Commentary: Another Texas standoff

Content clause used to deny state funding for 'Waco' pic

Bob Hudgins stood with other Texans in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport in April 1993, watching on TV the assault by federal agents on the Branch Davidian compound outside of Waco. The images of buildings burning as 76 people lost their lives seared into his brain.

"Texas took it very personally," says Hudgins, now the state's film commissioner.

The burning compound is now back in front of Hudgins, who is taking a certain amount of heat for his decision not to award as much as 17% in film incentives to a movie about the event. In the Lone Star State, he is the sole arbiter in making such a call.

The project, titled "Waco," is being produced by Los Angeles-based Entertainment 7 and has Rupert Wainwright on board to direct. U.K.-born Wainwright wrote the script several years ago with James Hibberd, a Texas-schooled journalist who subsequently became a senior TV reporter and senior online editor at The Hollywood Reporter. Co-producing is Mike McNulty, who also co-wrote and was a producer on the Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning 1997 documentary "Waco: The Rules of Engagement."

The movie focuses on two negotiators on each side of the standoff whose efforts failed to work because higher-ups couldn't see eye to eye.

Hudgins based his veto on a little-known provision in Texas' film-incentive legislation known as the content clause, which states that anything that portrays the state in a negative or embarrassing light can be denied a government grant. "Waco" is the first film since the incentives were introduced in 2007 to be denied funding.

Since Hudgins' decision a couple of weeks ago, Entertainment 7 has gone on the offensive, claiming it amounts to censorship and a snuffing of artistic freedom. The company even says the state is succumbing to prodding from Washington.

"The whole theme is bowing to federal pressure," Wainwright says. "History is repeating itself, but this time the Texas bureaucracy is rolling over and taking it."

Says Hudgins: "The Texan citizen is not being accurately portrayed. That is the basic problem I had. I am not making a judgment whether it's a good story or a bad story; it's just that you are not showing Texans accurately."

Entertainment 7 points to not only McNulty's journalistic pedigree but also the five-plus years of research done for the script, which included interviews with FBI agents and survivors and reviewing depositions and testimony.

Hudgins counters that as mandated by his job, he took the script to law enforcement and front-line journalists and had them review its accuracy. The answers came back negative.

Wainwright and the producers say Hudgins hasn't told them what he considers the inaccuracies to be.

"If you make a charge that serious, it's not hard to back it up," Wainwright says. "If that's the case, just tell us what they are. No one has pointed out what the inaccuracies are. This isn't a content clause; it's the cop-out clause."

Entertainment 7 says it is taking the movie -- and the $30 million it claims to have raised -- elsewhere, with Texas losing out on jobs and millions in production spend.

The fracas has brought the concept of content clauses to the fore. The only other state with one is Utah, whose legislation declares that it is not required to incentivize projects "that include inappropriate content or content that portrays Utah or Utahns in a negative way."

Utah has an advisory board that reviews applications and reads scripts, debating whether "the content fits within the mission and the image of the state."

"It can't be just one thing," Utah Film Commission director Marshall Moore says. "It's a series of things that come together, page after page, and end up sending a message that may not be the message we want to get out using taxpayer dollars."

Only once has Utah rejected a project: Last year, "Animals," a horror movie with heavy sexual overtones, was denied incentives.

The film, starring Marc Blucas and Naveen Andrews, still ended up shooting in the state as the producers had long-standing relationships with crews and government officials.

The "Animals" producers wouldn't comment on the issue, but Moore says of the decision: "It was tough for them; it was tough for us. We're not saying you can't shoot the movie here; it's whether we use taxpayer dollars on those films."

The origin of Texas' content clause dates to Disney's 2006 basketball drama "Glory Road," which told the story of the 1966 Texas Western Miners, the first school to win the NCAA championship with an all-black starting lineup. The movie portrayed a racist event as happening at the college; according to officials, it occurred outside the state.

It might have been a mistake by the filmmakers or simply artistic license, but the school was offended.

Although movies often purport to tell true stories but take storytelling liberties, the practice apparently doesn't fly in Texas -- at least when filmmakers want to avail themselves of state funds.

Hudgins says the "Waco" script "smushed the story" and "truncated events and minimized the number of characters that actually played a role in the Waco event."

Wainwright scoffs at the idea.

"That is complete and utter nonsense," he says. "Do we make a movie that would take, as did the standoff, 51 days to 'accurately' view or one that in 21⁄2 hours sums up the events? Because you combine a few characters does not mean that it's inaccurate. That's a naive thing to say. Did Clint Eastwood's 'Letters From Iwo Jima' take 25 days to watch?"

Content clauses seem to seek to address a state's self-mythology. Utah sees itself as upholding a morality derived from its Mormon background, something "Animals" and its sexual radicalism might have confronted head-on.

Texas seemed to have no problem with such violent films as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "No Country for Old Men" because they arguably reflect the state's proud myth of the independent man confronting a raw landscape.

That could be why Texas' content clause applies only to true-life projects. "Waco" paints a picture of federal intrusion, fringe elements and tragedy, which goes against the Lone Star brand.

"My first choice would be that we didn't have a content provision; I want to bring films here," Hudgins says. "But the legislature makes the rule, not Bob the film commissioner. I don't represent me; I represent Texas."