Texas production guide

Considering that it's the second-largest state in the U.S., it's no surprise that Texas is a richly diverse location for film and television production.

The Amarillo Film Commission's Jutta Matalka describes her region as the place "where the West Texas desert meets the Grand Prairie." In other words, it's where flat meets flat to create an even greater expanse of flat. "It's an amazingly vast plain that goes on and on and on forever," says Texas Film Commission director Bob Hudgins of the Panhandle. "You can see grain silos 40 miles away. It's stunning, and it really does offer something unique to Texas." One portion that isn't flat is Palo Duro Canyon, located 25 miles southeast of the city. At 120 miles long and 1,200 feet deep, it is the second-largest canyon in the United States. The closing scenes of 1989's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" were shot at Figure 3 Ranch on the canyon's eastern rim. But while the area is visually rich, it has little in the way of crew or physical production infrastructure, although Matalka puts in a good word for production services company Amarillo's Majestic Media: "If they can't find the person or the equipment, it isn't available in this part of the country."

Already the capital of the state and the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World" -- as well as home to the University of Texas at Austin, one of largest universities in the U.S. -- this Central Texas city might also have a rightful claim to the title of "Movie Capital of the Southwest." Numerous Hollywood productions have shot in and around Austin over the years including 2002's "The Rookie," 2005's "Sin City" and the current NBC series "Friday Night Lights." Austin also serves as the base for such noted writer-directors as Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater, Mike Judge and Tim McCanlies as well as actress-producer Sandra Bullock. The fact that Austin's urban core is surrounded by a diverse, visually dramatic terrain -- from flat prairies and green lakes to rolling hills and pine forests -- is a strong draw for filmmakers. But Gary Bond, director of film marketing for the Austin Film Commission, thinks the key to the city's appeal is its attitude. "Politically and creatively, it's probably the most liberal and accepting area in the state," he says. "People come from L.A. and feel very comfortable here."

It also has infrastructure. In 2000, the city turned 20 acres of the old Robert Mueller Airport into Austin Studios, a film and video production facility run by the Austin Film Society, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Linklater in 1985. It has 10,000 square feet of production office space and five soundstages converted from airplane hangars, as well as numerous on-site vendors including Chapman/Leonard, Film Fleet, Great FX and Heartland Studio Equipment. In November of 2006, Austin voters passed Proposition 4, which allotted $5 million for studio improvements, including soundproofing, air conditioning and added digital infrastructure. Next year, workers are scheduled to break ground on Villa Muse, a $2.5 billion, 1,000-acre multi-use development combining state-of-the-art film, TV and music production facilities with residential housing (for more, see page S-16).

Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex
Larger than the state of New Jersey at 9,249 square miles, this giant slab of North Texas offers filmmakers a wide variety of looks -- from the gleaming, futuristic skyline of downtown Dallas, dominated by skyscrapers like architect I.M. Pei's mirror-windowed, prism-shaped Fountain Place (home to Ewing Oil on the long-running series "Dallas") -- to sprawling desert plains that doubled for Iraq in the 2003 telefilm "Saving Jessica Lynch." But its strongest calling cards are the diversity of Middle American looks that can be found in the outlying suburbs and ranches along with an ample supply of production facilities, services and crews -- including the only two 35mm film processing labs in the state and soundstages as large as 15,000 square feet -- supported by a thriving TV commercial production industry.

The two metropolises that anchor the region are far from twin cities. Dallas, which mushroomed along with the oil and technology booms of the late 20th century, is more urban and modern. While 30 miles to the west, Fort Worth is more laid back and down home, both architecturally and culturally, with a skyline that's more brick and mortar than glass and steel and a historic district that pays homage to the city's roots as a livestock trading hub with a daily longhorn cattle drive through the streets.

Dallas Film Commission director Janis Birklund wants to assure creatives on the coasts that, culturally speaking, the region has more to offer than 10-gallon hats and big hair. Not only is the city home to the AFI Dallas International Film Festival, which launched earlier this year, it boasts thriving arts districts and museums, over 6,000 restaurants, six professional sports teams, NASCAR, the rodeo, 200 golf courses and 33 shopping centers -- more per capita than any other metro region in the U.S. "Shopping is a big pastime in Dallas," Birklund notes. "We just had a costume designer in town checking out the stores and she was overwhelmed."

