Film Buff

Rick Ferguson, director of the Houston Film Commission, spends his work life asking movie companies to film here.
Monica Fuentes

Amid the mind-numbing music and intoxicants spilling throughout the trendy artist's home, party guests mingled in the best, brash, anything-goes style dominating Houston in 1970.

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:

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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.

"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."

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.

Another movie had an alligator character written into the script. The gator was brought in from Florida, already trained and ready for the shot. There were no problems -- until a maid walked into the gator wrangler's hotel room and surprised a full-grown reptile splashing around in the bathtub.

That concern was compounded when investigators discovered this wasn't just another stock alligator; this one was on the endangered species list. "That, in and of itself, was quite a violation," Ferguson says. "It was never supposed to have been taken from Florida, period."

Ferguson explains that there was "a lot of maneuvering to take care of what should have been done in the first place." They got the permits and the exemptions. And the hotel lost a lavatory-loving guest.

No, the director insists, he's not going to get into the child actor stories. Once Ferguson starts on his own story, though, he can't help but summon up images of Cinema Paradiso, the 1988 French saga of a Sicilian youngster captivated by the village movie house.

Ferguson's hometown of La Marque didn't have a movie theater during his childhood. Ferguson's parents -- his father was a teacher/coach, his mother a school administrator -- introduced him to films when he was barely out of infancy. Martin Milner roared in on his 'Vette to shoot a segment of Route 66 in Bolivar and Galveston, and the Fergusons were among the crowds cheering him on. He was one of the excited kids following Patty Duke around for My Sweet Charlie. "It was awesome," he says.

Summers were best. The family drove north of Dallas to Denison to visit his grandparents -- where they ran the projector, concession stand and ticket booth at the tiny Rialto movie house. So Ferguson worked there and lived out his fantasies on the big screen, devouring movies with Junior Mints and popcorn.

"I did it every summer of my life," he grins. "I'll never forget seeing Advance to the Rear and Cat Ballou -- two times a day, every day for six weeks."

He never quite shook the silver screen. Years later, as a student at Rice University, Ferguson knew he was hooked when he heard a presentation by Terrence Malick, the Waco-born director of Badlands and Days of Heaven. After stints as a location scout for Houston commercials and related work, Ferguson landed a job with the film commission in 1987.

Thirteen years have taught him the inside tricks on turning the seemingly ordinary into movie magic.

Dixie Woods, a featureless subdivision near Pearland, became suburban Washington, D.C., for Arlington Road. Rough Riders, in the TNT special, didn't splash across Guantánamo Bay into an inland invasion of Cuba -- that was Cypress Creek near Conroe. The miniseries Woman of Independent Means turned a Museum District home into a Paris mansion (credit the Eiffel Tower in the background to special effects).

In the Italian Occhio Pinocchio -- a bizarre movie directed by comedian Francesco Nuti -- a specially constructed warehouse set on Lake Conroe was smashed up by Pinocchio's speedboat. No lie.

Powder turned the Sugar Land state prison into the exterior of a boys' school, while the Wharton County Courthouse stood in as the high school in that film.

Suspense, for the commission, has meant more than a plotline in an action thriller. Evening Star opens at Carnegie Hall in the Lincoln Center. It wasn't that hard to use Houston's Jones Hall for the scene, but the weather was another factor for this northeast winter setting. "They put down snow and icicles -- the whole nine yards," Ferguson says. "And that was in August!"  

And Houston weather wouldn't cooperate with RoboCop II, which was filmed in downtown locations one year during October and November. "Everything was ready to go," Ferguson remembers. "We were doing just fine. Then, on the second day of shooting, it snowed -- it snowed earlier than it had ever snowed in the recorded history of Houston."

Long after those flakes had faded, the city began facing a meltdown of its own with the movie industry.

Hollywood first coined the phrase "runaway film production" to describe the flight of movies out of California and into other states such as Texas. Now the term has taken on a new twist: globalization, just like the loss of manufacturing business to other countries.

