We already have the Texas Film Commission, the Austin Film Office and the Austin Film Society. Is there any advantage to having an Austin Film Commission? Ask someone like BETH SEPKO, an Austin Casting Director who recently landed a job for Folger's Coffee thanks to the help of ROXANNE WHEELIS in her capacity with the Austin Film Commission and you're likely to get an enthusiastic, "YES!"
But just what is the Austin Film Commission? What niche does this new commission fulfill? (And "new" is definitely an operative word here, as the commission is just two months old at this writing.) I decided to ask. Following are excerpts from this afternoon's interview with Roxanne Wheelis, M.Ed.
Déradune: Do you have any background that reflects your interest in filmmaking?
Roxanne Wheelis: In college, I was initially a drama major. I was up for the part that Shelley Duvall got in BREWSTER McCLOUD, a movie that Robert Altman filmed in Houston. It was between me and Shelley Duvall. She got the part, and that was sort of the end of my drama days. I had an antique store for five years and did a lot of set decorations through that. Then a Michael Bayer followed me around for a couple of years with a camera making a documentary called "No Early Birds." Approximately 1995 I was appointed by Austin's Mayor Todd to be on the Street Closure Task Force Committee. It was set up to study street closures in Austin. Since I own a business on 6th Street, that's how I got involved with the task force. We wanted the street closures - where they just closed off the street - to be limited. Businesses pay the rent there whether or not people can get to their business, and then there is a lot of construction as well as street closures from various festivals and filming. Nine out of ten times, when anybody wants to film an urban setting in Austin, it's on 6th Street or Congress. Due to the concern of a lot of small businesses here, I started doing some research on it. Thirty-one businesses in the downtown (78701) zip code in the past year have closed, so that street closures have become a concern. I started going to a lot of meetings and kept hearing people say, "You know, Austin needs a film commission to deal with this." The Urban Transportation Office in charge of street closures is under-staffed, overworked and underpaid. People kept saying we needed it, and a friend and I finally just decided to start one.
Deradune: How did it start?
Roxanne Wheelis: How it first started was we wanted to work with the film industry, the government, and the permitting process and stuff like that - and the community. By community I don't mean just the small retail businesses, but everybody. There is a lot of hand holding between the film industry and government, but the community has too often been left out of that triangle. We think it's really important that the community be included. One of the things we discovered when going out to talk about it is that the business people are very interested in film, but no one has educated them about what that entails or how to work with the film people. There is a huge gap in services when the community is being left out of that triangle. People in the community have questions like, "How do I do a contract with filmmakers?" or "How do I contact the people filming on my front lawn?" or "Should I be paid for them to use my sidewalk?" Or just the notification process. "If the filming is going on and there is a problem, who do I call?" Prior to the Austin Film Commission, nobody in Austin responded to these kinds of questions and concerns - especially if it was happening on a weekend.
We wanted to be much more proactive about bringing films to Austin and have them come in a better way. And so everybody will win, and not just the City of Austin with the Bed & Breakfast tax or the film industry crew people, but they could share in the wealth of the films coming to Austin. Not necessarily monetarily, but just in awareness. For community members to be notified so that they will know what is coming their way so they can plan accordingly. Maybe they will lessen their staff during that period, not open as early, or hold off on a big sale they have been planning. Very few people on Sixth Street were being given the benefit of the seven-day notification period.
Deradune: How do filmmakers get directed to speak to you?
Roxanne Wheelis: The Austin Film Commission is listed in Information. That's one way. I've been getting tons of phone calls. People call us for information. The Texas Film Commission's purview is the entire State of Texas, even though their office is located in Austin. There is an Austin Film Office that is connected with the Austin Convention Visitor's Bureau, but they have been difficult to find and have limited scope and hours.
Deradune: Are there things you want to do to entice filmmakers to film in Austin?
Roxanne Wheelis: Eventually, yes. But right now we are just trying to inform them as to what is available in Austin and why they should come here. Right now I am working with Austin Community College to develop an interdisciplinary certification program for people to work on movie crews. In this way Austin will have more certified people able to work on crews. The I.A.T.S.E. Local 484 is also working on developing this program. That will increase the number of productions we can do in Austin simultaneously. Right now, depending on who you talk to, our capacity is four or five productions at one time. Maybe someday it will be six or eight.