El Paso/West Texas

Down in the West Texas town of El Paso, they have a beautiful art deco city center, dramatic mountain ranges and desert terrain perfect for portraying the Middle East (as it did in 1996's "Courage Under Fire"). Unfortunately, in recent years, filmmakers have decided that they can find those same looks in New Mexico, along with a 25% tax credit.

El Paso film commissioner Susie Gaines says that despite the credit, Texas remains a superior location. "Our city is huge compared to most of their areas," she asserts. "We're more wide open, we have more of a dramatic look than New Mexico and we certainly have experienced crew here willing to go over-and-above doing the job." Gaines says they also have a good relationship with federal agencies, which comes in handy when a production wants to shoot on the nearby Mexican border, as was the case with 2004's "The Day After Tomorrow," which featured 1,200 extras crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico and then turning back.

And now that Texas has its own incentives, Gaines says things are picking up. "We just finished a Dairy Queen commercial, the BBC was just here filming, and we're waiting to hear back (from producers) about a lot of things," she says. "We even have things like the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services coming to scout for a documentary on the pandemic flu, for God's sake!"

Home to NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, the city has an appropriately space-aged look, with a futuristic skyline that wouldn't be out of place in a live action remake of "The Jetsons." But Houston Film Commission executive director Rick Ferguson is quick to point out that the city has more to offer than just skyscrapers sheathed in mirrored glass. "Around Rice University, you get a wholesome, all-American 'Leave It to Beaver' kind of look," he says. "Then you go 40 or 50 miles west, it's very flat and Midwestern. But if you go north and east, it's all very thick, piney woods. And if you go south, you'll hit the Gulf of Mexico." Many features have shot in Houston over the years, from 1983's "Terms of Endearment" to 2000's "Space Cowboys." But while the city still gets a good number of visiting productions each year, most are overseas TV commercials for foreign automakers, drawn by the way the city's thoroughfares line up in relation to its ultra-modern skyline. "There's an interesting geographic equation that seems to work for these projects," Ferguson says. "It's an ideal set-up for car commercials."

Rio Grande Valley/Brownsville
Located at the bottom of the state along the northern bank of the Rio Grande, this region is a good stand-in for Texas' south-of-the-border neighbor with its sun-baked desert terrain, its Mission-style architecture, and its predominantly  Latino population. But it can also offer location scouts a few surprises, according to Hudgins. "I was down scouting in a town called McAllen, and I was finding palm-lined communities with stucco houses and the red-tile roofs," he recalls. "I thought, 'I'll be damned. I could actually cheat an L.A. neighborhood here.' And then right outside these communities are little villages that could be Mexico in 1860."At the southernmost tip of the state, smack up against the border, is the region's largest city, Brownsville (pop. 168,000). Brownsville Border Film Commission chief Peter Goodman says that, although it hasn't hosted a Hollywood feature since 1981's "Back Roads," starring Sally Field and Texas native Tommy Lee Jones, it's been a popular destination for documentary programs from around the world. In recent years, it's also been used as a secondary location for Mexican films seeking all-American looks, such as 2004's "Punos Rosas" and 2006's "Bienvenido Paisano."

San Antonio
For filmmakers looking for authentic historic Southwestern architecture, including the iconic San Antonio de Valero Mission (aka, the Alamo), this Central Texas city, founded in 1718, is the place to go. "There wasn't urban renewal by demolition," observes Hudgins. "They allowed their older buildings to stay as part of their downtown infrastructure. By turning (that) into the focal point of the community, it's allowed San Antonio to kind of really maintain the beautiful quality of an old downtown city." San Antonio also has a selection of vacant cement plants and old factories with red-brick buildings that can portray East Coast or Midwestern industrial locations. San Antonio Film Commission director Drew Mayer-Oakes says he envisions the city being used as a secondary location for films based in Austin, 80 miles to the north, especially now with the state incentive program in place that gives an additional 1.25% break to films that complete 25% of their shoot days in "underused areas." And, he points out, since a lot of the "Austin-based" crew actually lives in the corridor between the two cities, they can work San Antonio as local, saving on lodging and per diems.


TEXAS HOLD 'EM: Lone Star State fights for film, TV work
PRODUCTION GUIDE: Survey of diverse state's assets
WRITE STUFF: Austin Film Festival spotlights writers
MUSINGS: New facility could open production doors
PRESS START: Incentives bolster vid game business