New Republic Studios, led by 30-year veteran John S. Robison, has purchased the former Spiderwood Studios backlot and facilities complex in Bastrop County. The studio is set to add on to the existing facilities within the next three years with spaces designed for augmented reality, virtual reality, animation, audio production and more.
New Republic Studios already features four purpose-built sound stages with a cyclorama wall, plus thousands of square feet of dedicated production and office space on 200 acres on the Colorado River. Robison – whose relationship with the film industry began in 1994 and now serves on the board of directors for the Austin Film Society – saw an opportunity to expand upon what Spiderwood founder Tommy G. Warren had begun by building out a new range of creative resources at New Republic Studios, starting with a huge expansion of office space.
We got a chance to speak to John S. Robison and attend the Christmas party last Saturday, where an ebullient Robison showed off the changes that have already taken place since the acquisition in late November.
amfm: John, you’ve been flying under the radar, but you’ve been around the film industry for years. What led to buying Spiderwood Studios to develop the “creative ranch” concept?
JSR: I’ve been and around the business a long time but I’ve completely avoided press due to the nature of my business, which is building disruptive technology.
Content is more and more becoming technology. Texas has an abundance of tech labor and resources. That’s why Apple, Amazon, Facebook and most every other tech giant has moved so much here. So finding a great place near Austin in the center of 4 of the top 10 population cities in the country with the best technology resources just made Spiderwood make sense to me.
While everyone else is worried about film incentives and even blaming it I see I saw Texas as being in a much better position to be a big player in content because of technology, I see the future in Texas through a much more positive set of glasses.
I started doing technology based on educational content. Then built technology platforms. We made some money building tech companies. We were kind of the Sanford and Sons of E Systems, which would liberate dormant IT and commercialize it, until Raytheon bought it and put a stop to it. That was in the 80s and 90s.
Then we moved to Los Angeles for about 20 years, while we were building tech.
amfm: I should ask you about bitcoin, speaking of investments. But that’s got nothing to do with the studio…
JSR: It might more than you think…not bitcoin necessarily, but the reason bitcoin and cryptocurrency and all of that exists. You know Austin is a big hub of those technology developers and experts. People don’t realize that.
But yes, there is some correlation as to why I wanted to do it here. The convergence of technology and content is the reason I feel Texas is very well situated…better than what people are seeing right now.
These are some of the things that drove my decision to be here. Governor Perry started recruiting me while I was in California to start moving some stuff here. I was building some facilities because I had been recruited by China… I opened up a lot of that back in 2009-2011.
While I was building there, Gov. Perry ended up joking with me about it asking “Why are you doing that in China? Come back home and do it. You’re a Texas boy, come home!”
It was through him that I originally learned of Spiderwood Studios.
Like Marfa but Closer
About John Robison
John Robison serves on the board of the Austin Film Society & Studios with Richard Linklater, Austin Public (Public Television) and the Austin Music Awards with SXSW. He is the founding owner of New Republic Studios (formerly Spiderwood Studios) on its 200-acre lot along the Colorado river minutes from Austin. Past relationships in the film industry began in 1994 with Regent Entertainment and Bad Hat Harry as well as Last Chance Picture Co (with Bryan Cranston) and HMW (with Albert S. Ruddy) and China partner Sil Metropole, the most critical and historic film partner in China (via Hong Kong as the only one to receive censorship review exemption for China). Most recently, Robison has helped form Truth + Fiction (Dallas Buyers Club).
Robison continues his dedication to new technology sparking change and currently serves as Chairman and Co-Founder of a transformative GaaP technology, Gov Whiz, Inc. (with Morgan Warstler), multimedia technology platform ArenaEdge, Inc. and Vizidot helping brands to use their brand logos to bring consumable content (music, movies and education) to the masses.
Robison’s private equity participation includes ground-breaking Internet trends such as polite delivery technologies (Load Media Network with Warstler), early file sharing companies (Bluemoon/Fasttrack) which launched Kazaa and Skype, education-based Knowledge Universe companies (including Vidyah, Tech Chek, PPI and Leap Frog) and data storage company Rackspace (founded by fellow A&M friend Graham Weston). Robison is a 1985 graduate of Texas A&M University
amfm: And so you must have a great love of film?
JSR: I do. I was quietly part of film as a technology guy with a technology fund. I kept a Chinese wall between the film/entertainment side and the technology side.
