AMC recently premiered ten 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 our legislature eliminates the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program – which there is serious talk of doing – a second season of this Texas story will probably be filmed in New Mexico.
Four years ago, the legislature put $95 million into the incentive program for 2014-15 and $442 million was then 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.
One argument against incentives is that the state should not be picking winner 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 and 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’s 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 we should 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 in the last 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 they 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, this is a serious issue for our students. Our program has nearly 1,000 undergraduate majors 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, many 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 to make films. It’s the home of great film and screenwriting festivals, of wonderful directors, one of the few places outside of Los Angeles and New York where there are experienced crews to people a major film set.
At this late date in the session, I hope the leaders of our legislature understand the consequences of eliminating the small investment they’ve previously made to keep our industry alive.
Documentary filmmaker Paul Stekler is the chair of the Radio Television Film Department at The University of Texas.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star Telegram and the Austin American Statesman.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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