Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Joe's Top 10 Texas film stories of the decade

The last decade has been a wild ride. I started writing about the Texas film industry in the late '90s, mainly covering film festivals for the San Antonio Express-News and writing the occasional film feature for the Austin American-Statesman. Then I had the notion that Texas needed a column about the industry itself that looked forward not backward. I, of course, was clueless that Jane Sumner had been writing just such a column for The Dallas Morning News for a couple of decades.

Being the fool I am, I proceeded to write a column with hopes that I could sell it to smaller newspapers all over Texas. I was wrong. But I got lucky and the Austin American-Statesman picked the column up in early 2000. I moved the column to The Austin Chronicle in 2004 and added a Dallas Morning News column in late 2005—a year after Sumner took early retirement. As we end the aughts, here are the top film stories I covered during the last decade. They provide a microcosm of what the state's film industry underwent:

1. The Alamo comes to town. I heard rumors that Ron Howard was planning to do a remake of The Alamo and shoot it in Texas. When Howard went to the governor's mansion to announce the project, I was there covering it for the Statesman. Unfortunately so was one of their capitol reporters. I wrote the story anyway, and it ran the next day on the cover of Variety. Later I sniffed out the filming location and that story ran on the cover of the Statesman. During filming I visited the set and provided this report for the San Antonio Express-News. Are you getting the point of why this film that wasn't directed by Howard and wasn't particularly good (blame Disney and its cost-cutting and script-chopping ways) still tops my list? It also is perhaps the biggest example of the Texas Myth.

2. My original Statesman column was titled “On Location,” which made it easy to convince my editors to send me to the sets of such local productions as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Rookie, which was directed by Texan John Lee Hancock, the same guy who would go on to direct the ill-fated The Alamo. He's a great guy, a fine writer and we'll be seeing more and more for him years to come.

3. The most in-depth stories I wrote about the film industry
appeared in The Austin Chronicle. Certainly my best journalism is contained in a piece that put a face on the slow down of the Texas film scene, but this piece on the death of Burnt Orange Productions also had its merits. Both pieces are about dreamers and what happens when art runs up against business.

4. I wrote about the technical side of film as well in this piece marking the death of VHS. Video Business, a sister publication to Variety had me investigate the now-forgotten EZ Disc. And then there were the high-def format wars and the changes in film distribution.

5. Friday Night Lights reared its head majorly during the decade, including in the under-reported case of Richard Linklater, who started work on what I now realize was his last try at directing a version of the book. He even cast Mehcad Brooks, an Austin native who credits the nascient project with getting his career going. Linklater declined to talk to me about the project, despite widespread publicity in Texas, and wasn't pleased by this story that ran in Variety. I somehow didn't cover the actual FNL film much, but I did visit the set of the television show both in the first season and in the second.

6. I've written a few hundred film columns across the decade. Here's an example from the Statesman, another from The Austin Chronicle and yet one more from The Dallas Morning News.

7. The Alamo Drafthouse's Rolling Road Show
gave me the chance to try more creative writing approaches as I watched The Last Picture Show in Archer City and viewed The Goonies in a cave with tiny Corey Feldman in attendance.

8. It all began for me with coverage of film festivals. I wrote about Tim McCanlies' Dancer, Texas at one of those early festivals, which was technically in the '90s. But a blurb from my review still appears in publicity materials. This piece about Alejandro Gomez Monteverde's film Bella was a cover story in The Austin Chronicle. The Texas Film Hall of Fame awards are a chance to do a little star gazing. Here are some fun photos and a few more.

9. The big film industry battle of the decade was the long struggle to convince the Texas Legislature to create a film incentives program, then to adequately fund it. Here's a story about the side battle over how Texas is portrayed on screen, and here's another piece about the overall incentives push.

10. Television series production is clearly the current savior for the Texas film industry. Here's a visit to the set of North Texas-shot The Deep End and a chat with star Billy Zane.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Joe's Top 10 articles of 2009

As a free-lance writer I get to (mostly) pick and choose what I write about. The Texas film industry, literature and college football have been my specialties of late. Here are my picks of the best of what I wrote in 2009:

1. I spent a very long lunch at Threadgill's World Headquarters with Joe Lansdale for this in-depth piece in The Austin Chronicle.