But in reality, the convergence of content and technology is a big part of what I’ve done and the types of platforms we’ve built.
We were involved in LoadMedia which until about 2000 was the largest consumer of video bandwidth on the Internet. We were the ones faking broadband and delivering 24 frames per second over a 28/8 Modem connection. We were involved in FastTrack which Kazaa and Skype were both built upon. We’ve been in the middle of transformative technology for many years.
amfm: You’re ahead of the curve then.
JSR: Texas has done a great job. There are more Apple employees here than in California, I’m told. Facebook. Amazon. I happen to believe that Amazon will pick Austin – but what do I know (laughs). But the resources are here. Austin has a certain culture, this aura, as well as a staff of people, resources, technology education, technology developers and coders. It’s the best market for that. More so than other places. People are so focused on the lack of incentives compared to other states that they are missing the bigger picture.
amfm: The lack of incentives right now doesn’t scare you off at all, does it?
JSR: Not at all. I’m a little different, because I want there to be incentives, but they need to be aligned properly with the goal.
I speak the language of some of the legislators that have been against this, because the market here and lobbyists say, “Oh we build nuts, here’s the economic impact,” and all of that… but it’s not enough.
Texas likes to steal jobs. They like to bring industries in. If you’re in the car business. General Motors builds the Tahoes in Arlington. Toyota. Move Toyota here, and now let’s build an industry and make resources available.
The problem with the incentives is they’ve created a gypsy state. What I mean is, (and a lot of my great friends are these producers) they get a big-name act on a movie, and then chase film credits. Oklahoma and Ohio are now coming up with these massive credits. My friends the Cathys, who built Chick Fil A, also built Pinewood in Atlanta – and Georgia was a conservative state. But here’s the difference. Texas has the resources, the people, and the better location and and and. What we don’t have is a purpose-built manufacturing facility
If you want to manufacture content, you need to have the facilities. We’re really a location shoot. But we don’t have to have a lot. The stages we have out there now are purpose built stages. Tommy Warren (previous owner of Spiderwood Studios) did a fantastic job at building the stages. Before we start the expansion we also want to talk to everyone in town, whether they’re television, or independents.
I was with Louis Black last night. I’m on the AFS Board. I want this to be a home for the University people, so it’s a creative ranch. But we’ve got to tie in the resources we have. People don’t realize but Texas A&M’s Visualization Laboratory, all those students get hired off to places like Pixar and Lucas Ranch…The University of Texas Digital Music…why are we letting those jobs go out of here? We need to keep them here plus be bringing more of the others in.
So, my take on incentives is I’m working on a program that would be more in line with the Workforce Commission. It’s more in line with behind the scenes…from oil field workers to veterans. To program and incentivize, producers to have their crews and their staff here. And if they’re doing that here -and their staffs are here, what we want to do is incentivize those jobs.
Meaning, if you’re a producer and your crew is here, and if you’re making your films here, that’s where your 30% is coming from. So, you’re getting that money on the budget, but if you’re not, if you’re taking your crews, your Richard Linklaters, and you’re going to Pittsburgh. We need to keep him here.
If you’re filming here and your crew is here, now we’re going to subsidize and now we’re going to incentivize. If you take them out of there and film elsewhere you’re going to lose what in Hollywood terms is called an Overhead Deal. No one has done incentives like that. I’m not going in to too much detail, but We’ve been designing a way.
First, someone has to build out the right level of facility. Texas has turned away a lot more deals than people think, because we didn’t have a production office space. The economy has been so good here that if I’m a realtor or business owner, why am I going to lease a short-term production to a film when I can have a venture capital technology backed firm in there on a five-year lease. So, there’s no production offices and most of the stages are converted warehouses.
I want to bring it together so that everything we have to offer, not just New Republic Studios, becomes a part of our marketing. I want us to band together and not compete against each other. There are things out here people don’t even know about, we’ve got a couple of hundred acres and maybe we will get more. We can do things differently out there. We have a mile or so of river. We also have four bald eagles that live out there by the way.
amfm: Now that’s awesome.
JSR: Yes, I thought I was seeing things. But the thing that’s really cool, is if you go back to the gypsy logic. If I’m going to those incentive states I’ve got to bring my crew, because Oklahoma doesn’t have crew…they don’t have any resources. It’s like going to a jewelry store and getting 40% or 50% off a 200% markup.
