Lone Star State fights for film, TV production

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Attracting two big network TV shows would be considered a success for any film commissioner, but the Texas Film Commission learned earlier this year that keeping primetime series in its state requires an equal amount of dedication.

Although the Lone Star State had two current series -- Fox's "Prison Break" and NBC's "Friday Night Lights" -- shooting in Dallas and Austin, respectively, the previous four years had seen shows flowing out of Texas like black crude and into regions that offer attractive incentive packages, from neighboring states New Mexico and Louisiana to countries such as Canada and Australia.

By the Texas Film Commission's count, during that time 32 film projects that scouted Texas shoots chose to shoot elsewhere, 12 of which had stories set in the state. The loss of those projects cost Texas an estimated $327 million in project spending, 4,600 jobs and no small amount of pride.

In order to prevent the remaining two Texas-based primetime series from leaving along with the others, the film commission knew that the Texas Legislature had to approve a pending bill (HB 1634) that would fund an incentive program of the state's own.

"These TV productions were ours to lose. They weren't a 'maybe' down the road," points out Texas Film Commission director Bob Hudgins. "These were real jobs and real crews that were standing there saying, 'We want to work next year.'"

The prospect of losing "Friday Night Lights," a show set in Texas against the backdrop of one of its most beloved institutions, high school football, was particularly disturbing for the community. "The thought that there would be a TV show on the air about Texas football shot somewhere else was just pardon-me-very-much? Now, we're talking heresy!" Hudgins says. Grips and best boys didn't exactly take to the streets shouting, "Remember the Alamo!" but it did spur people into action.

Legislators were schmoozed with visits to the set, and NBC Universal senior vp tax counsel Brian O'Leary was flown out to Texas to speak before the house's Culture, Recreation and Tourism Committee on how vital the incentives were to not only the show's continued presence in Texas, but the health of the state's film and TV industry as a whole.

It's impossible to gauge what effect their efforts had on the outcome, but the $22 million bill was overwhelmingly approved by the legislature and signed into law by Texas Governor Rick Perry on June 7. Still, after the ink had dried and the hubbub had died down, it was unclear whether people in Texas' film and TV production community should rejoice or cry. Because while Texas' new incentives were enough to keep "Friday Night Lights" (and "Prison Break") in the state, O'Leary says, "the program on the books today is just not competitive enough for us to push other shows there."

Texas' Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, as it is known, offers a grant equal to 5% of a production's spend in Texas up to $2 million for a film, $2.5 million per season for a TV program, $200,000 for a commercial or series of commercials, and $250,000 for digital/interactive media productions. Projects that complete at least 25% of their shoot days in an underused area (basically, anywhere but in and around Dallas or Austin) are eligible to receive an additional 1.25%. To qualify, films must spend at least $1 million in Texas, shoot at least 80% of the project within state borders and hire at least 70% of actors, crew and extras in Texas. For commercials, infomercials, interstitials, music videos and video games, the minimum spend is $100,000. In contrast, Texas' neighbor to the northwest, New Mexico, offers filmmakers a 25% tax rebate, while across its eastern border in Louisiana, a 25% tax credit can be had.

Texans argue it's unfair to make a superficial comparison of those numbers. First of all, tax rebates and credits aren't directly comparable to a grant. Secondly, prior to enacting the new incentive package (which went into effect on Sept. 1), Texas already had other incentives on the books, including a sales tax exemption for manufacturers that applies to fees for postproduction services and the purchase, rental or lease of film equipment. Besides, some of Texas' most important cost-saving features can't be explained using percentages and mathematical formulas, like the rich array of locations in and around major metropolitan areas such as Austin, Dallas and Houston -- from biggest of big-city skylines and Middle American suburbs to prairies and barren deserts -- that enables productions to capture a wide variety of looks without having to worry about travel expenses or per diems for the crew.

It's this topographic diversity that drew "Prison Break" to Dallas last summer to shoot its second season. The series was originally based in Chicago, but at the end of the first season, the storyline followed a group of escaped inmates heading towards Mexico, necessitating a broader palette of locations for Season 2. Producer Gary A. Brown says they determined that to get the Middle American looks needed for each episode, the production would have had to travel an hour and a half to two hours outside of Chicago, and for scenes set in Panama late in the season, they would have had to leave the state completely. They considered shooting half the season in Illinois and half in another state, but eventually they decided it was best to pull up stakes and relocate between seasons.

"We looked in New Mexico, and we certainly found some unique locations there, but really Santa Fe and Albuquerque have kind of one look," Brown says. "They don't really have the Middle America look, and it would've been too much for us to travel to Las Vegas and New Mexico to get two different types of towns to facilitate a whole season."

The show went on to scout in Florida, Arizona and Louisiana before finally deciding on Dallas, where Brown spent six seasons (1996-2001) as co-producer/line producer of the series "Walker, Texas Ranger."

"We could've done (Panama) successfully in Shreveport (La.), but Dallas gave us the opportunity to not only have the prison environment and the outside jungle environment, but also the backdrop of a big city, so we can jump back and forth to the United States in the story when we need to without having to travel," he explains.

According to Hudgins and other Texas film commissioners, another cost-saving benefit that doesn't show up on a spreadsheet is the speed and competence of their large, experienced crew base.

"'Friday Night Lights' is (in Austin) because the crew is amazingly efficient," says Hudgins. "They're able to finish their work always on time, always under budget. Even if this wasn't the cheapest place they could do the show, they realized that there was a true value to the crew, because there was not the unknown variable of losing days and not getting their work done. That's when it gets really expensive."

The fact that Texas has been able to maintain a crew base and a viable production infrastructure while film and TV productions have flocked to other states is a testament to its strength as a TV commercial production hub, which can be attributed to the presence of a large number of major ad agencies in Dallas and Austin, including TM Advertising (Nationwide Insurance, Texas-based American Airlines) and the Richards Group (Home Depot, Fruit of the Loom).

In a roundabout way, Texas' success with commercials is luring back business from Hollywood studios. Dallas-based Reel FX Creative Studios, which built its business doing CGI animation for TV spots, has branched out into feature film work, doing effects for films like 2002's "Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams" and creating the opening sequence for Disney's 2006 animated feature "The Wild." They're currently in negotiations with DreamWorks to create an animated feature for the studio.

"We've had Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Weinsteins and a lot of other people who've flown here to visit and said, 'We're hearing all kinds of buzz about you guys,'" says Reel FX vp business development Chuck Peil. "Ten years ago, it was like, 'Dallas? ... I lost my luggage there on a commercial flight once.'"

But even as Texas is reaching out to and reconnecting with Hollywood, it's pushing it away with a clause in the incentives that declares the state "may deny an application because of inappropriate content or content that portrays Texas or Texans in a negative fashion." However, most see the clause as a symbolic political gesture that will have little or no practical effect on the grant process.

At the end of the day, the bottom line for Hollywood studios is still the bottom line. While the Texas film commissioners are optimistic that the incentives are generous enough to put them back in the game, O'Leary believes that if the state really wants to score more projects, the legislature will have to increase the size of the grant when funding for the program comes up for renewal in 2009.

"There are things about Texas and certain cities in particular that make it very attractive for filming, so we're not talking about the state having to buy its way in," O'Leary says. "They've taken a terrific step forward, which is funding a program, and now they've just got to modulate it enough to make it competitive."


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