2. I love the challenge of visiting a movie or television show set and conveying the experience to readers. My visit to the The Deep End set and chatting with Billy Zane for The Dallas Morning News is a case in point.

3. I turned my wife's high school homecoming into a tale a bit larger that included the young guy touted as the nation's best ball carrier (it's debatable) and a certain guy (Britt Daniel) from the band Spoon.

4. Tommy Warren used the skills he got designing prisons to create a film studio called Spiderwood out near Bastrop. He gave me a tour of the facility and of his life's journey for this Austin Chronicle article.

5. Just prior to when films are released, press people are herded one by one into a hotel room to interview the director and/or stars. I got to sit down and chat with Mike Judge about Extract and found him to be a pretty good interview and a very interesting person. The resulting article ran both in the San Antonio Express-News and The Houston Chronicle.

6. My favorite up-and-coming literary writer is Dan Chaon. I sent him a fan email after reading his short story "Big Me," so you can bet I jumped at the chance to interview him about his latest novel Await Your Reply for both The Austin Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News.

7. While I'm no longer a regular film contributor for The Austin Chronicle, I have been writing a weekly blog for them about Colt McCoy, Coach Mack Brown and the Texas Longhorns football team as it aims for a nation title. In this last installment, I talked about luck and the literature of football.

8. Larry Hagman and others were inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame to open the South By Southwest Film Festival in March. I don't do a lot of short-deadline journalism, but this piece was hammered out very quickly on the spot during the festivities for The Dallas Morning News.

9. I used to advise the student newspaper at St. Edward's University and did much of the programming for the Texas Intercollegiate Press Association's statewide conference in 2004, which we co-sponsored. I invited Clarence Swensen, one of the last surviving Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz, to speak to students as part of the on-site feature-writing contest. He and his wife Myrna were great people and I even got a peek inside their Pflugerville home. Clarence died this year and I wrote a short piece honoring him in The Austin Chronicle.

10. I cut my teeth as a beat reporter covering mainly politics. I was known for being thorough and having a bit of a killer instinct about my various beats. I continue that as a Texas film industry columnist, a job that ended in July for The Austin Chronicle when they made some major cuts due to the tough economic times. I continue as the Shot in Texas film columnist for The Dallas Morning News. In the Morning News I broke the news both that The Deep End would shoot in North Texas and that the Coen brothers version of True Grit would film in Central Texas. Oh, and I was right there with the media pack with news of ABC's series Jack and Dan being set in and filming in Dallas. Here's the first scoop on True Grit.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

TV shows jump start Dallas film scene

My latest SHOT IN TEXAS column from the Dallas Morning News talks about the shows The Deep End and Jack and Dan,which are waking up the North Texas film scene.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

ABC moves "The Deep End" premiere up to January

Jan. 21 at 7 p.m. Central to be exact, an ABC rep revealed this evening. The Deep End finishes a six-episode shoot at the Studios at Las Colinas this week. If you didn't already read my report from this set as published in The Dallas Morning News, it's here.

It appears now that an additional episode order will be based on how the show does in the ratings in January.

Here's thr press release from ABC:


ABC announces the series premiere of new drama “The Deep End,” which brings to life the tragedies and triumphs of five earnest twenty-something first-year associates fighting to stay afloat in one of Los Angeles’ top law firms, THURSDAY, JANUARY 21 (8:00-9:00 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network.

In a city where wealth and power rule, everyone strives to make it to the top. For five eager and attractive law associates, being accepted into one of Los Angeles’ most prestigious law firms is the first step on their way up. But as they soon realize, the law offices of Sterling are far more cutthroat than they could have ever imagined and they must fight for themselves and their clients to stay afloat in these shark infested waters. These young and impressionable associates are immediately thrown into cases and forced to deal with the emotional and ethical decisions that come with the job they’ve worked so hard for.

In the premiere episode, “Pilot,” Dylan (Matt Long, “Jack and Bobby”) is given an impossible pro bono custody case, Beth (Leah Pipes, “Sorority Row”) keeps mum when a 90-year-old man signs an agreement thinking that she’s his daughter, Liam (Ben Lawson, “Neighbours”) must get a client to sign with the firm under false pretenses, Addy (Tina Majorino, “Big Love”) finally gets some attention from her boss when she speaks her mind, and Malcolm (Mehcad Brooks, “True Blood”) gets off on the wrong foot when he’s hired outside of the firm’s traditional process.

