas blossomed with a commission, as well as places like South Padre and Amarillo. In 1987, Houston upgraded its office to a commission, creating a separate division of what would become the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The staff would find out that no manual could prepare them for working in the sometimes bizarre world of the movies.

One filmmaker -- commission workers have their oaths of secrecy against naming names or titles -- found himself in a major bind, there in the cornfield setting near Sugar Land a few years ago. "The scene called for crows to play an important part of the structure of the scene," Ferguson explains. "But the crew couldn't find any 'stunt crows' here."

So the movie company officials called back to L.A., ordered up a flock and were ready to resume shooting. But another problem cropped up. "The crow 'wrangler' insisted that he and the crows had to fly first class," Ferguson remembers. The feathered crew could afford the expense, but that hardly cleared them for any tickets, much less takeoff.

"There was a great deal of difficulty getting the airline to agree to the crows' being positioned in the first-class cabin," Ferguson laughs. The commission office was called in to troubleshoot. After a few days of fierce negotiations, the stunt crows arrived fresh from first class. They rehearsed, shot the scene like veterans and winged it back to Hollywood, again traveling first class all the way.

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