Deradune: So they are actually going to do crew training at ACC?
Roxanne Wheelis: Right. Another thing in the works is a 200-acre production hub outside of the Mueller Airport project for sound stages, office space and ancillary services so there will be plenty of options available. If the Austin Studio space is fully booked then there will be another place that people can work. If a big production is at the airport and an independent wants this other space or vice versa, there will be lots of space to do that. So that's pretty incredible.
Deradune: What goals that you started out with do you feel you have already begun to fulfill, and what goals do you have that you will be working toward - and what will you need in order to achieve those goals?
Roxanne Wheelis: I really come from a businesswoman's side of things. One thing I feel is really important is the accessibility of the Austin Film Commission. You can always reach me, and I always have my cell phone on me. [Note: Roxanne can also be reached at the office at 512-476-0465 (phone and fax) and also via email at: email@example.com.] The office doesn't close at 5 o'clock, because both coasts are on different time zones. If a film production is having problems on a shoot or need help with the permitting or something is glommed up, we'll be happy to go out there and do problem resolution with people. Accessibility is a key thing. Or if they need information, we're there to get information to them in a really timely fashion. I really like to turn that around pretty quickly. That's one of the goals we started with, and I think we've already done that.
I'd like to develop a better working relationship with the entities already in place. The fact that the Austin Film Commission is run by someone who has not been actively involved in the film community may seem audacious. But I feel it is really a business proposition. On the other side of it, I don't have property or merchandise I want to rent and I don't want my daughter to be a movie star. It's just all about getting the information back and forth in a timely fashion without a hook attached to it. It's nonprofit, it's a service and it's free. There are certain things that I don't know about, but I find out - and the next time the same question comes up I will already know. One call came in for example where they needed a rain-making machine. I didn't know where to get one, but I found out within five minutes. I have enough helpful friends and associates to get that information and then get that information out.
It's a business. If a film production company is writing a budget, they need that information pretty quickly. If I drag my feet, then the possibility or potentiality of the production can be lost. My focus is pretty much on timeliness and service.
Deradune: How is the Austin Film Commission funded?
Roxanne Wheelis: Privately. We are a private nonprofit corporation and we are being funded by donations right now.
Deradune: This is basically people who like to see you there and it's a tax write-off for them?
Roxanne Wheelis: Right now it's not. It's just a donation. But we're in the process of becoming a 501(C)3.
Deradune: Are there any films that the Austin Film Commission has already served or interfaced with?
Roxanne Wheelis: I initially interfaced with somebody from "The Alamo," a Ron Howard film. I've worked on a Folgers commercial and am currently working with a filming going on this weekend regarding golfing.
Deradune: How did Folgers learn about you?
Roxanne Wheelis: I really have no clue, but they probably just called Information. Mostly it has been just feelers, people saying things like, "We're thinking about coming in June" or August or whatever. I'm getting a lot of calls like that. When I ask them what size project they are talking about, there's been about $155 million in film projects I've talked to people on the phone about just in the past two months. Films that people say they want to bring to Austin.
Deradune: That's quite a lot, especially considering that you have only been doing this for two months.
Roxanne Wheelis: Yes. I guess it shows how there is a need. As more and more people get jobs, I'm hoping some who seem to oppose me now will see that I am not here to do the wrong thing.
Deradune: What sorts of things are on your wish list?
Roxanne Wheelis: One thing I need is crew lists from the movies that have been made in Austin. I am having a hard time getting those. Producers want to see those, and I don't have access to those lists because I didn't work on any of those films. The people that are calling me want to see the most current finished crew lists so they will know who others have been hiring. I'm not really sure why it's been so hard to get hold of those lists. I've had a couple lists sent to me, but it would be very helpful to get more!
Deradune: Is there anything else you would like to add to your wish list?
Roxanne Wheelis: I need production manuals from the Texas Film Commission so that I can send them out. I could pay $20 each for them, but that would mean I would have to charge the producers, but I don't want to do that.
Deradune: Speaking of the Texas Film Commission, what can you do for Austin that they are not already doing?
