By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
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The federal study reported that Texas had a relatively paltry 4 percent of major production activity in the nation.
And no wonder the Oscars included the South Park movie's tune "Blame Canada." That country grabbed off much of the business through hefty incentives to filmmakers, but Ferguson says the favorable exchange rates are even more of a factor. "On a $5 million contract, you can save between $500,000 and $700,000," he says. "That doesn't sound like a lot, but that is really a lot, especially in TV movies, where the profit margin is lower."
Recently, Canada has been among those complaining. Filmmakers have moved on to United Kingdom destinations. Australia, always in the hunt, landed big-budget films such as The Matrix, Star Wars: Episode II and The Thin Red Line. Ireland, New Zealand and even Eastern Europe are attracting major interest from studios.
Cheap foreign labor has aided companies in keeping production costs in check. The commerce study pointed out that between 1990 and 1999, the typical cost of acquiring and producing a major U.S. movie almost doubled, to $51.5 million. Distribution expenses did double in that period, to about $24.5 million.
In the dash to land movies, the current favorites may also fade from the scene. The commerce report noted that more countries, such as Mexico, are beginning to line up incentive programs of their own to woo Hollywood. "This will most likely exacerbate the problem of runaway films in the future," says Ferguson.
Ferguson explains the dilemma for Houston. Filmmakers won't save money if they have to pay the costs of importing workers to shoot in a remote location. So they want a pool of skilled local technicians -- but if the movies seldom show up, then the local talent has to go where the business is. So maintaining that local film base is vital.
Behind all the movie-industry statistics are cinema novices like Karen Schlag, a veteran stage actor. She was seven years old when she opened a Christmas gift she'd never forget: a simple tape recorder. "This is so corny," she says, "but I'd make commercials and tape them, and get friends to play on it. We wrote all these Star Trekepisodes, and we'd perform them and play them back. Even then I was hooked on acting."
She tried the "real job" route, or rather several of them. She took accounting at Sam Houston State University, then switched to journalism at the University of Houston and wound up as a reporter at the Brazosport Facts. Marriage took her to Penn State, where she became a co-host for a small-town radio station, which turned out to be a boring job of "talking about the same drivel every morning with a person you didn't really like."
However, she got her calling by the time she returned to Houston six years later. Schlag had volunteered at a small Pennsylvania theater, the Garman Opera House, and renewed her quest for drama. The diminutive dynamo drives home her point forcefully.
"There's such power," Schlag says of the best actors. "They touch people. We work to make money and live, but we live for the stories that can make us so much more human."
She teaches speech and communications at UH Downtown and San Jacinto College, but Schlag also chased her dream with numerous theater roles, acting classes, an agent, workshops and ample energy. Her first call came from small independent filmmaker Tim Sanders for what became The Sweetest Bitters. Schlag laughs about showing up for auditions, expecting a studio and finding only a darkened office building. That's where Sanders had his day job as a video designer, she says.
She got the role as the "damsel in distress," and her Web site listing has gained her a role in the feature-length Necrophobia. The plot slashes through horrible happenings during a rock station's remote broadcast at a haunted house. Schlag plays the mother of a kid who almost gets offed by various monsters.
While the bigger Houston players talk of funding in terms of millions, Necrophobia's Odyssee Pictures can make you a movie mogul/investor for as little as a $300 buy-in. Its Web site says digital camera advances mean vast reductions in technical costs -- so the budget of under $10,000 is up to 90 percent cheaper than a comparable horror flick on film. With more than 25,000 video outlets in the country each buying up to 25 independents' cassettes and DVDs for up to $79, Necrophobia is bound to be a winner, Odyssee argues.
Of course, Schlag's role, like almost all of those offered up by novice Houston filmmakers, is based on deferred payment. She doesn't get paid unless they turn a profit.
"I'm not in a position where I expect money from this business," Schlag explains. "I teach for 'bread and butter'; I do this for my soul."
As for advice, Schlag says she's heard from cynics and others that if she really wants to break into the industry, she should "go to Austin or Dallas, where there's work." She says she can't. She's got a husband and family here, and "those responsibilities don't go away just because you've found the thing that sets you on fire."