The actual apples to apples cost difference, between us and Georgia right now on a $10-12 million budget, we may be a million two or so off of the credits, or incentives they would have. But when you compare the actual cost difference (and Georgia is full now by the way. So is L.A. – the sound stages are all full) there is such an abundant need for an increase in content. And not just entertainment, but educational content and corporate content. For example, lot of people filming in our place now are Dell and Centre.
amfm: Are they using in-house or people around Austin? My question to you is the young filmmakers here are ready willing and able to work. Will this include them?
JSR: We want to support filmmakers in documentaries, biopics, and fiction in independent films, and television. I want this to be Marfa but closer,
amfm: That’s the key – two words, independent film.
JSR: The difference is we have a pathway to distribution. It’s part of the pathway we are taking and why the studio is important.
The business environment here is why all the tech companies migrate to Austin. It’s an acceptable state to film in 300 days of sun, with music, culture, and no state income tax. But when you look at it, as technology becomes more and more important, the convergence of content and technology becomes more of a natural place. The way I see it, we can fix the incentives, because we need tax credits, not grants after the fact.
amfm: So what’s a little more about what your concept entails?
JSR: Back to the filmmakers being gypsies.
Austin is one of the places these people would actually move to. It’s easier to go from here to Atlanta or here to New Mexico than cross country – I’m talking about the people behind the camera.
What we’re trying to do is align the objectives and the goals and resources. For a timeline, I’d like to have a substantial phase of this done before three years is up. I’m pretty aggressive, we’ve already been building out a lot of the stuff that will be in support to influencers and technology.
Also, different toolsets that will allow the brands to be closer to the filmed content and music. We all know that interruption advertising is going away. The consumer forward brands are having trouble getting in front of people.
We’ve developed tech that we own that lets the logos of these companies become the distribution target for music and content libraries. We’ve got a company called Vizidot. The brands become the label – the brands become the studio.
In reality if you’re an artist, the brands would love to be able to take the artist’s work, it’s a way for artists to make money.
amfm: Do you mean something like brand ambassadors?
JSR: It’s a little different. It’s a technology that allows you through your device and content lockers, we’ve got a deal with Walmart. Look, Walmart needs to compete with Amazon. They changed their name today to Walmart Inc. instead of Walmart Stores Inc. – and that’s the reason. They own VUDU, one of the big content delivery services. There’s a vehicle there, and the convergence of all of this makes Austin a really good place to make this all happen.
That’s why I want to build out and be a creative ranch for the resources to come here. That’s why it can’t be just about the incentives. When you compare apples to apples and the actual cost of doing it, we ARE the incentives. Meaning we are willing to be part of the incentives, your cost of moving, your cost of location, not having to have the cost of permits. We can make it quicker and cheaper and easier.
Then, when you add power credits into the mix, there are a lot of things we can do, and do it smarter. So, I’m not interested in whining because we have a bad incentive plan. I mean it’s old and tired but at least it’s there, they haven’t gotten rid of it.
There’s some better stuff that can put real money toward accomplishing our objectives of bringing resources and people here and giving them a better and more dependable market to monetize it.
I’d love to do more TV shows. We are looking at what stages we need to build in order to help do that.
amfm: So correct me if I’m wrong but what you are doing differently is bringing together the artificial intelligence and virtual reality aspects of the industry, the technology aspect…so you are building these stages differently to accommodate this?
JSR: You have to look at it like there’s four legs to a table. And everyone’s just focused on one leg here, they haven’t really related to the fact that there’s a table. I mean we could just go and copy Atlanta and build a big film facility then force the film incentives in, okay, because that’s how they did it. The incentives become a little less important in the formula.
But I’m saying if we bring the right people together and build it, that’s part of it, but more importantly we have to think through this. In essence, I’d rather be partners with Georgia. What I mean by that is the stuff that we’re doing…when you bring the technology together, we’ve got to be really good at it, and that’s what we’re building out there. We want to be THAT creative ranch, because those worlds unite more than you think. The same wire frames that you use to make an educational VR set for offshore oil rig training, you can also make games out of. All of these things start to tie together
Right now, there’s a bigger demand for video and multimedia content, and we’ve got the right labor pool so shame on us if we don’t build the right facilities and do a little bit of work to bring our resources together and say “hey, let’s unite and go out and conquer.” It’s just what I want to do with the rest of my life.
Right now, my number one objective is to help people right now where they are. If they are needing something done or having trouble finding it. Let’s build it. If you’re an ad agency or creative, what can we do to make your job easier.