Interview with Elizabeth Avellán
Fiscal Notes recently spoke with Elizabeth Avellán, co-owner and vice president of Austin-based Troublemaker Studios, the production company she and director Robert Rodriguez founded in 2000. Troublemaker includes an in-house visual effects studio, music and publishing arms. It has since produced the “Spy Kids” trilogy, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” “Sin City” and “The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lavagirl in 3D.”
Fiscal Notes: What attracted you to Texas as a place to make films?
Avellán: Robert Rodriguez and I have both lived here since 1988. By the time we did “El Mariachi” we saw that there was an infrastructure being built by people like Bill Wittliff and Bill Scott, who made movies-of-the-week. Rick Linklater also made "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused" in Austin so it was obvious that we could make our movies at home, too.
Robert and I met in Austin, but we ended up having to go to Los Angeles and Mexico to shoot “Desperado" and "From Dusk Till Dawn." We were always looking to come back. We had heard about the wonderful crews in Austin. The first movie we shot in Austin was “The Faculty.” We started preparing it in 1997 and shot it in 1998.
Texas had amazing crews, amazing people. Everybody was so helpful. At that time we were able to have about 75 percent local crews. Some of the crews we had used in “Desperado” and “From Dusk Till Dawn,” moved to Austin to work on the film. Key people began to set themselves up in Texas. That was an interesting thing that happened. We had to bring some workers from Los Angeles, like mechanical effects crews and stunts, but the rest were all Texas residents.
Texas-based films began creating more and more skilled crew people. Young people that were interested in working in movies began as interns or production assistants and then moved on to being a crew-member in a department. As soon as our movie “Spy Kids” came out, we shot “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” Half of the crew was from Mexico and half was from Austin. All of a sudden we knew we had a family in Texas.
Though George Lucas started the high definition movement, Robert also began shooting movies in high definition. Between 2001 and 2004 we made five high definition movies with our Texas crew. This made Austin a hub for crew that knew how to work with the new systems.
FN: What has happened to Texas’ film industry in recent years?
Avellán: What has happened is so upsetting to people like us, to people like Rick Linklater, to anybody that is a Texas filmmaker who likes to work with crews in Texas. An industry had been created in Texas, and all of a sudden, Louisiana and New Mexico took a lot of the people we trained. Los Angeles executives began asking them to come and work in other states. These are very high-level, specialized jobs that were given to Texas crew. They had already been trained in Texas by films shot in Texas. Because of the situation we’re in, these people have to go work in other states. I can’t keep them from going. At this time we have one movie a year at most to give them.
We knew it was going to go away and tried to get something passed. We encouraged friends of ours to come and shoot in Austin. Such a huge foundation had been created. The only thing we did in Los Angeles was the digital transfer of the negative film print.
In 2002, before Louisiana’s incentives were passed, Louisiana captured about $20 million from the film business. In 2007, five years later, $620 million came to Louisiana from films. Now it’s happening in Michigan, Puerto Rico, New Mexico, and Massachusetts. Basically, all over the country there are better incentives than what Texas offers. That’s the historical arc of the story.
FN: What will happen if Texas film industry incentives are not increased or made more competitive this session?
Avellán: There is a misconception about these rebates. They are not a hand-out. For example, Puerto Rico gives you a 40 percent tax credit, but they have a hurricane season from June to November, and that makes it difficult to shoot. Also, we have to bring in so many people from outside of Puerto Rico to shoot a movie there.
People ask, “Why aren’t you asking for 40 percent?” In Texas, with our IATSE Local 484, (International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees) the hourly rates are lower than most other IATSE locals. It’s great pricing. You are using 80 to 90 percent Texas workers without even flinching. You spend so much less in Texas. You are doing it all locally. You can do your post-production locally. We have visual effects, editing facilities, sound mixing facilities and talented composers.
If the investors in movies are getting $3 million or $4 million in rebates from somewhere else, it is hard for us to make a movie for $3 million or $4 million cheaper in Texas to compensate. That is the hard part of the whole thing. It has to happen, or we must fold the shop — everything we’ve done — and go shoot somewhere else.
FN: What type of film incentive increase would make Texas more competitive?
Avellán: We don’t have a state income tax. States like Louisiana and New Mexico are getting that incentive money from state income tax. To us, passing a 20 percent incentive will more than equal what someone else may be doing at 30 percent. If we can pass something in the 15 to 20 percent range, we’re more competitive.
After all the years – 11 years – that we’ve been shooting here, the attitude of the crews is still so wonderful. Producers and directors from L.A. love to shoot in Texas. But you can have all the good reputation and all the good will, and it’s all gone. When it comes down to it, it’s all about the money.
In my world, the most important thing is bringing the crews back, so the people can come back to Texas and live. Some of them have already moved and live in Louisiana and New Mexico.
In the past, some of the video games based on our movies were done in Texas. We would hire visual effects companies in Texas. We’re no longer able to. We have to go somewhere else to get a bigger rebate. I can get so much more in Canada, even England.
It’s sad. During bad economic times such as we’re in right now, more films are made. It’s still the most inexpensive form of entertainment for families. People want to go to movies when they’re down, they want to escape.
Video and Internet games will continue to get made, just not in Texas. It’s still inexpensive entertainment. We have been trying to get commercials to come, but because of the same situation, there are very few commercials coming into Texas.
Before, the crews in Texas knew that there would always be an influx of work. There was so much coming in all the time. The older ones who had been trained were willing to train the younger ones. We moved people up in their jobs so they could train the younger ones. This is the saddest thing for me. It’s been a huge brain drain.
FN: What projects is Troublemaker Studios working on? Are any of these being shot in Texas?
Avellán: We filmed a family movie called "Shorts" this summer. Entirely shot in Texas. It will be out in theaters in August 2009.
Troublemaker Studios has projects, but we will not be able to film them in Texas. We have two studios in Austin, Austin Studios and Troublemaker Studios that are mostly dark right now. We have many offers for movies, “Sin City 2,” “Jetsons,” etc... As of right now, none will be filmed in Texas.
FN: Of all the films you have produced, which one are you most proud of?
Avellán: For me, I love “Shorts” which comes out in August. It’s very sweet. All of our children are in it. It’s live action. “Sin City” was a really wonderful, interesting movie. I also love the “Spy Kids” movies. I love all of the family movies we’ve done. Those are the ones that have the most longevity.
I took three of my children to Space Camp in Alabama. We were waiting in the hotel room, and they were showing “Spy Kids” on the Disney channel. My kids were watching it. It was so much fun for them to see it at this age. They said “Mama, that looks like so much fun, how did you and Dad do that?” I said, “It was fun!” FN