Hollywood, Texas-style

Special to The Times

Alex Holdridge stands in the $605-a-month apartment he shares with his girlfriend, surrounded by wandering ivy vines, paper lanterns and a bead curtain that sways long after he walks out of his bedroom. The 27-year-old college dropout groans as he relives his first pitch meeting with Hollywood executives.

"I didn't know what I was doing. Had no idea," he says. "I talked for, like, 10, 15 minutes. At least."

Despite his awkward inability to deliver a smooth two-sentence pitch, Holdridge got his break -- a handshake agreement from Red Wagon Films to develop a rewritten version of his script into a feature-length movie.

And he did it from the seemingly unlikely cinematic outpost of Austin, Texas.

Like Holdridge, Austin's film scene is fueled by creative ambitions, a maverick spirit and a certain disdain for the rules of Hollywood, more than 1,400 miles away.

Austin's also a long way from the Sundance Film Festival, with its J. Lo sightings and escalating commercial undertone. When the South by Southwest Film festival begins here Friday, it's a safe bet that movie lovers and amateur filmmakers will far outnumber talent agents and studio acquisitions executives.

It's not that Hollywood is unaware of Austin's thriving regional film scene, with film school graduates and struggling screenwriters hanging out at the same irreverent coffeehouses as a few genuine A-listers.

"It's definitely another place to look for emerging talent, but I feel kind of out of place elaborating on it, because, well, I've never gone to the festivals," says Pete Chiarelli, the creative executive who met with Holdridge on behalf of Red Wagon Films, a Sony subsidiary that produced "Girl, Interrupted," and "Stuart Little 2."

"It's not on my radar, but I know there are people like Rick Linklater who work down there," adds Alexis Alexanian, co-founder of IFC's InDigEnt, the company that made such films as "Tadpole" and "Pieces of April," which drew fervent bidding at Sundance this year and became one of the festival's most talked-about titles.

"That said, I don't know how Austin affects the industry in general."

Linklater, the Texas native who founded the Austin Film Society in 1985, is widely seen as a role model and civic leader here. The indie writer-director burst onto the national scene in 1991 with his film "Slacker," followed up with "Dazed and Confused" in 1993 and then, in 2001, put out "Waking Life," an animated feature about consciousness and philosophy that won a New York Film Critics Circle Award.

Linklater has changed the landscape of Austin, almost everyone agrees, by giving filmmakers real commercial opportunity. Just before "Waking Life" came out, he asked the City Council to let the film society rent the abandoned hangars at the old municipal airport on the northern edge of the town. Ten months later, Austin Studios was born on 20 acres of land next to the National Guard. In less than three years, 12 feature movies have been shot there, including, most recently, "The Life of David Gale," and the remake of one of Austin's most famous cult contributions, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

A true film culture

Another big gun in Austin is Robert Rodriguez, who became famous with "El Mariachi" in 1992 and graduated to writing and directing the "Spy Kids" trilogy.

"You don't have to move to L.A.," Rodriguez says, after a day on the set of "Spy Kids 3-D; Game Over." "We really love the independence. Here, you're just one of many different kinds of artists, doing your thing and being creative."

People like Holdridge, who ended up staying here after attending the University of Texas, say they dream of making a career based in Austin, traveling to Hollywood only on business. "In L.A., I think you're interacting with less than 99% of the real world. I want to be able to keep in touch," Holdridge says. "L.A. is practical for making movies, but it's unreal for life. As a writer, it's probably not a healthy place to have longevity.

"You couldn't understand the pathetic place from which I come," he says, referring to his Southern California roots. "The only reason I was able to make these movies is because of the film culture of Austin. The real unique thing about Austin is not only because so many talented people are willing to put their time into a movie, but there's a community. I can show the movie, and people will show up. That's amazingly weird. I grew up in Orange County, in Mission Viejo, and my culture was Pop-Tarts and Blockbuster."

Whether Austin can become the self-sustaining regional filmmaking paradise envisioned by Holdridge and many other locals remains to be seen.

"If Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez can figure out how to make it more than their own back lot where they make films, then it has a chance," says Cassian Elwes, head of William Morris Independent, the agency's independent film packaging division.

It's certainly proving to be a nurturing environment for Holdridge, who shot his first film, "Wrong Numbers," on a video camera, with a budget of $10,000. It's a 75-minute comedy about underage friends in the South who spend the night trying to buy beer. Shown at the Austin Film Festival in 2001, it won the award for best showcase feature.

"It was raw," says Barbara Morgan, co-founder of the festival. "It was really, really raw, but it was good."

