Made in Texas

Can an incentive boost and a flurry of new soundstages keep Texas' production economy from flagging?

Related: Texas is tweaking its incentive strategy in hopes of generating a production boom
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It has got vast open spaces, sprawling urban cities, enormous cattle ranches and residents with outsized, outspoken opinions. Yep, size really does matter in Texas.

Except when it comes to production incentives.

"Bless its heart, Austin is amazing, but they don't have a tax incentive. Well, 5% -- that's very small," says "Whip It!" co-producer Kelli Konop, referring to the state's base production incentive.

The Drew Barrymore-helmed indie was written by an Austinite (Shauna Cross), and tells the tale of a girl who discovers her dreams on a Texas-based roller derby circuit. But, other than a few days in Austin, "Whip It!" filmed in Michigan.

The Great Lakes State hardly seems a likely substitute for Texas, but the spackle of movie magic goes a long way when dollars and cents drive production (like Michigan's 40%-42% refundable tax credit). Thanks to the incentive whirlwind that swept across the U.S. in recent years, Texas -- whose legislature meets just every two years -- has been left in the dust.

So Texans are messing with the status quo, starting with incentives. The state House tentatively passed a bill on Wednesday which would boost financial incentives. At press time, a final vote is expected today on the bill -- good news for the Texas Film Commission.

"New Mexico and Louisiana are really killing us now," Texas Film Commission director Bob Hudgins says. "It's really stark how much we've been impacted in features and on television as well."

The state is new to this incentive business, having introduced its first package in 2007. But that was too little too late; two years later, Texas has become almost a production ghost town. In 1998, studio, independent films and television were pulling in a little more than $104 million in production spend to Texas, half of which came from studio features. By 2007 that number fell to $87.2 million, with barely $1 million of the total coming from studio features.

That's not how it was supposed to be. For years, Texas got by on its rugged good looks, boasting a landscape that can shoot for almost any turf. Such benefits recently brought HBO Films' Claire Danes and Julia Ormond-starrer "Temple Grandin" to Texas, though the decision to film there was never a "slam dunk," producer Scott Ferguson says.

"It took a fair amount of analysis to figure out where to go," he says, noting that spots in Arizona, New Mexico and Canada were considered. Ultimately, Texas became home for scenes that will represent New Hampshire as well as the state itself.

But there was more to it, as Ferguson acknowledges: The largely Austin- and Dallas-based film crew provided an experienced crew base, some fresh from the University of Texas at Austin. "Even with the small incentive," he says, "it not only cost out well but it was the most efficient way to do it."

Texas-based director Terrence Malick wrote his upcoming "The Tree of Life" for the state, says producer Sarah Green. They considered other areas to base production, "but creatively the other states

didn't work." An excellent quality of life in Austin, where production was based, also was very important "for us displaced East or West coasters," Green says. And, "I think it's unlikely that anywhere else we would have found a young boy whose performance experience included rodeoing."

That holy grail of production, a regular TV series, set up shop in 2006 when NBC's "Friday Night Lights" moved in, taking over a football stadium and making Austin a home base for several months of the year.

"There are things that can be done in Texas that you couldn't have done in Louisiana or New Mexico," producer Nan Bernstein says.

But Texas' good looks aren't enough any longer. Fox's"Prison Break" escaped to California after two seasons in Texas -- then got canceled, while "Friday Night Lights" remains on the bubble. Even the hotly buzzed-about Austin film culture, rife with home-base heroes Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater and the annual South By Southwest film festival, isn't enough to attract massive outside production. (That said, animation and video game production remains huge within Texas, thanks to the high-tech cluster of Dell, IBM and Texas Instruments.)

On the facilities front, the real soundstage news is coming from the private sector, where entrepreneurs are clearing space and building furiously. Producer Tommy G. Warren has set up a 200-acre backlot just outside Austin for his Spiderwood Studios, a space that includes river frontage and three soundstages (with a fourth on the way).

"It's a lot of money to put in, and it's high risk. But I'm not the kind of person to worry," Warren says. "If the economy pops back up and the legislature passes (incentives), I could see Texas moving forward very fast."

Another large-scale operation is the planned Villa Muse community, where designers intend to construct a one-stop shop for producers that includes soundstages, recording studios and post facilities, as well as single- and multifamily residences, so that workers can live in the community where they work.

"We want to do what we love, but stay close to home," says Paul Alvarado-Dykstra, vp of strategic development for Villa Muse. "That's fundamental to the concept of the project."

Despite the City of Austin rejecting their building proposal, organizers hope to break ground on the project by year's end, possibly in another Texas city.

And in classic think-big fashion, one massive structure already has been erected with a potential 140,000-square-foot soundstage -- and it's ready for immediate use. That's the Houston Astrodome, which the Greater Houston Global Management Group is organizing for productions.

"It's a giant open barn," GHGMG founder Elise Hendrix says. "It's exactly what we need. It can turn an immediate revenue. It's ready right now."

The company will renovate the interior (one-time concession stands can't currently substitute for production offices), but Hendrix indicates they will submit their final proposals to the county very shortly.

"They're as anxious to get this show on the road as we are, because no one's paying any rent over there," GHGMG vp Cynthia Neely says.

So if you build it -- and that includes constructing a workable incentive -- will they come? Texans seem to have little doubt that, with some attention, the Lone Star State won't be lone much longer. But, says Hudgins, the window of opportunity will not be open forever -- not with that legislature meeting so infrequently.

"If we don't do something effective this time, we'll have to wait until 2011, and I fear by that time we'll have 50% of our workforce working out of state," he says. "It'll get to the point where it's really hard for us to recover. It's now or never."