Commentary: How the Legislature is choking the Texas film industry

AMC Network recently premiered 10 episodes of “The Son,” a series based on the celebrated novel spanning generations of Texans written by Austin novelist Philipp Meyer.

Reviews highlighted that it was filmed on location here in Texas, with the landscape giving the series an epic heft. And if the Texas Legislature eliminates the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program — which there is serious talk of doing — a second season of this Texas story probably will be filmed in New Mexico.

Four years ago, the Legislature put $95 million into the incentive program for 2014-15 — and $442 million was spent on production during those two years. During the next session, the incentives for 2016-17 were cut by two-thirds, to $32 million, and production for those two years was estimated to be just above $120 million, a drop of more than $300 million. If the initial budgets this session stand — with the Senate appropriating just $3.5 million and the House nothing — it stands to reason that virtually no productions will come to Texas in 2018-19. This is called killing the Texas film industry.

Several bills were introduced in the Texas House and Senate to abolish the incentive program and close down the Texas Film Commission – Senate Bill 99, Senate Bill 244 and House Bill 779 – but the bottom line is that appropriating little or no money for incentives would do the trick.

One argument against incentives is that the state should not be picking winners and losers in a free-market economy. The problem is that cutting incentives just helps us pick the losers: us. Texas is not in a vacuum. Other states already have much more lucrative incentive programs. We’re surrounded by three of the top eight states in giving film production breaks: Oklahoma, New Mexico and Louisiana. People want to film here. There are fabulous locations, talented film crews who live here, and a vibrant film culture — but producers can’t afford to take large losses to come here.

Others argue: Why should we spend millions of dollars, giving money to Hollywood, when we have more important needs here in Texas? No one is disputing the more urgent needs in our state. That said, this relatively small amount of money in an overall budget of more than $200 billion has been a proven success. The Texas Film Commission says that the incentive money spent during the past decade — $168.4 million — has led to the creation of nearly 20,000 full-time jobs and $1.14 billion in spending in Texas. Given the strict rules of the incentive program, the money is not going to Los Angeles; it’s going to salaries and film-related businesses right here.

Thank goodness that we had enough of an incentive plan in the recent past to keep the iconic Texas football series “Friday Night Lights” from being filmed in Louisiana. But even it might have left given the economics today. Shows like HBO’s “The Leftovers,” “American Crime” and even local director Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk Till Dawn” TV series have all left Texas of late.

As the chair of the Radio-Television-Film Department at the University of Texas, I can say that this is a serious issue for our students. Our program has nearly 1,000 undergraduates — along with the young filmmakers and screenwriters in our Master of Fine Arts programs. Nearly one-third of our Radio-Television-Film graduates are Hispanic — and many are the first in their families to attend college. Many — if not most — of our students are from Texas and would prefer to stay here to grow our state’s media industry, be it in movies, video games, television, interactive formats or in the exploding Hispanic media market. This all assumes that there’s an industry to employ them once they graduate. If the incentive program is cut, that may not be the case.

This is a fabulous state in which to make films. It’s the home of great film and screenwriting festivals and wonderful directors. It’s one of the few places outside of Los Angeles and New York where there are experienced crews to work on a major film set. At this late date in the session, I hope the leaders of the Texas Legislature understand the consequences of eliminating the small investment they’ve previously made to keep our industry alive.

Stekler is the chair of the Radio-Television-Film Department at the University of Texas.

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