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Texas has set aside $200M of incentives towards media production. How did we get here?

Isabel May as Elsa in the Paramount series, '1883,' much of which was filmed in Texas.
Emerson Miller/CBS
Isabel May as Elsa in the Paramount series, '1883,' much of which was filmed in Texas.

In our series on the arts and the economy, we examine why Texas media incentives have been raised higher than ever.

Editor's note: This story is part of an ongoing series for Arts Access examining the health and well-being of our North Texas arts economy.

The Texas State Legislature recently boosted the state's media incentive program for the next two years to $200 million.

That may not seem like much when lawmakers had surplus billions to work with. But it's more than enough to re-ignite talk of a brighter future for Texas filmmakers and imported location shoots.

Red Sandersis a Fort Worth film producer: "We'll be able to see consistent work coming to Texas and even more because the word's already getting out in the industry that it's a new day in Texas."

There's talk of a "new day" partly because, in 2015, a Republican-led legislature slashed Texas film incentives by two-thirds, down to $32 million (and later down to $22 million). But this summer, the Texas legislature — still led by Republicans — gave that same program the biggest raise it's ever had. At least for the next two years.

So -- how'd that happen?

"A lot of legislators in the past," Sanders said, "they would just literally vote down incentives just for the talking point of, 'I cut handouts for Hollywood!' But -- that's not how it works."

Texas incentives are like rebates – producers earn them

In 2017,Matt Shaheen, whose district includes West Plano and Far North Dallas, wanted to eliminate the program entirely. He cited the sexual assault charges against Harvey Weinstein as a reason not to subsidize such an industry with tax money. Others were motivated by anger over the violent and satiric film, "Machete Kills," which was made in Texas but ultimately lost its $8 million of state incentives in court.

In addition to creating his own productions, Sanders is executive director of the Fort Worth Film Commission, which works to bring in outside film efforts. He said getting Texas politicians to increase the state program involved educating them about how such incentives actually work.

"That's all it was, was educating members," agreed Craig Goldman, "educating representatives, educating budget writers about the benefit of bringing productions into Texas."

Goldman, a Republican state representative from Fort Worth, authored several of the film incentive bills. And to get the entire budget increase passed, he worked with others including Sanders, Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker and the office of Governor Greg Abbott.

 Long-time Fort Worth flmmaker Red Sanders is president of Red Productions
Frank Darko
Red Sanders
Long-time Fort Worth flmmaker Red Sanders is president of Red Productions

One obstacle to this effort, Goldman said, has simply been the term "incentives."

"This is the biggest misnomer," Goldman said. Texas incentives don't involve "just handing people taxpayer money -- and never to be heard of again."

In Texas, these media incentives function like rebates. Producers — either from Texas or out-of-state — can get the incentive money only after they've met certain requirements like their casts and crews including 55% Texas residents.

So in the past, when lawmakers cut media incentives, film-and-TV production jobs in Texas dried up. And that reduced the number of experienced, Texas professionals whom filmmakers often look for when scouting for film locations.

Sanders has been in Texas film production for 18 years.

"The sad thing for me," he said, "has been — because there's been no incentive work coming to the state — we've seen so many crew members that we love working with, miss out on half the work they could be doing, and have to go to another state."

But Texas is where "Friday Night Lights" was filmed. "Tender Mercies," "Robocop," "No Country for Old Men" and "Boyhood" — not to mention "Dallas," the TV series, "Walker Texas Ranger" and the seventh season of "America's Next Top Model."

In the '80s and '90s, especially around Austin, Texas filmmaking was taking off— with writer-producer Bill Witliff ("Red-Headed Stranger," "Lonesome Dove"), director Richard Linklater ("Slacker") and writer-director Robert Rodriguez ("El Mariachi," "From Dusk to Dawn").

So if all that film and TV work was being done here -- why did much of it dry up? (Robert Rodriquez, for one, stayed — and helped turn Austin's old airport into a film studio. But then, he also co-wrote and directed "Machete Kills.")

"Incentives really changed the game," said Sanders. "A lot of production work was leaving the U.S. altogether and going to Europe because Europe had incentives."

States are competing for Hollywood money

 Artist's rendering of what the $267 million Hill Country Studios near San Marcos will look like when finished.
Foley Design
Artist's rendering of what the $267 million Hill Country Studios near San Marcos will look like when finished.

Texas author-historian Stephen Harrigan ("Big Wonderful Thing") is developing a film adaptation of "The Which Way Tree," the novel by Texas author Elizabeth Crook.

It's set entirely in the Texas Hill Country. But it might not get filmed there because of such financial choices.

"It's a gigantic issue in terms of the numbers," Harrigan said. "You know, we've had to think about New Mexico and Oklahoma, we've had to think about Eastern Europe, just because of the lack of incentives in Texas -- until now."

Since the 1990s, attracting location shoots to different parts of the country has "turned into a very competitive industry," Goldman said. "States have seen the benefits of bringing in film productions."

Currently, 37 states have some type of incentive program. The leader is Georgia -- with $1.3 billion in incentives. It's little wonder, then, that filmmaker Tyler Perry built his entire studio complex — one of the largest soundstages and production facilities in the country — in Atlanta. In 2020, Netflix announced it would spend $1 billion on its studios — in New Mexico.

In addition to such state incentives, local governments can offer property tax abatements. Last year, San Marcos announced that a new, 79-acre facility, Hill Country Studios, will be built there. It will include 12 sound stages. Once the complex is completed in 2025, the city would start with a 90 percent rebate of property taxes decreasing to 20 percent.

Even so, San Marcos expects to collect more than $11 million over 10 years.

 Netflix Studios in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Netflix Studios in Albuquerque, New Mexico

In an example of this competition among states,MovieMaker magazine earlier this year ranked the top 25 best big cities across the country for media industry people to live and work — setting aside New York and LA. The rankings take into account cost of living, quality of life, number of industry jobs, incentives, ease and variety of locations, etc.

Reporter Tim Molloy wrote, "Texas is booming as you’re about to see from the five Lone Star State cities on this list, all of which would be higher in our rankings if Texas offered more generous tax incentives."

With five cities on the list, Texas has more than any other state. But they're primarily clustered at the bottom: Fort Worth (25th, tied with Orlando), San Antonio (22nd), Houston (21st) and Dallas (20th) — behind Tulsa, Baltimore and Missoula, Montana.

Austin was 12th.

The number one city?

Atlanta. Molloy calls it "the center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe."

It's easy to understand why media incentives have become popular with state governments, Goldman said. They can significantly boost the local economy. This was evident, he said, when TV producer-director Taylor Sheridan brought production of the first two episodes of his series, "1883," to Fort Worth.

"When Taylor literally took over the Stockyards," Goldman said, "he hired everything. Whatever he needed. They need food services, they need gas. I mean, it's all Texans doing these jobs."

A location shoot like that, Sanders said, can require 1,600 people to make it work.

But ultimately, Sanders added, luring big-name Hollywood like this is only a means to an end.

That end has always been building a Texas-based media industry -- from funding to soundstages, hair dressers to horse wranglers.

Arts Access is an arts journalism collaboration powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks at jweeks@kera.org. You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.

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Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Jerome Weeks