While these five ambitious associates struggle to adjust their appetites and ideals to the fast-paced demands of their jobs, they’re faced with the warring partners at Sterling who hold the keys to their future, and a reluctant mentor, Rowdy (Norbert Leo Butz), who tries to guide them and the firm through the trenches. For Dylan, saving face with one partner in particular is much more difficult after he falls for the firm’s paralegal -- unbeknownst to him, she’s already in bed with firm partner Cliff Huddle (Billy Zane, “Titanic”), who is married to fellow partner Susan Oppenheim (Nicole Ari Parker) and fighting for the soul of the firm with its namesake, Hart Sterling (Clancy Brown, “Carnivale”).

“The Deep End” stars Matt Long as Dylan Hewitt, Billy Zane as Cliff Huddle, Clancy Brown as Hart Sterling, Norbert Leo Butz as Rowdy Kaiser, Leah Pipes as Beth Branford, Tina Majorino as Addy Fisher, Ben Lawson as Liam Priory, Nicole Ari Parker as Susan Oppenheim and Mehcad Brooks as Malcolm Bennet.

Guest starring are Rachelle LeFevre (“Twilight”) as Katie, Reggie Lee as Robert, Sarah Habel as Erin, Meredith Monroe as Molly, Maxwell Huckabee as Will, Abigail Marlowe as Lisa, William Schallert as Mr. Douglas, Timothy Omundson as Mr. Ollerman, Noa Tishby as Rachel, Richard Gant as Judge Cole and Kate Burton as Mrs. Graham.

“Pilot” was written by David Hemingson and directed by Michael Fresco.

The series executive producers are David Hemingson and Jan Nash. It is from Twentieth Century Fox Television.

Kirkus Reviews, Editor and Publisher bite the dust!

That's right, Nielsen shut down both Kirkus Reviews--one of the top four book review sources in the nation--and Editor and Publisher, the Bible of the publishing world.

Meanwhile, Nielsen unloaded The Hollywood Reporter.

Not to be left out of the mess, Variety announced it will start charging again for its online content. Chumps.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Luck and the literature of football

My take on the Texas Longhorns football team's win over Nebraska in the Big 12 title game (it was ugly) can be seen at the Austin Chronicle's sports blog.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Colt McCoy's Heisman hopes await in Nebraska

A preview of the Big 12 title game this Saturday in my Austin Chronicle blog. Could Colt McCoy win the game and lose the Heisman race?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bryan Poyser's 'Lovers of Hate' in Sundance

A big congrats to Austin's Bryan Poyser (Dear Pillow), whose Lovers of Hate, which shot both in Austin and near where Sundance is held, was selected as a dramatic competition film for this year's Sundance Film Festival.

To understand what a big deal this is for Poyser, read the opening of this Austin Chronicle article I wrote a while back.

Here's the skinny from Variety:

Lovers of Hate - Directed and written by Bryan Poyser, about how the reunion of estranged brothers is undermined when the woman they both love chooses one over the other. With Chris Doubek, Heather Kafka, Alex Karpovsky, Zach Green.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Independent Spirit award noms go to McCay, Humpday

Film Independent announced its Spirit Award noms yesterday, which included Christian McKay of Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles for best supporting actor and Humpday--which premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival--for the John Casavettes Award for films made for less than $500,000.

Richard Linklater's 'Liars (A-E)' dies

Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater calls himself a "promiscuous" filmmaker in this interesting interview with England's Guardian about Me and Orson Welles. He also talks a bit about how his planned road movie Liars (A-E) fell apart:

This summer he was due to shoot a romantic comedy but the studios wouldn't play ball (what he saw as a mainstream outing, they saw as an art movie). He has tentative plans to make a third installment in the Before Sunrise/Sunset series, but he doesn't want to do it just because he can. "There are enough of those movies made as it is: sequels, remakes, franchises. It depresses me. It's the way the industry is going. They figure they can make these huge-ass Harry Potters, Batmans and Transformers, spend $200m on a surefire hit, and who cares about the quality? They've basically stopped making my kind of movies altogether."