Despite the persistent fantasy Austin entertains about itself that it is the "third coast" of filmmaking, the most recent batch of high-profile movies shot in Austin have not fared terribly well either critically or commercially. And the trend doesn't look to be reversing or leveling out.
First there was the disaster that was Disney's The Alamo, a $100 million epic that ended up being so focus-grouped to death that it was rendered incoherent in the editing, and died at the box office, taking in less than a quarter of its production budget. This one really hurt, because it was the most massive production to come our way ever (I walked the sets, and it was really the kind of experience to get an aspiring director pumped about filmmaking), and there was no doubting the dedication of director John Lee Hooker to historical fidelity and narrative integrity. Trouble is, every time those qualities come into contact with the suits, the suits Windex them into oblivion.
Richard Linklater's adaptation of A Scanner Darkly has done all right, but not stunningly. Reviews have been mixed, and after several weeks the movie has yet to expand past 263 screens (the original plan was for 1500), having grossed just over $5 million. It only cost about $15 million to shoot, but with Matrix-man Keanu in the lead, there's no reason why Warner — the very same studio — couldn't have pumped the link to the cerebral-SF crowd and gotten the take up to $15-$20M by now.
Now comes word that Fox is actively trying to bury Mike Judge's Idiocracy. It goes without saying that there has been a lot of anticipation among Judge's fans for his followup to Office Space. Does Idiocracy suck that badly? Or is Fox operating under the bizarre notion that, since Office Space tanked in theaters but became a monster DVD hit, the thing to do is go for a deliberate theatrical flop with Idiocracy in the hopes that DVD history will repeat itself? I mean, WTF? Yes, any of us in this business knows the business makes no sense. But I think we all assumed that Hollywood likes making loads and loads of money. How hard would it have been to put Idiocracy on 1000 screens with "From the director of Office Space!" screaming at you from the one-sheet? Too hard for Rupert Murdoch's bean counters, evidently.
Finally, there have been the smaller indie films, none of which has done jack or squat. The Quiet opened on a meager 7 screens this weekend, to mostly shite reviews. This one was done by Burnt Orange Productions, a company affiliated with the University of Texas. Their hook is they keep budgets down by hiring film students as PA's, not paying them but giving them academic credit. Small wonder the LA members of The Quiet's crew constantly ridiculed the Austin crew for not being up to speed. No doubt they'll take their reports back home with them, further damaging Austin's rep as a worthwhile place to shoot your film.
So where do things stand now? Well, Boys Don't Cry director Kimberly Peirce has a still-untitled Iraq War project shooting right now (after numerous delays and crew shakeups — I almost got the storyboarding job on it), and there's the Rodriguez/Tarantino horror teamup Grind House. The latter will at least appeal to those directors' fans, but it may not be enough to pick up the industry's enthusiasm for Austin as a location, not to the level of production the city enjoyed in the first half of this decade.