Roxanne Wheelis: I just think having an Austic-specific group is really important, and what I envision is a sort of one-stop shopping. Producers could get permits, hotel rooms, equipment, and information from one source. They could call and say, "I need this," "I need that," "I need a UPM," "I need a hairdresser," and so on. It's probably not much different than what the Texas Film Commission does, but their jurisdiction and focus is statewide. In a way I would free them up to concentrate on bringing film to the whole state.
Deradune: And you may be more accessible as well.
Roxanne Wheelis: I think so. I was driving down the road the other day and a guy called me up that needed a fog machine. I pulled over and gave him the number he needed within five minutes.
Deradune: Are you also looking for people to contact you and let you know what their services are so that you can add that to your database?
Roxanne Wheelis: Right. Another thing I want to do is develop a production manual specific to Austin. The Texas Production Manual can really concentrate on the whole state, but when people want to come to Austin they can see a manual that shows them who lives right here in Austin and who is available here, and "These are the kinds of services you can expect in Austin, Texas."
Deradune: In what way do you help people find the Austin actors?
Roxanne Wheelis: I refer them to the casting directors and the talent agencies. As far as specific actors and actresses, no. I also don't make recommendations. For instance one guy called and said, "Can you recommend a camera operator?" I said, "No. I'll give you the list and you pick from there." Because everybody's needs are real different and each project is unique. I'm not getting involved in that process. My whole goal is to try and remain as neutral as possible but give that information out pretty quick.
Another thing I am going to work on is the legislative session. I found out that Alabama just passed a tax incentive for bringing in film. The State of Alabama brings in $20 million a year from film. California, Florida and Alabama have passed tax incentive packages to entice filmmakers to do productions in their states. I would like to see the State of Texas step up to the plate and do that, and I'm encouraging everybody to talk to their legislators about the importance of bringing film to Texas. A legislative session is coming up, and I know Texas' budget is kind of down the tubes, but hopefully they can see the potential that for every dollar the filmmakers save they will probably spend a hundred here. So that's really important - bringing jobs to Texas and to Austin.
I need lots of help. I'm not very good on the web stuff. We have a website, but it's not up yet as of today (end of February 2002) [www.austinfilmcommission.org].
Deradune: So you are looking for people that can volunteer their help with the website?
Roxanne Wheelis: Yes. And I need pictures of Austin for locations. Those are things I just can't get out and do all by myself. I have a small office right now and I'm going to be expanding hopefully to a bigger office, so I'm looking for some better office space. And I need Texas Production Manuals, so I can hand those out. And money. I always need money to further this along. The idea of the Film Commission, which comes from the Association of Film Commissioners International is that there is a set of standards and that the community is totally involved in the filmmaking process. And I don't think that means that every neighborhood person necessarily needs to be active in that, but that they are aware of lots of different things. I think it can be a win-win situation for everybody - in terms of bringing film in, in a better way so that it's not just like guerilla filmmaking "here today and gone tomorrow." It can be a good situation for everybody.
I think it's real important that everyone in Austin be involved - the arts councils, the business people, the Downtown Austin Alliance. The Chamber of Commerce is now developing a film economic package. They are really trying to work toward developing film production as a viable alternative for pumping up Austin's economy since the dot.com bust. So they are actively involved in that. I would really like to see the City Council very involved in that and looking towards a tax incentive package for film production in Austin, like a tax abatement like they did for the CSC building and the Hilton that's going in. Those businesses were given tax incentives in order to get them here. I'd like to see that going on for the film industry in Austin.
It's a viable alternative, you know. It's a clean industry. There's no pollution that comes from it, and it's just the kind of thing that Austin would pride itself on, being at the forefront. And with the Austin Community College doing this certification program. There are only two other community colleges in the country that have that film crew certification programs - one in L.A. and one in Miami. In order for Austin to become the production hub that filmmakers envision we need this program.
Deradune: When will ACC be beginning that program?
Roxanne Wheelis: September. We're working on the curriculum right now. It's going to be wonderful. With The University of Texas' RTF program, the ACC RTF program, the certification program, the production hub and the Mueller Airport Austin Studios, I mean, HELLO. Why wouldn't you want to come to Austin? So that's exciting. And I'm really glad to be a part of it. I just think it's wonderful.