A TV writer in the audience helped broker an introduction to Red Wagon Films, but in the meantime, Holdridge started doing some networking of his own, Austin-style.

He paid a visit to the co-owner of the most popular art-house cinema in town, Alamo Drafthouse. "Alex approached me and gave me a DVD, which I watched at home and really enjoyed," says its co-owner, Tim League. "Wrong Numbers" played consecutively to more than 130 people each night at the Alamo for more than two weeks.

By the time Holdridge flew out to L.A. for his awkward meeting with Red Wagon Films, "Wrong Numbers" had been seen by thousands in Austin and was renting out well at Vulcan Video. The executives at Red Wagon encouraged Holdridge to rewrite his screenplay under the title "Beer Run" for possible release as a mainstream youth-oriented movie. He doesn't have an agent yet, and, he admits, he's flat broke. But his second film, "Sexless," a romantic drama about two couples mired in sexual complacency, has earned a South by Southwest premiere on Saturday night at the historic and lush 1,200-seat Paramount Theater.

(For the first time ever, as many as one-third of the 170 music videos, short and experimental films and feature-length movies being shown at the festival were locally shot.)

"Sexless" was entirely funded by a local producer who saw "Wrong Numbers" and, according to Holdridge, agreed to pony up nearly $200,000 under the condition that his identity be kept secret. "He doesn't want a lot of people asking him for money," Holdridge says.

Smaller-scale cash infusions keep other films afloat. A pair of University of Texas film school graduates, for example, are shooting a feature-length movie on a $4,000 grant from the Film Society, but their bigger windfall was $16,000 worth of donated digital camera and editing equipment.

Where creativity rules

In a community of 680,000 with a centralized downtown, buzz about a hot new film circulates efficiently. "Even though it's such a small city, it's an incredibly creative place," says Richard Florida, the Heinz Professor of Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon University and author of "The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life" (Basic Books, 2002). In the book, he ranked Austin second only to San Francisco as the most creative city in the country.

According to Florida -- whose theory rests on his own recipe of statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics and quirky parameters like the number of patents per capita -- a city's ability to attract and keep creative residents is partly dependent on its acceptance of gays, lesbians and people of color. Many political gay and lesbian organizations are based in Austin, some within walking distance of the state capitol building; at the same time, Austin proudly lacks a gay neighborhood.

"We're such a liberal, relaxed town we don't need a gay ghetto where gays and lesbians can go to feel comfortable," says Scott Dinger, founder of the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, another of Austin's nationally known film festivals.

The relaxed mode is especially appealing to Hollywood refugees.

"I love the look on the faces of my friends from L.A. when they come to Austin: There's a clearing of the eyes, a lowering of the guard, a relaxation of the posture," says Bill Broyles, a member of the board of the Austin Film Festival and co-founder of the magazine Texas Monthly. He also happens to have written, most recently, "Unfaithful," and "Cast Away."

For the last few months, Broyles has been trying out Jackson, Wyo., as a permanent residence, but his local friends say these out-of-state jaunts never last long. For now, he's skiing, writing and always available to boast about Austin. "Let's just say," Broyles says on the phone, "there aren't a lot of people in Austin worried about their parking spot."

Still, in recent years, there has been heavier A-list foot traffic here, thanks, mostly, to Linklater. Lynda Obst, who has a home on 25 acres outside Austin, leaves her base in L.A. for important events in Austin, like the blooming of bluebonnets in April. Obst produced "Hope Floats" here in 1998, but she is best known as executive producer of "Contact" (1997) and "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993).

"As a producer it's a great location," she says. "It has great crew, gorgeous light and [is] not expensive. It can double ... as Western cities and as classic American cities, for both contemporary and period films."

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino, a good friend of Linklater, blows into town each August with a batch from his personal library of favorite films. He takes up residence at the Alamo and hosts theme nights. Such offbeat cinematic celebrations are a way of life. Moviegoers have been known to float around Lake Travis on inner tubes and watch "Jaws" projected onto a 50-foot inflatable screen. They twirl forks in heaping plates of pasta at the Alamo and settle in for an evening of spaghetti westerns. They crowd into the dangerously dark auditorium at the Hideout to watch Super-8 films from MAFIA (Make a Film in a Weekend).

But inevitably, there are those whose ambitions outgrow the town.

"Austin offers a super safe place to figure out who you are as a filmmaker and what you have to offer, but in terms of power and impact, you have to leave," says 30-year-old Jay Duplass, whose film "This Is John" landed him an arrangement with the William Morris Agency. "I made a movie in my kitchen and went to Sundance and then got a deal. I'm sure when I leave, people here will say I'm a sellout."

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