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  • Austin American-Statesman

    Hold on, was that Austin? Could new subsidies usher in a second Golden Age of Texas film?

    By Michael Barnes, Austin American-Statesman,

    2024-06-13

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=3RJcly_0tqDRJ3N00

    You know how it goes. You are streaming a movie or TV show late at night. Without warning, an unexpected glimpse of Austin crosses the screen.

    Say perhaps the ornate decorative trim from the interior of a historic Austin hotel, as caught during a much-delayed viewing of the light action comedy "Miss Congeniality," which stars Sandra Bullock, and, according to the published storyline, is not set in Austin.

    Then, what was that?

    Your eye focuses on part of the background. Or on a familiar face in the foreground.

    You rewind to the scene in question. Then your fingers reach for a smart device to help confirm your suspicions.

    In our house, this cognitive sequence happens not infrequently. That's one reason I keep an iPad at the ready atop a side table next to the evening's refreshments.

    Not too much of a surprise, one should say, to see something local and familiar. After all, the movie, film and commercial industries have been filming in Austin — and Texas in general — for more than 100 years. Why wouldn't those captured images, like the ones in "Miss Congeniality," emerge on your screen, at times disguised as somewhere else?

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=1JKjcv_0tqDRJ3N00

    Why am I seeing Austin and, for that matter, Texas on my screen?

    According to the Handbook of Texas Online, the first documentary movies filmed in Texas were probably those that recorded the aftermath of the 1900 hurricane in Galveston.

    San Antonio, the biggest city in the state during the early 20th century, made a play to become the Texas Hollywood. Gaston Mélies, for instance, filmed more than 70 titles at his Star Film Ranch there in 1910. Another San Antonio company moved to Austin in 1911 to produce shorts and features that were distributed nationally.

    For the most part, however, the Golden Age of Hollywood passed Texas by. Even Westerns set in Texas were shot elsewhere. Some famous exceptions were "Viva Zapata!" (1952), "Giant" (1956), "The Alamo" (1959), "Hud" (1962) and "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967).

    More: Starring Texas: What you can learn about the state through its movies

    After the Texas Film Commission was established in 1971, film production spread unevenly around the state. Because creative and laid-back Austin, located near a cross-section of geographic zones, had developed the deepest pool of behind-the-scenes talent by the 1990s, it became the de facto capital of Texas moviemaking.

    Although the unreliability of film subsidy at the state level drove some business away, major resident producers and directors — Richard Linklater, Elizabeth Avellán, Robert Rodriguez, etc. — and high wattage star power — Matthew McConaughey, Willie Nelson, Sandra Bullock, Kyle Chandler, Glen Powell, etc. — helped keep the city in front of cameras.

    More: She was Matthew McConaughey's co-star in 1992. Now, she's back to celebrate Trisha Yearwood

    In 2018, Mike Blizzard, an Austin producer for Linklater's "Hit Man" with native star Powell, created the documentary, "Also Starring Austin," which, among other things, scans more than 120 films for Austin history, and demonstrates how all that local filming has helped establish Austin's identity and culture.

    "As we watched all these movies, we realized there was something maybe more interesting going on, in that these films reflect not just change, but constants as well," Blizzard told the American-Statesman. "There’s a persistence of Austin’s culture in the face of all this change, and a certain feedback loop between the city and its creative artists.

    "Austin isn’t only a place that has been filmed a tremendous number of times; its culture has also encouraged that kind of thing."

    The case of 'Miss Congeniality'

    Recently, as part of a project to match Linklater's youthful habit of watching 600 movies a year , we caught "Miss Congeniality," a light action comedy about a tomboy FBI agent who goes undercover at a beauty pageant.

    It made a lot of noise locally during its shoot, and turned into something of a surprise hit, grossing $212 million worldwide, mostly based on the undeniable onscreen charm of sometime Austinite Sandra Bullock.

    More: Go inside revitalized Austin's Paggi House, where pre-Civil War complex finds new life

    "Miss Congeniality" (2000) is not set in Austin, but rather New York and San Antonio. Yet one catches only flashes of those cities.

    It's hard to fake a busy midtown Manhattan street scene, so the sections set outside the St. Regis Hotel in New York City can be certified. As for San Antonio, it would be hard to duplicate the sweet little stage at Venue Villita on the Riverwalk below La Villita Historic Village, used for an onstage pageant scene.

    As for another "Miss Congeniality" scene set in the front of the Alamo, my theatrical intuition nagged at me. The first "B roll" shot is clearly the Alamo. Nevertheless, later scenes that feature the mission church façade looks too much like a stage set. Even a glimpse of the high Crockett Hotel sign behind it did not completely convince me. Then again, the real Alamo has evolved into something of a permanent stage set.

    On to Austin: Although the color scheme has changed since 2000, the rooms that pose for the interiors of the St. Regis Hotel are irrefutably the Driskill Hotel. Also, it's easy to pick out the city's first Starbucks, now closed, in part because of the buildings across Congress Avenue.

    More: Austin honors local film champion Robert Rodriguez with star at the Paramount Theatre

    You must pay closer attention to identify Bass Concert Hall on the University of Texas campus as the stand-in for main pageant stage at the San Antonio Convention Center. If the stage itself is easily disguised, the brutalist exterior of the hall — since lightened up — is unmistakable.

    The pageant contestants stay at a deliberately anodyne conference hotel, but once you've discovered that a good fourth of the movie was shot at the Omni Hotel Austin Southpark — now called the Austin Southpark Hotel — at Ben White Boulevard and Interstate 35, the particular look stands out.

    What about the local actors with speaking parts? Having been an Austin theater follower for 40 years allows me to identify faces and voices right away. Veteran actor Marco Perella is the businessman irritated by Bullock's intrusion at the Starbucks. Storyteller and actor Bernadette Nason is a pageant mom, while Rupert Reyes plays a security guard.

    I might have caught fleeting glimpses of other Austin talent: Paige Bishop, Lucien Douglas, Pei-San Brown. Hard to say.

    "'Miss Congeniality' is a great movie to profile, since so many people know it, but many, many people, even in Austin, don't know it was shot here," Blizzard says. "The original Dog & Duck, where she orders a 'pint' and gets a pint of ice cream, being one of the cooler lost Austin locations. It was also the first film shot at the former Mueller Airport which very soon after became the home of Austin Studios.”

    "Miss Congeniality" turns 25 next year. At times, that period of flourishing local production seems like a century ago. Yet now with new state subsidies and promised suburban studios in Bastrop and Hays counties, perhaps we'll see a second Golden Age of Austin on the screen. After all, a rejuvenated South by Southwest Festival has brought new international attention to the city, with some of the biggest premieres in the land, such as the Oscar-winning "Everything Everywhere All at Once."

    Only 119 or so more movies to go if I want to match Blizzard's Austin-starring list.

    Only 599 or so more movies to go if I want to match Linklater's onetime annual film-watching goal.

    Send your questions — or answers — about Central Texas past and present to "Austin Answered" at mbarnes@statesman.

    This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Hold on, was that Austin? Could new subsidies usher in a second Golden Age of Texas film?

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