Austin Business Journal: How Robert Rodriguez plans to go from hip filmmaker to King of Cable

Aug 3, 2015

Written by Chad Swiatecki for Austin Business Journal

The UpTake: He’s brought in more than $700 million at the box office and established his reputation as a hip filmmaker. Now Robert Rodriguez is betting that he can match that success on the small screen, courting both English and Hispanic television viewers for a far-reaching, potentially lucrative payoff.

Robert Rodriguez never planned on turning a spread of five idled airplane hangars owned by the state government into a film and television empire. To hear the acclaimed and commercially successful Austin director tell it, his Troublemaker Studios quietly evolved into a heavyweight entertainment outpost when he wasn’t really thinking about it.

“We found the space and shot part of [2001’s] ‘Spy Kids’ here but I didn’t know this would be a studio,” Rodriguez said during an interview at one of Troublemaker’s expansive production buildings on Old Manor Road in East Austin.

“But we kept on filming and within a few years it felt like we were really doing something here, so we started putting up the posters and all the memorabilia. One day while I was walking back after shooting on ‘Sin City’ I looked around and realized, ‘Hey I’ve got my own studio. How’d that happen?’”

On roughly two dozen acres near the Mueller neighborhood, the director has almost single-handedly created the bedrock for Austin’s film and television economy that continues to attract productions to the area from California and beyond.

The inside of the facility reflects Rodriguez’s playful movie fan spirit in the form of movie posters, memorabilia and props displayed prominently throughout, and a close-knit staff of longtime employees working together as a sort of family. That family feeling naturally extends to the increasing presence on the campus of Rodriguez’s three teenage sons, who have started helping out with editing and other production work.

Since his first feature film was released in 1993, Rodriguez, now 46, has racked up more than $700 million in box office business and is already working on several new film projects, including a live-action adaptation of the classic “Johnny Quest” cartoon series. Still, he is quick to share credit for growing the local film industry — and helping put Texas on the national movie-making map — with fellow Austin director Richard Linklater, who helped start Austin Studios on former city airport property close to the Troublemaker site.

Sporting a cowboy hat for a photo shoot during the interview, Rodriguez spoke enthusiastically about his newest endeavor that takes aim at the cable television market while dropping in thoughts on potential future partnerships and insights into his audience. He has given plenty of thought to his newest business gambit, and he and his team have plotted out every move carefully to see it succeed.

Making his mark

When Rodriguez has film or television work in production at Troublemaker, hundreds of actors, crew and other workers are in the mix at all hours of the day, but its permanent full-time staff has numbered about 20 in recent years.

That number doubled after his latest business gambit into cable television known as El Rey Network, which launched in early 2014 with the goal of providing English-language content with a Hispanic sensibility to appeal to the growing mass of bilingual viewers in the U.S.

Branching out in that direction is another rare move in the world of film directors, but it shows how savvy Rodriguez is when it comes to finding ways to blend his art with the business world.

Programming such as the flagship TV drama series “From Dusk Till Dawn”– spun off from his 1996 feature film of the same name – presents mainstream, English-language stories and themes with Hispanic characters and environments, adding a twist to the typical Spanish-language television world.

“[El Rey] seemed like a great endeavor because it would fall in line with what I’ve always done in my movies, which is mainstream entertainment with a Hispanic perspective in front of and behind the camera,” he said. “It’s cool when people who are Hispanic say to themselves, ‘Wait, Danny Trejo is the star of a movie? What the hell is going on there?’”

With access to 40 million homes thanks to various partnerships such as a distribution deal with Spanish-language network Univision, El Rey has been greeted warmly by national advertisers such as General Motors. The car company was lured, in part, by Rodriguez and his staff’s willingness to create short pieces of branded content that have the look and feel of the channel’s programming. Generally, that content will feature El Rey actors and imaging in short videos focused around a product or brand, which can live on El Rey Digital or the sponsoring company’s website.

Partnerships with brands will be an ongoing component of the channel’s revenue strategy both over the air and on its digital platform, Rodriguez said.

“So many people are trying to break into content online, especially if there’s a Hispanic edge to it because so many people know that it’s an untapped market,” he said. “We keep cranking stuff out and it’ll be a major revenue driver because so many companies are looking to experiment in content. We have a special alchemy going on because a filmmaker doesn’t usually become a distributor, but it was just a fluke happenstance that the [studio we have now] came available and we grabbed it.”

Branding the message

Industry insiders said the brand equity Rodriguez has accrued over the course of his career puts him in the unique position to reach out to a coveted advertising demographic and be successful.

According to Ad Age data, television advertising aimed at Hispanic audiences in the U.S. totaled $6.1 billion in 2013 — the year before El Rey launched — with a 5 percent annual growth rate. Of that, cable television accounted for only $215 million, in part because of a lack of viable channels aimed at that audience.

Alejandro Ruelas, co-founder of Austin advertising firm LatinWorks, said Rodriguez has the artistic voice to appeal to the Hispanic millennial market, and his willingness to engage them on air and online increase his odds of success.

“Robert is unique because he’s born from the community and he understands the experience of the Hispanic millennial market, and that’s before you add in the value of having his name on the network,” Ruelas said. “He’s more qualified than just about anyone because of that, and then you add in his passion for the market because he understands the community.”

Rodriguez and El Rey officials wouldn’t disclose financial information about the network beyond its impressive early audience reach. Ruelas said the enthusiasm in the industry for a channel aimed directly at a hard-to-reach and growing demographic, and Rodriguez’s embrace of potentially lucrative branded content, are encouraging signs for El Rey’s future.

“The jury is still out when it comes to how successful it will be because these things take time to happen,” he said. “All major brands are asking the question of how to reach the bilingual Hispanic American who’s comfortable living in both cultures. There’s lots of interest in how to reach that audience through a traditional English vehicle.”

Launching a network means having lots of hours of programming to fill, and El Rey has taken a three-pronged approach to addressing its content needs.

There’s the original series such as “From Dusk Till Dawn,” and the popular “LuchaUnderground” professional wrestling show, repackaged theme nights focused on classic movies and other television shows, and viewer-produced content such as testimonials about cult films or original shorts that lives online and in some cases make it to the network.

Kurt Volk, El Rey’s creative director, said that a “people’s network” mentality is an important part of its business philosophy because viewers who are contributing to its lineup will be some of its most loyal viewers and ambassadors.

That approach isn’t exactly novel since cable networks have leveraged social media for years to scrape fan reactions and feedback as part of their content mix, but Volk said recruiting viewers to become creators is an aggressive tactic for a new channel that needs to grow its audience quickly.

“If we do a showing of ‘Terminator’ and collect fan reactions and thoughts on the movie that’s an opportunity to have something that’s completely unique to us by taking something older and adding a new relevance to it,” Volk said. “It’s an old piece of content but it has the personality of the network. Ever since he started making films people have been asking him how they can get something made, and now he can finally say that if you make it and it’s good enough we’ll put it on the air.”

As both an artist and a businessman, Rodriguez has balanced the financial advantage of getting content submitted on the cheap from fans with his ambition to give both audiences and young directors a chance to work and grow in the rare creative hub he’s created.

“You want to let them create their own little monsters, where they know they can come here and be creative,” he said. “You say hey, let’s experiment. If people hook into it you’ve created something people want more of and maybe it becomes a web series. You get a lot of directors here plugging away and so many new things end up happening. Eventually you strike gold.”

Source: Austin Business Journal


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