Deradune: You are someone who would be willing to deal with problems that might arise between the community and the filmmakers and you would go out there and interface them and help to come to resolution then.
Roxanne Wheelis: Right. Ideally, if the homeowner or business owner feels s/he is not getting any relief, the Austin Film Commission's number is the one to call. If they have any problems with the production, they can call us. Or if the locations people are having problems with the citizens and can't seem to make headway, then sure, we'll help resolve that too. The idea is for the film to come, but for it to be a win-win situation. If one side is not happy, then it's not win-win. We want everybody to be happy. Ultimately that is never going to happen 100 percent of the time on all sides, but we can just try and raise the bar so that everybody gets a little bit more satisfaction. In the past they have felt that they have not been heard.
Deradune: People can call the Austin Film Commission seven days a week?
Roxanne Wheelis: Yes. And they do! They call me at 7 o'clock in the morning and they call me at 10 o'clock at night. And that's all right. That's what we're here for. Eventually I will need to expand the staff, especially when some bigger productions start up here.
Deradune: Do you see yourself playing a role with the "zero budget" independent film productions? They need help too.
Roxanne Wheelis: Sure. Whatever budget they have, I think the Austin Film Commission should be there for all budgets of films. No matter who you are, you are going to have questions, you are going to have problems and you are going to need help. Assistance should not be there just for the $100 million-plus films but for whatever. I've talked to a lot of people in the last six weeks with films with lower budgets between $2 and $10 million also. People who are not from Austin don't know how to access what is available in Austin. Ideally, the Austin Film Commission is there to help everybody hook into the Austin film scene. I would like to help everybody get what they need or connect them with someone who can help them get what they need. SERVICE IS OUR PRODUCT AND NOTHING ELSE. Eventually I hope to start going to conventions and promoting Austin as a filmmaking destination in all that we have to offer. But since I have only actually been in business for a couple of months, it's going to take some time. I feel like this time next year I will be ready to begin with that sort of thing. Each day and week that goes by, I get more information, more connections and more resources. I envision ultimately going out and telling filmmakers, "You are missing the boat if you are not filming in Austin."
Deradune: What kind of experience do you have in business?
Roxanne Wheelis: I have a master's degree in counseling, and I've owned businesses ever since I was in undergraduate school. I've been working with the public for a long time. I'm a natural promoter and an entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word. I feel that if you have a good idea and you see the gaps, then as a business person you say, "Why not me? Why not this idea? Why not this time?" I'm pretty bold, but everyone that was working within their bureaucracy had ample opportunity to do it and didn't do it. They just didn't see the importance of answering the phone after 5 o'clock. Missing some really important phone calls could lose jobs. That was another big motivation for me. Our economy is down and we need all the jobs we can get. Let's answer that phone. So far it's been working. I just hope we can get everybody's support and make it happen.
Deradune: I think it's pretty impressive how much you've accomplished in just two months.
Roxanne Wheelis: I'm amazed actually, and really thankful. I think it will just keep getting bigger and bigger. And with the ACC program and the potential 200-acre production hub, and as my base grows, it will just get better.
Deradune: When you refer to the production hub, are you talking about the studios at the Austin Mueller?
Roxanne Wheelis: I'm talking about a new one that fixing to go in.
Deradune: Oh, the one that with the still-secret location.
Roxanne Wheelis: The secret place. Yes. I know they are planning to expand Austin Mueller and make a community there, but we need another place available as well. A 200-acre site dedicated to film production and post-production will just be an incredible thing to have.
Deradune: Who all have you contacted just to let them know you exist, to sort of introduce yourself within Austin?
Roxanne Wheelis: The City Council, the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Austin Chamber of Commerce and Austin Community College. I have yet to contact that Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a couple of other important organizations, including UT, because I have been working on the ACC project. I have been talking to numerous legislators and lots of political groups, women in politics and letting them know what's going on. Just anybody who will listen to me. Anybody who wants to talk to me, I'll talk to them. The Pecan Street Association. Yesterday I met with the president of the Downtown Austin Alliance and had a wonderful meeting with her. I am working with Reel Women. I'm a member of the Austin Film Society. I'd love to meet with them and talk about what we're doing. I haven't talked to the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival people yet. I still have a lot to do, but the circle keeps getting bigger and bigger. I have been talking to at least two or three more groups each week.
