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Hollywood, Texas-style

Creative ambitions and a maverick spirit fuel Austin's movie ambitions. A home-grown festival kicks off this week.

March 02, 2003|Dana Calvo | Special to The Times

Austin, Texas — 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.

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