It looked like things might turn around five years ago.
Drew Mayer-Oakes was settling into his new job as head of San Antonio’s film commission, created in 1985 as an arm of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. The commission, paid for with a portion of the CVB’s multi-million-dollar hotel/motel tax funding, was established to court the film industry back to the Alamo City, formerly Texas’ hub for movie making, back when silent pictures were all the rage.
Armed with an initial budget of about $177,000, lots of enthusiasm, and an impressive resume, Mayer-Oakes set his sights on a piece of the film industry pie that Austin and Dallas had been gobbling up for years. Local filmmakers were excited, and Mayer-Oakes was, too, proclaiming that “hope” was on the way in a San Antonio Business Journal article publicizing his debut.
“I don’t know what happened here in the past,” Mayer-Oakes told the Journal in 2004. “But I do know that we are the eighth-largest city in the country, and there is room for us to do a lot more here.”
But there hasn’t been a whole lot of change since then, local filmmakers say, causing some to question the film commission’s effectiveness and swelling budget, which has increased 98 percent, from about $177,000 in 2005 to $352,000 this year. If you take 2004’s $75,000 budget into account, when the commission had only one employee vs. today’s three-man operation, costs have more than quadrupled.
Cosmo Inserra, a local film producer and actor who splits his time between Los Angeles, New York, and San Antonio, has started the San Antonio Future Media Initiative, a nonprofit group that’s calling for more transparency in city politics and department budgets — including the film commission’s.
“It should be called ‘Video San Antonio,’” Inserra said, poking fun at the film commission’s “Film San Antonio” mantra.
He said it’s not fair to place blame squarely on Mayer-Oakes’ shoulders, but Inserra would like to see more return on taxpayers’ investment.
“The money (for the film commission) needs to be there,” Inserra said. “The $352,000 I don’t have a problem with. But it needs to be spent in the right places.”
San Antonio experienced a resurgence in multi-million-dollar film production in the late ’90s that dropped off after 2000. Miss Congeniality, a $45-million romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock, was partially filmed here. It was released in December 2000, the same year All The Pretty Horses, also partially filmed in San Antonio with a final price tag of $57 million, was released. Before that, portions of ’97’s Selena ($20 million) and ’95’s Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls ($30 million) were filmed in the area.
But the majority of Texas’ big-budget film business moved to Austin after indie filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater generated major buzz in the late ’90s, creating a sort of production inertia that helped build Austin’s reputation, according to San Antonio-born filmmaker Jim Mendiola.
“Linklater became a poster child,” Mendiola said. “He decided to stay in Austin. Then Robert makes Mariachi. You’re suddenly getting work on a more consistent basis. `Quentin` Tarantino does a film fest every year. ... It spurred this film movement, then infrastructure came. All these things come from a beginning.”
Meanwhile, San Antonio was missing out on loads of economic-impact dollars, and by all indications it still is. According to Texas Film Commission numbers, media producers spent about $2.2 billion in the state from 1999 to 2008, creating 82,640 temporary crew jobs and 38,178 full-time positions. But despite picturesque, versatile locations and the film commission’s open-arms approach to granting permits and coordinating street closures for shoots, San Antonio has continually fallen behind in grabbing those dollars — and jobs.
Last year San Antonio ranked second-to-last or last in the state in nearly all of the Texas Film Commission’s categories for production spending — including studio feature films, independent films, and television series. Austin blew away the state’s market in 2008 with about $194 million in industry spending compared to San Antonio’s $12 million.
But whether that’s the film commission’s fault depends on whom you ask.
Chicken or the egg?
Assuming Mayer-Oakes could sway every producer in Hollywood to give San Antonio a try, he still couldn’t clone professionals like local filmmaker and producer Fernando Cano to make sure that those films have adequate crew.
Cano, who’s resisted the urge to jet off to Los Angeles, New York, or Austin like so many of his colleagues, is definitely not the norm. The University of Texas Film School graduate has lived and worked in San Antonio for 14 years now, most recently with Laszlo Rain, a full-service production company that’s tucked away in a residential neighborhood off Highway 281.
Mayer-Oakes and the majority of filmmakers interviewed for this article say that fleeing talent has weakened San Antonio’s production infrastructure — the film editors, equipment movers, electricians, location scouts, audio people, camera men, equipment shops. Both big-budget feature films and some smaller independent projects need this army of people to get the job done right, and if producers don’t see a big enough crew pool here, they look elsewhere — often either Dallas or Austin. And when those films go elsewhere, so do trained crew members, putting the city in a vicious cycle of having fewer trained professionals for the film commission to tout to out-of-town producers, and therefore not enough work to support the professionals who decide to stay.
“If there are not projects coming in to train those crew members, how are they going to get trained?” Cano asked.
Los Angeles-based producer and writer Glen Hartford oversaw the $3-million production of From Mexico With Love, a feature filmed mostly in San Antonio in 2006 and set for release in August.
“The crew availability `in San Antonio` is not great at all, and equipment availability is very bad,” Hartford said. “We had to bring all our trailers in from L.A.” Which cost him more money.
Hartford’s overall experience was positive, and he wouldn’t deter another producer from filming in San Antonio, but the city needs to wise up if it ever wants to rival Austin as a filmmaking hub, he said. He thinks a city-funded production facility, similar to Austin Studios, would help attract more business.