Deradune: The casting directors and talent agents?
Roxanne Wheelis: I haven't talked to all of the casting directors nor all of the agents, but most of them.
Deradune: Any other goals that you have currently on your plate?
Roxanne Wheelis: I would love to develop a better working relationship with the Texas Film Commission, the Austin Film Office, Austin Studios and the Austin Film Society. I feel like I have a lot to learn from all of those folks. I cherish the day that we'll be sitting at the same table and working on the same projects together.
Deradune: What do you do when you are contacted and you don't know the answer?
Roxanne Wheelis: If people call me and I don't know the answer to the specific question, then I will say I don't have the answer to the specific question but I will find out the answer and get back to them as quickly as humanly possible. But I will not give out the wrong information. Because that's doesn't serve anybody, and the last thing that I want to do is misinform or mislead anybody regarding the state of filming in Austin.
Deradune: What if someone calls you wanting office space for their production?
Roxanne Wheelis: One of the things I would recommend is that they call the Austin Studios, which is separate from but related to the Austin Film Society, because they have the Mueller space. Right now I don't know what their schedule is up there and how they have that booked. I have also referred people to them for specific equipment. Great FX is housed in Austin Studios, and I've sent a number people to Randy Moore up there. I refer people all over. I refer people to Reel Women. I refer people to Austin Film Society. I refer them to Austin Studios. Wherever the question is that they are asking me, I refer them. I get a lot of calls also from people just coming to Austin and want to get involved in the film scene. I refer them to the Austin Film Society, the Austin Film Festival, the Texas Film Commission and Reel Women as entrance points into the Austin film community. I don't make movies, but I will get you to the people that do. That's what this is about - facilitation of services to the people that want to make movies in Austin, to the people that are making them, I want to be the person sitting at the table introducing them to each other. That's what I see my job as.
Deradune: And you are someone who can do that as a businessperson.
Roxanne Wheelis: Right. And understanding that timeliness of service is critical, whatever they need. As a result of a phone call I got the other day for a fog maker, there is filming going on in Austin today as we are sitting and drinking our coffee. And somebody in Austin has a job as a result of that phone call. And I'm very, very proud of that.
Deradune: Is there anything else you would like to see happen to facilitate bringing more film, and more film dollars, into Austin?
Roxanne Wheelis: I'd like to see an Austin Film Council, where everybody that's involved in a major way in the film industry in Austin can all sit at the table - not just the Austin Film Commission, the Texas Film Commission, Austin Studios, but all the film festival people - you know there's a number of them - and then all the independent stuff that is going on, just everybody sitting at the table pushing the Austin film industry in the right direction, instead of each of us individually going after "our" market, all of us together sitting down and going, "There's a larger market, and we all need to be pushing towards that," and working with the legislators and the City Council to see the relevance of this industry to our town and the jobs that it brings. I don't see that happening. I'd like to see us all getting together and hammering out the forward path instead of letting the industry come to Austin and shape us, we can be more proactive and work together to get it the way we want it in Austin, Texas. Setting the tone so we can have it OUR WAY.
Michele Déradune is a film actress and voice talent in Austin, Texas represented by Liz Atherton at Ciao! Talents. Her credits include a principal supporting role as the cheating wife in SNAKE TALES (winner of Best Independent Film Comedy Award given by the Chicago Institute of Art in the summer of 2001 - and which can be rented at Vulcan Video and Waterloo Video), being filmed by KEVIN SPACEY in an unscripted movie, as the English dubbed-in voice of Sakura's mother, Wakana, in the yet-to-be released Japanese anime SAKURA WARS 2, and as an invited regular call-in voice on 96.7 KISS FM's "The Tony Fly Show." See Michele's online résumé, including a picture of her sensuously plump figure and new tattoo by clicking on the link for "actor's resume" at http://www.deradune.com.