The economic erosion led to a Department of Commerce study, released last year, that found potentially "devastating effects on local communities in many states." Nationally, the losses over the last decade were estimated at up to $10 billion as the number of foreign-produced, U.S.-backed films jumped from 14 percent to 27 percent. Ironically, it comes at a time of peak production brought on by the demand from cable television channels. (The study pointed out that more than half of the 23 films made by the USA Network were not made by the United States.) Nationally, the industry generates more than $20 billion in economic activity, with about 270,000 workers directly involved in the movie business.

Those who aren't in front of a camera or behind one may not necessarily mourn the absence of movie business, but spending by filmmakers actually goes far beyond sets and soundstages. The commerce report noted that Kevin Costner's Tin Cup, during a ten-week shoot in Houston and Kingwood, spent nearly a half-million dollars just on location fees to residents or businesses. Dry cleaners took in $22,000 from the movie crews, who also spent $121,000 on hardware and lumber.

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 Trek episodes, 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."

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."

Nothing's ringing anymore in some offices around the country. The combination of an ailing economy, dwindling cash from fewer film shoots and a drop in tax revenues has shuttered several commissions.

Closings or significant cutbacks have come in Ohio, Massachusetts, Michigan, Wisconsin, Colorado, Arizona, St. Louis and Orlando. Closer to home, Dallas and Fort Worth severed their joint commission in another funding shakeup in 2002. The prior year, the state said Dallas had pulled in an estimated $75 million in film productions, compared to $117 million for Austin and $18 million for Houston. (Ferguson says Houston figures the revenues far more conservatively than the state.)

Ferguson knows the budget stresses well. His job as an assistant in the commission was cut in 1991 when then-mayor Kathy Whitmire ordered the convention bureau to trim expenses during a city fiscal crisis. The commission director wound up leaving instead, and Ferguson soon returned as the director. His office's budget is financed by a portion of the hotel room tax proceeds.

Today, Houston is back wrestling with projected shortfalls of several million dollars, although there have been no calls for paring back the commission's $341,000 annual budget.

"If Rick is successful in booking one film, it pays that 341 back tenfold," says Jordy Tollett, head of the convention bureau. "And he's better than that, with a good array of relationships. It's a very wise investment."

As for the film commission's efforts, Vaughan and several others interviewed lauded Ferguson's abilities. "You talk to other people from other states and from L.A., and you get a sense that we're even luckier than we thought to have him and the commission," he says. "They're an extra team you have working for you."  

Some other regions have been lobbying to increase incentives for filmmakers, although battered governmental budgets are unlikely to yield to more discounts. New Mexico has a relatively new program that actually makes the state an investor in films that shoot there and use local workers.

Ferguson would welcome more help in attracting projects. He's also eager to be rid of the disincentives, such as the marathon street work that has shooed off films with urban settings. "It has made it a little difficult, unless the scripts have got something to do with road construction," he says through a wince.

Movie studio representatives were mute about Houston and its problems. A former crewman for a film shot in Houston two years ago lauded the cooperation he experienced here, but says that's expected at any location.

"Houston shouldn't beat itself up about the situation," the film staffer says. "There's nothing particularly attractive about Houston -- or bad, for that matter. These are financial decisions. Until the finances change, the situation isn't going to change."

Ferguson feels that, just like Hollywood's ever-shifting preferences from comedies to musicals and war films to horror, the major productions will be heading back eventually.

"Anybody who has been around for a long time realizes that the film and video [industries] are very cyclical," he says. "In all aspects -- story lines, talent and more -- everything is cyclical."

Ferguson likes to cooperate with other film offices, realizing that his commission occasionally needs reciprocal help for a local project. But he admits that some of the requests, like a certain call from Winnipeg, are hard to endure.

The makers of the Enron movie, which had turned down Houston as a location, had a request for him: Could he send some Texas license plates, so the movie would be more authentic?

"Every time you put a stamp on something and send it off to Canada," he says, "it kind of hurts a little bit."

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