When Austin’s Robert Mueller Airport shut down in 1999 following the opening of the new Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, city and state officials wrangled over what to do with the abandoned Mueller facility. Would it become a private airfield for dot-com millionaires? A mixed-use development of residential and retail space? How about a full-fledged Hollywood-style film production studio?
This last option would have been met with howls of derisive laughter a year or so ago, and even now there remains some skepticism about the more grandiose visions of transforming this desolate landscape into a teeming hotbed of film production. But at a November 13th inauguration/tour/luncheon, representatives of the Austin Film Society and the city government joined hands in an enthusiastic show of support for the production facility.
When the airlines moved south, they left behind a number of vast, cavernous hangars that attracted the attention of some local filmmakers, among them Robert Rodriguez and Elizabeth Avellan, who saw an opportunity to transform these spaces into soundstages. Before long Rodriguez and Avellan had done just that, setting up shop for their latest feature “Spy Kids.” Several other big productions, including the new Sandra Bullock vehicle “Miss Congeniality,” soon followed. Members of the Austin Film Society began to envision a more permanent arrangement, and the city council voted to support the proposal earlier this year.
A host of luminaries from the Austin film community were on hand for this week’s event, including Avellan, Austin Film Society creative director Richard Linklater, “Iron Giant” screenwriter Tim McCanlies and Ain’t-It-Cool-News guru (and Film Threat’s best friend) Harry Knowles. Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black led a tour of hangars and a suite of offices that are currently in use by the production staff of the upcoming teen comedy “The New Guy”. One hangar has been set aside for special effects and models, another for construction, and still another houses a garage band set complete with suburban neighborhood backdrops. Pointing out the now-abandoned airport control tower, Black noted that the tower is scheduled for demolition, and that Quentin Tarantino has first dibs if he wants to blow it up for a movie scene.
The luncheon’s press conference was short on specifics and long on thank yous and optimistic projections. The hope is to lure production not only from Hollywood but from Canada, which has seen an influx of film and television activity in recent years at the expense of local crews (even “The Texas Rangers” was filmed in Canada). With a major strike looming and studios anxious to start cameras rolling on as many productions as possible, it’s not hard to envision Austin Studios becoming an attractive option, at least in the short-term. Its long-term success will depend largely on community involvement, but the neighborhood associations are behind it, and a show of support from the local high-tech crowd bodes well. Even if Tarantino does end up blowing the control tower to smithereens.