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Austin Power

Two film fests and a talent stampede spur Hollywood to create an outpost in the lone star state

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Ever since local hero Willie Nelson turned Austin, Tex., into a country-music hot spot in the ’70s, this Sunbelt city with a population of 540,000 has relished its reputation as a hip alternative to Nashville.

Times have changed. These days, Austin feels more like a hip alternative to Hollywood.

Wander into any coffeehouse or bar on Congress Avenue and you’ll hear buzzwords like option and greenlighted. The local grapevine is now ripe with gossip about the town’s burgeoning film community, which includes hot talent like directors Richard Linklater (SubUrbia, Before Sunrise) and Robert Rodriguez (From Dusk Till Dawn); King of the Hill creator Mike Judge; and bona fide maverick Terrence Malick — who, after lying low in Austin since bailing out of Hollywood nearly 20 years ago, began directing The Thin Red Line this past June. The town even has a hot wire to Hollywood, thanks to cyberspace VIP — and Austin native — Harry Knowles, 25, and his daily movie bulletin (http://www.aint-it-cool-news.com).

As King‘s Everyman hero Hank Hill might muse: What the heck’s going on?

”The big difference [about Austin] is it’s not just a film community, but a film culture,” says Linklater, who grew up in Huntsville, Tex., believing he had to go to L.A. or New York to be a moviemaker. ”Anyone’s success is everyone’s success in Austin.” Producer Lynda Obst (Contact), who bought a house in nearby Fredricksburg, Tex., in 1993, says, ”There’s something about Austin that brings out the creative side in people. The community … [is] very bohemian. People are becoming intoxicated with this place.”

Hollywood is eagerly bellying up, thanks to the city’s two major film festivals. Last March, Woody Harrelson, Uma Thurman, Bill Paxton, Brendan Fraser, and Quentin Tarantino and Mira Sorvino joined in the mass pub crawl during the South By Southwest conference — called the music industry’s answer to Sundance — which recently added a movie component. More recently, at the Austin Film Festival, held Oct. 2-9, recent transplant Sandra Bullock and Oliver Stone casually hobnobbed at Antone’s Night Club, while established Hollywood screenwriters Andrew W. Marlowe (Air Force One) and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) joined panel discussions. (The winner of the festival’s 1994 screenplay competition recently made it to the screen as Alicia Silverstone‘s Excess Baggage.)

Austin’s film role is not unlike the local music scene’s anti-Nashville status, first articulated during the ’70s when country-music outlaws like Nelson, Joe Ely, and Junior Brown flocked to the city; the era spawned PBS’ long-running Austin City Limits.

Its journey as a movie epicenter may have begun with Tobe Hooper‘s 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which proved inexpensive films could be made in Texas. The state got even more buzz during ex-governor Ann Richards’ 1991- 95 term. An avid film buff who courted Hollywood during her campaigns, Richards was frequently a beacon for the city’s charms through her appearances on Letterman. The University of Texas’ first-rate film department also burnished the artist-friendly vibe: UT students have included Linklater, Rodriguez, and Joel Coen (1985’s Blood Simple was made in Austin), as well as actors Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger, UT grads who were in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused — in addition to appearing in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.