Texas Legislature to consider larger incentives for filmmakers
Joe O'Connell firstname.lastname@example.org
DALLAS MORNING NEWS
Friday, January 2, 2009
Are financial incentives for filmmakers a good idea, and can they save the Texas film scene?
Those are the operative questions as the Texas Legislature revs up this month with a proposal from Gov. Rick Perry to nearly triple the state's fledgling incentives program.
Hard figures won't be out for a week or two, but 2008 generally is seen as a down year for the state's film industry.
"They stayed away in droves," says Bob Hudgins, head of the Texas Film Commission. They being Hollywood studios that have bypassed Texas and its 5 percent rebate on spending in favor of states such as Michigan that offer up to 42 percent incentives through tax rebates or direct cash returns.
North Texas' saving graces were television commercials, reality television, video games, small independent films and longtime heroes such as the PBS show Barney and Friends.
"Truthfully, it could have been a whole lot worse," says Janis Burklund of the Dallas Film Commission. That's despite the loss of Prison Break, which moved production to Los Angeles after two seasons (the second one truncated by the writers strike) in Dallas.
Look for the Texas Motion Picture Alliance to push to increase the state's incentives to 15 percent, a number not so quietly touted as the point of equilibrium given Texas' established crew base and varied shooting locations, particularly in the filming hubs around Dallas and Austin. Perry is proposing boosting the two-year incentives budget to $62 million, a $40 million increase over the 2007-08 authorization.
But the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, in a recently released report (see www.tpj.org/watch yourassets/film), says multinational corporations are the true beneficiaries, particularly of rebates given to television commercial shoots. Hudgins says that's dead wrong and that the group's study was biased. "For the most part, Texas-based production companies benefit," he says. "That's a fact."
Meanwhile, some bigger-spending states also are taking second looks at film incentives. In New Mexico, which offers 25 percent tax rebates, the Legislative Finance Committee commissioned a study that found each dollar of rebates returned only 14.4 cents in tax revenue; some there have suggested a $30 million yearly incentives cap (roughly what Perry is proposing in Texas).
In Louisiana, which also offers a 25 percent tax rebate, critics have balked at the $27 million – including part of Brad Pitt's salary – owed for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
In Texas, the $22 million total approved for the first two years of the incentives program in 2007 didn't get many takers outside of commercials and the television series Friday Night Lights and Prison Break. (The latter stands to get just more than $1 million back from $17.4 million spent before closing shop in North Texas.) Prison Break also employed more than 1,000 people, which the state calculates as the equivalent of 200 full-time jobs.
With little interest from Hollywood, $8 million of the $22 million could end up unspent, Hudgins says.
In its current state, Texas' program brings in $27 for every incentives dollar spent, he says. Under an expanded program, the big return still probably would come from commercials and video games, while feature films incentives may have a hard time breaking even.
Then why increase incentives? Hudgins is guessing at a $400 million increase in filming activity in the state, including feature films and network television series work, as a result of greater incentives.
Plus, he sees creative vision losing out to the cold, hard bottom line. Even stalwart Texas filmmakers such as Robert Rodriguez, who has built a film studio near Austin, are facing studio pressure to shoot where incentives funds flow deeper.
With increased Texas incentives, Burklund says, she sees "no reason we can't blow the socks off of other states, and they know that."