“At this point, I still think that private infrastructure makes the most sense, but it has been discussed here,” Mayer-Oakes said via email in between meetings around Los Angeles to promote the state’s new tax incentives for film production.
“We don’t have a great piece of property, for instance, like up in Austin at the Austin Studios. Austin Studios is a good example, however, of a public-private partnership.”
Cano said the film commission also needs to do a better job of letting producers know about the professionals who are here.
“There’s a difference between the professional filmmaker and the weekend filmmaker,” Cano said. “It seems like the professional side is getting overlooked in San Antonio. Right now, if `out-of-town producers` pick up the newspaper to look into San Antonio they would think it’s just a bunch of indie filmmakers.”
Mayer-Oakes said marketing San Antonio’s professionals has always been a part of the film commission’s marketing strategy, but sometimes numbers speak for themselves.
“It’s what we talk about, for sure,” he said. “Our locations and our people. It’s even in our ads. The studios and producers want to know about ‘how deep is your crew.’ Right now, we have 107 individuals listed on our online production manual. As a point of reference, `San Antonio-based` Kings of Appletown had a crew of approximately 130.”
The Austin Film Directory has more than 1,900 listings for crew and support services.
“Houston is actually in much the same shape we are with regard to feature films, with few choosing to shoot there in the last 10 years,” Mayer-Oakes said in his email reply. “Austin is a unique city in that its film industry benefits from having the Texas Film Commission there, the Austin Film Commission, the University of Texas Film School, two incredibly successful film festivals, an absolutely perfect geography with at least five small towns/county seats within the union zone, and the Austin Film Society.”
Lack of incentives
Mayer-Oakes is hoping Texas’ new filmmaking incentives will help break San Antonio out of its film funk. During this session, the legislature passed the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, which allows filmmakers to recoup anywhere from 5 to 15 percent of approved expenditures just for filming in Texas — on top of state sales-tax exemptions already in place. It’s meant to align Texas with other states that were quicker to jump on the film-industry incentives bandwagon.
“The state of Texas has practically been crippled by the incentive problem,” Mayer-Oakes said. “Specifically, New Mexico and Louisiana, with their 25-percent tax credits. With our new Texas incentive, which is competitive with our neighbors, we are going to get ourselves back on the ‘can shoot there’ list at the studios.”
Those incentives could be enough to attract big-budget productions here, which would spark growth in San Antonio’s film infrastructure, creating the type of positive snowball effect that made Austin into the film powerhouse it is today. Or they could just give producers yet another reason to go to Austin.
“An important part of the incentive is the ‘underutilized’ clause, which gives producers an additional 2.5-percent grant to film outside of Austin and Dallas,” Mayer-Oakes said.
He also insists the film commission’s budget increase, though more than quadrupling over the past five years — from around $75,000 in 2004 to this year’s $352,000 — should not be labeled significant.
Jesse Borrego — who became a local household name after landing a leading role opposite Benjamin Bratt in the 1993 film Blood In Blood Out and later a recurring role on the Showtime hit Dexter — agreed, adding that a $325,000 budget is “nothing” compared to how much film commissions and industry lobbyists spend in California.
“We are now getting to a point in our budget that we can advertise again, market the city, support local film and events, and have some breathing room,” Mayer-Oakes said.
The young ones
The strength of San Antonio’s film-industry infrastructure is still up for debate, and the result of the state’s new incentive program remains to be seen, but there’s one thing Mayer-Oakes and local filmmakers agree on — San Antonio needs a full, collegiate-level film school.
“There are a lot of cool youth programs and some good filmmakers,” Mendiola said, adding that these same talented kids end up hightailing it to New York or Austin after high school to further their education, which reduces the chances of them bringing films back to San Antonio if they make it big — like Rodriguez and Linklater did for Austin.
“That’s the problem with the film commission, with this need to show a bottom-line correlation in the latest fiscal report,” Mendiola said. “You’re not going to show what giving to a high-school program does next quarter. You’ll see it in the next 15 years. It’s not the film commissioner’s job to do that.”
Mayer-Oakes is working on it anyway, serving on the advisory board for San Antonio College’s Radio, Television and Film department and an exploratory committee for the new digital cinema department at Northwest Vista College. He hopes to see that program get off the ground next year. And SAC is looking into setting up state certification programs for filmmakers as part of its continuing-education program.
But until that happens, the only way for high-school grads to be exposed to filmmaking in San Antonio is through nonprofit organizations such as the Borregos’ Cine Studio San Antonio or the producers and directors that choose to bring their projects here — people like San Antonio-born Gibby Cevallos. He moved to Los Angeles after creating a short film with his brother, Mickey Cevallos, which eventually became The Brothers Garcia, an award-winning series that ended up netting the highest ratings ever for a new Nickelodeon show after its 2000 release. Production ended in 2003.
The Cevallos brothers relocated to L.A. out of necessity, Gibby said, but their heart, and pocketbooks, often drift back to San Antonio. The brothers have teamed up with local starlet Eva Longoria to produce The Cleto Show, a TV series that revolves around life in San Antonio. New episodes began airing May 16 on local Fox channels 11 and 29.
“We’re doing that on our own because we love our city,” Gibby Cevallos said. “If the city wants to get behind us to help, that’s great, but at the same time, we’re going to do that anyway because we know the beauty San Antonio has. The mentality that we have, including Eva, that this is the first step towards taking this to another level.”