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What sets local boosters on fire is talk of the screen superiority of Dallas -- and especially Austin.
There's the rub over the coolness quotient, of course. Matthew McConaughey has never been busted here for naked bongo-beating. Robert Duvall doesn't frequent Houston, and no one expects Sandra Bullock to become a Bayou City resident.
However, the hard facts are that Austin is ground zero for moviemakers like Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater; UT-Austin's film school feeds fresh talent into that area, and the industry action remains strong. Last year Austin was the only Texas city in MovieMaker Magazine's top ten cities for filmmakers in North America.
"Dallas and Austin?" Houston filmmaker Tom Vaughan protests. "That's absolute nonsense!" Despite the hype, Vaughan says, Austin is still a one-director town -- Rodriguez -- when it comes to studio-level films. "He does his thing and he does it very well," Vaughan says. "But he doesn't have interest in producing and developing other material." That means about a film a year -- the rest is "dependent on the whims of the L.A. economy" and where Hollywood decides to shoot, Vaughan says. "They have no honest film industry of their own."
Vaughan's R.O.I. Films started two years ago as Houston's first full-service moviemaking company, although the early going has been somewhat uncertain.
"We're trying to build an infrastructure from scratch," explains Vaughan. "We're basically trying to create a viable, independent industry that doesn't exist here right now. We still have to import all our money, to try to convince L.A. to come here."
About a dozen film properties have been acquired by the company, although its biggest asset has to be vice president Howard Griffith, the backbone of the Bayou City's movie efforts for the last few lean years.
The owner of film-related electrical and transport companies has produced or managed a half-dozen films in as many years. Half were VH1 movies shot in Houston. They include last year's Warning: Parental Advisory and the prior year's Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story -- the last two features to have the bulk of their shooting done here.
Houston also has tapped into other young filmmakers: David B. Craig's Face of the Serpent drew critical praise, and Greg Carter has gained notice for several low-budget films ranging from Fifth Ward to the recent Black Man's Guide to Understanding Black Women.
The city also boasts a respectable international presence in film productions. Local Sunil Thakkar spoofed his FOB -- "fresh off the boat" -- India friends with Where's the Party Yaar. Sutapa Ghosh and her family have made Bengali movies here about their native India.
Vaughan, a local who spent six years as a screenwriter in L.A., and Griffith are trying to nudge the levels up to grade-A films through their associations with such draws as Wesley Snipes and Nicolas Cage.
He attributes problems in generating investment capital to the weak economy and low visibility for R.O.I. Vaughan is working with screenwriting students at UH, saying he wants to help improve the quality of local talent.
The commission also targets that goal, sponsoring an annual competition for fledgling Texas screenwriters. Many other fields in the industry are also in need of propping up.
One tip-off to the trouble comes in the address of the Houston Stuntmen's Association -- it's in the West Texas hamlet of Plains.
David "Stutter" Sanders, the leader, is a former all-American gymnast who leaped into the stunt business in 1977. Some nine years later, he joined with several other stuntmen to form the association, a type of co-op for the cinematic action scenes. Members include experts in diving, gymnastics, martial arts, off-road motorcycles and car racing.
Throughout his career, Sanders estimates, he's worked in more than 80 films, many as a coordinator of stunt scenes. As his reputation grew, there were more and more calls for his services. He hit gold in 1995 with Powder, featuring Jeff Goldblum, Mary Steenburgen and Sean Patrick Flanery as a young, bald albino boy with incredible powers.
Sanders, coordinating the shoots in Texas City, Houston and Wharton, felt like he'd gained some financial freedom in the process. "The residuals were huge and the money was big, and I thought, 'I'm gonna move out to my granddad's ranch -- I can work anywhere I want to work.' " Now he chuckles at those notions.
Sanders and many of his associates haven't had a major production since Disney arrived to film Rushmore here about five years ago.
"There's been a couple of things done down there in Houston since then, but basically what you've got to do is scramble and look for work out of state or elsewhere in the state," Sanders says. "The Alamo's going on in Austin, which has provided some work for the Hispanic guys, and some of the white guys. But it's slow in Dallas, also."
The stuntmen's association, which started with about eight members 14 years ago and climbed sizably, now boosts a roster of about six or eight members.
"It's just the nature of the beast," Sanders says about the drought. "Either the phone's ringing all the time, or it doesn't ring at all."
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