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A little over six years ago, Texas-based producer Red Sanders was on a trip promoting his hometown of Fort Worth abroad when the town’s former Mayor Betsy Price posed a question to him: How might the city grow its creative class?
Sanders knew exactly how. “I was like, ‘Well, you know, we don’t have a film commission,'” he recalls. In fact, Fort Worth was the only sizable city in Texas — it’s actually the 13th largest city in the U.S. — without one. Located a half-hour west of Dallas, 20 minutes from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and near authentic ranches and open plains, Fort Worth had all the makings of an ideal filming location in Sanders’ mind. Needless to say, Mayor Price bit, and soon Sanders was working with her, the city council and Visit Fort Worth to establish the city’s first dedicated film office.
Now, since getting off the ground in 2015, the Fort Worth Film Commission has helped shepherd hundreds of projects — whether film, television or commercial — from producers and production companies across the country, generating close to $50 million in economic impact for the area. “There’s been a lot of growth since we started,” says film commissioner Jessica Christopherson. At first, it was mostly commercial productions — for companies like Papa John’s and Chevy — but Fort Worth has since grown as a filming destination for movies and TV shows as well.
Some of the notable movies that have shot in the region include A Ghost Story, starring Casey Affleck, and The Old Man & the Gun, starring Robert Redford. Both were written and directed by David Lowery, who grew up in Irving, Texas, a town near Fort Worth (he currently lives in Dallas). In addition, Lowery’s producing partner James M. Johnston is from Fort Worth proper and still resides there. “It’s a great home base,” says Johnston of the city. “I don’t like living in New York or L.A., so it’s nice to not have to be forced to be there to do my job.”
As locals, the pair tries to shoot as many of their projects in the area as possible. Even for a film like the upcoming The Green Knight, which had to mainly shoot in Ireland, they made sure to do the pick-ups for the Dev Patel-Alicia Vikander feature in Fort Worth. “We always try to get back to Texas to shoot,” says Johnston. “There’s just a comfort here.” He adds that almost everyone who comes to shoot in the area says the same thing, which is that it’s really comfortable and the people are very hospitable.
Contributing to that ambiance is the fact that Fort Worth is very spread out. Johnston finds that it makes shoots easier from a logistical standpoint. He’s never worried about where to locate his base camp or if there will be enough room for his crew to park. It’s the sort of ease he welcomes after doing two film shoots in New York. “It’s an amazingly different experience,” he says. It’s also helped that a handful of production facilities and studio spaces have popped up in recent years: Backlot Studio and Workspace, Lowtown Studios and Near South Studios.
The city also boasts a diverse array of locations that can double as other regions and settings, whether that’s metropolitan chic or the Old West. “It’s really versatile,” says Christopherson, who notes that the film commission has more than 300 production-friendly locations in their database. “That’s the nice thing about Fort Worth is that there’s so many areas that have their own distinct bubble,” she adds. “Each district can almost double as its own city.”
Lowery and Johnston didn’t have a hard time finding places to film an England-set, Arthurian-era feature like The Green Knight or a circa-’70s drama like The Old Man & the Gun. For the latter, they filmed at unique locations including an old subway tunnel, something Johnston says the film commission could make possible. “They were able to get us down there,” he says, noting that the film commission is also eager to step in to help on projects, like the time they facilitated Lowery and Johnston in getting Old Man & the Gun star Robert Redford out to a ranch in a helicopter.
Of course, Fort Worth has hosted other projects, too. Director Augustine Frizzell, who is married to Lowery, shot her 2018 stoner comedy Never Goin’ Back in the area. More recently, the Catherine Keener-led drama No Future, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, filmed in the city, along with Channing Godfrey Peoples’ pageant drama Miss Juneteenth, which debuted at Sundance last year. The latter film took place specifically in Fort Worth, where Peoples is also from.
The latest movie to film in the region is the Depression-era sports drama 12 Mighty Orphans, which is currently in theaters. Like Miss Juneteenth, the movie — starring Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen and Robert Duvall — is set in Fort Worth, following a local football team. The production took over Gateway Park, one of the largest parks in Fort Worth, and essentially built a football stadium on it for some of their action scenes.
Productions that opt to film in the area often take advantage of Texas’ film incentives, which offers up to 22.5 percent back on qualifying expenditures. Though Fort Worth has yet to implement local incentives, it’s something the film commission is working toward. “It’s definitely a long-term goal,” says Christopherson. In the meantime, they have what she calls “soft incentives packages,” which they offer by working with nearby hotels to get productions good rates, or with the city to better facilitate permitting.
Part of continuing to grow Fort Worth as a filming destination means differentiating the city from Austin, which has been a production hub in the state for years and is home to the SXSW film festival. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ll be on the phone with like an agent in L.A. and they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re shooting in Texas, so we’re in Austin,’ and it’s like, ‘No, no… there are other cities in Texas,'” jokes Sanders. But Hollywood is beginning to take Fort Worth more seriously, with creatives like Lowery and Peoples leading the way.
Adds Sanders: “I hope that we continue to see more people coming here to tell their stories.”
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