Risky Business

Success in the film industry is all about managing risk. The Hollywood system does this with a proven formula of big stars, bloated budgets and oppressive marketing campaigns that ensure a huge opening weekend. That way production companies are guaranteed a profit even if the movie sucks. In fact, a 45 percent drop in ticket sales is considered respectable in a film's second week.

Or you can keep costs down. That's the philosophy behind the new Houston production company ROI Films (Return On Investment). Company founder Tom Vaughan was working as the artistic director of West-Mon Repertory Theatre (in the building that now houses Chances) when he was discovered by a talent agent who liked his scripts. After establishing himself by writing television movies like Blackout with Jane Seymour and Model on ABC, he relocated to Houston to create a production company that could cast, film and produce movies with budgets under $3 million -- a drop in the Hollywood bucket, but huge by local standards.

Unlike many unclassifiable (and thus unmarketable) independent "art house" films, Vaughan says, low-budget films in proven genres tend to make money. Better yet, because they cost less, they can bring bigger returns than expensive blockbusters -- hence the company name. That's the sales pitch, anyway. A look at the most successful indies bears it out: The Blair Witch Project is horror, The Full Monty is a comedy, The Usual Suspects and Fargo are crime dramas.

For the nuts and bolts of filming, Vaughan has enlisted the talents of producer Howard Griffith, who has had his hands on just about every film shot in Houston during the past 30 years, including the upcoming VH1 movie Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story. Vaughan also has a presence in Los Angeles; ROI's head of development is former Wes Craven assistant Julie Plec, who can maintain those vital California contacts.

As for Texas's supposed film capital, Vaughan is unimpressed. "Austin doesn't have anything Houston doesn't," he says. "They've got one director and a coolness factor." He does admit that if Houston doesn't jump in the game within the next three years, Austin will truly corner the business, despite Houston's obvious advantages. In Houston, a producer can find ocean, swamp, forest, jungle and small-town locations. Griffith has shot scenes here that were set in New York and Philadelphia, and for much less. "The only thing we don't have is mountains," Griffith says. He thinks an in-house production company is just what the Houston film community needs to provide steady work so local crews don't have to wait for Hollywood to deign to shoot a few seconds of footage here.

ROI already has acquired several scripts and is actively seeking investors. The company plans to start filming two features a year, moving up to four or five annually. They're aiming for a limited theater distribution before hitting the ancillary markets like cable and video. As a last resort, they can always put a film on the festival circuit.

Since the entertainment industry is in many ways immune to recessions, Vaughan thinks he'll have no trouble convincing some local businesses to take a chance on them. They certainly have the credentials to back them up. According to Alfred Cervantes of the Houston Film Commission, "These are two of the more legitimate people here in Houston, so we're rooting for them." And so are a lot of local movie buffs.

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Dylan Otto Krider