As the co-chair and CEO of Warner Bros., Michael De Luca might not seem like the most obvious advocate for outsider filmmakers. But at a Texas Film Awards brunch Friday, hosted by the Austin Film Society, he said the film industry needs outsiders “to refresh the industry.”
“Otherwise, you’re going to be seeing a billion reboots of Iron Man,” he joked. (He also noted that Batman is owned by Warner Bros., so more Batman movies are, of course, fine.)
De Luca spoke at the brunch just hours before he was welcomed into the society’s Texas Film Hall of Fame with fellow honorees Jonathan Majors, Margo Martindale, and indie film icons John and Janet Pierson. The event highlighted Austin and the Texas film scene as a crucial originator of outsider filmmakers who have changed Hollywood.
It All Goes Back to Richard Linklater
DeLuca, born in Brooklyn and a longtime resident of Los Angeles, may also not seem like the most obvious choice for the Texas Hall of Fame. But his bona fides are solid: His wife, actress-producer Angelique Madrid, is from Fort Worth, and he spends lots of time there.
And his love of Texas film goes back to the early 1990s, when Richard Linklater helped indie moviemaking break through with Slacker, and Robert Rodriguez kept the momentum going with his $7,000 indie breakthrough El Mariachi.
Linklater, whose classics include Boyhood and Dazed and Confused, founded the Austin Film Society in 1985, and Rodriguez has boosted Texas film fortunes by building his Troublemaker Studios in the capital.
De Luca noted the importance of looking beyond Hollywood, sharing that in Los Angeles, “I feel like my phone sheet is the same 10 people over and over again, looking for the same 10 movies over and over again. Things can get really homogenized.”
He then shared some wisdom from Steve Jobs, adding that his Warner Bros. co-chair and CEO, Pamela Abdy, who was in the audience, had heard it a thousand times before. It came from the 2012 documentary Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview. De Luca paraphrased:
“When you put lawyers and marketing executives in charge of a creative enterprise, innovation dies, and the customer moves on, because they don’t want to see the same thing over and over again. And I still apply that to the film industry. We see it over and over again: Marketing people will always want to sell what’s come before. It’s easier, and as a result, innovation dies.
“It’s very hard for new filmmakers to find their voice and get their voice heard on a large level,” he added.
What’s alleviating that problem, he said, is technology that makes it easier than ever for outsider filmmakers to “just make stuff.”
How to Get Discovered, According to Michael De Luca
But will companies like Warner Bros. pay attention to it?
Yes, he said.
“Get it to places like the Austin Film Society or to festivals, and get your work seen. We’re actually all paying attention to what breaks through at these festivals. And I think whether it’s here or regional festivals around the country or around the world, the tools have gotten more affordable, new voices can get their things shown,” De Luca said.
“It’s so important to keep refreshing the pipeline, because as we all know, cinematic storytelling needs to reflect the world we live in. And I think there’s never been a better opportunity to make that happen.”
One of the most influential festivals in Texas film, or anywhere, is Austin’s SXSW. Janet Pierson, who led SXSW Film and TV for 15 years and has been director emeritus since last year, praised the film society’s tagline – Make Watch Love Film — as representative of the city’s cinema community.
“The tagline is just so brilliant because it does take everybody playing their part — the filmmakers don’t come to life unless audiences are watching them. It’s essential,” she said.
Why Not Me?
The brunch panel included all the inductees except Majors, whose new film Creed III opened Friday. Majors, who grew up in Cedar Hill, Texas, near Austin, did attend the induction ceremony Friday night, held at Willie Nelson’s movie ranch and venue in Luck, outside Austin.
Majors in some ways epitomizes the Texas film outsider who broke through with help from festival acclaim: After accolades for his lead role in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which premiered at Sundance, he is starring in some of the biggest films of this decade, including Creed III and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the first of multiple Marvel films in which he’ll appear. He was presented the award by Scott Cooper, who directed him in 2017’s Hostiles, his first film role.
The brunch panel also included Emmy and Tony Award-winning producer, Mike Jackson, who hosts the University of Texas at Austin’s “Why Not Me” series about helping traditionally underrepresented creatives break through.
“When I’m speaking to kids at UT, especially kids that look like me that are really frustrated, all they want to do is graduate and leave,” Jackson said. “And I’m telling them, ‘Graduate and stay.’ Continue to fellowship, continue to work with people on your level, and create content and build each other up and grow with one another and see whose stories resonate and what stories stick.”
Jackson, who is from Philadelphia and relocated to Austin from Los Angeles, said Austin’s artistic community “is just so rich. And it’s not just Black and brown. It’s everyone. It’s just such a rich culture of artistry. I’m just really excited to be a part of this community and watch these people work together to build their stories because the opportunities are here. Texas as a whole is a character in itself.”
Texas Film Ascendant
“I use the word ‘exploitation’ in a really positive way,” added Jackson, who is also on the Austin Film Society Board. “It needs to be exploited to the max, because the landscape of Texas, the people of Texas, the stories that are born in Texas, are incredible.”
Martindale said her Texas roots were integral to who she is. She grew up in Jacksonville, in eastern Texas, about 130 miles from Dallas.
“Jacksonville is a perfect place,” she said. “I grew up in the 50s and 60s and I was a disabled, I guess that’s what you call it — you have to go through the words that you can’t say now. But I wore a body brace for all my teens. I got to take it off in high school. But my reason for saying this is that you know people were were really kind to me.
“It was such a wonderful place and such a great place to use your imagination and all that. And I love Jacksonville and I love all my high school, junior high elementary school and kindergarten friends who are still there. I go back and visit them at least once a year.”
“I love to talk to people. I am very friendly,” Martindale added. “I don’t mind being bothered — please bother me. I take that everywhere I go. I’m comfortable about anywhere, in the White House with the president, anywhere. Even when I was as poor as dirt, you know, I felt comfortable in my own skin. I think that’s a quality that a lot of Texans have.”
Martindale, a veteran of projects from Justified to The Americans, also scored some laughs as she talked about checking the box office receipts for her latest film, Cocaine Bear. And she previewed her new maple syrup heist series, The Sticky, in which she said she will be No. 1 on the call sheet for the first time in her career.
But when she was asked how it felt to join the Texas Film Hall of Fame, she had no words.
She just broke into tears of joy.
Main image: Jonathan Majors is inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame by director Scott Cooper. Photo by David Brendan Hall, courtesy of AFS.