Tom Copeland, Behind-the-Scenes Powerhouse of Texas Film, Dies

Former Texas Film Commission executive director passed last Sunday

Tom Copeland, former executive director of the Texas Film Commission, died Sunday. He oversaw the office during one of the most important and fastest-growing eras for the industry and played a pivotal role in that expansion. (Photo by John Anderson)
Texas filmmakers are mourning the loss of Tom Copeland, former executive director of the Texas Film Commission. A pivotal figure in the growth of the state's film industry, Copeland died this weekend.

A self-described native son of Meadow in West Texas, Copeland's career seemed to be heading to the stage rather than the screen. He studied theatre at Texas State (then Southwest Texas State University) and performed in dozens of productions before leaving without graduating to concentrate on his acting ambitions. However, his professional trajectory took a turn when he got a job as a crew member on PBS's Austin City Limits, a lucky break that turned into a five season gig. He soon became a utility player off-camera in Austin's burgeoning film industry, including working as a location and production manager. That experience parlayed into his first job with the Texas Film Commission, as in 1983 he was hired as a location scout. Within seven years, he was running the entire organization.

Copeland was the TFC's seventh executive director first taking over the office in 1990, before being replaced in 1991 by Marlene Saritzky. This was no reflection on Copeland's work (incoming Gov. Ann Richards just wanted her own staff in place), and he returned to the post in 1995 when Rick Perry became governor.

However, that rehiring was no reflection on Copeland's politics. Instead, he was famously apolitical about the job, putting the development of the Texas film industry first and foremost. Indeed, he was often regarded as the most direct successor to founding TFC Executive Director Warren Skaaren, in that he was a proactive facilitator: basically, he'd reach out to productions, ask what they needed, and do everything he possibly could to make sure it happened. In 2002, producer Elizabeth Avellán told the Chronicle, “On Spy Kids we needed to use the lakes [around Austin] for the shoot. When we went to speak with the Lower Colorado River Authority, Tom Copeland literally just showed up at the appropriate moment to show that the office of the governor supported the film.”

Copeland finally retired from the film commission in 2005 after 22 years in the agency and a record-setting 12 years in total as executive director. Under his tenure, he helped facilitate an extraordinary expansion of the film industry in Texas. He became famous for his proactive approach and professionalism, and emphasized building out the state's crew base as much as he did promoting the incredible variety of locations that were available to productions. His business-first approach, and ability to convince even the most doubting of fiscal conservatives the economic value of attracting Hollywood, was pivotal in helping establishing the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, a statewide rebate that has brought in massive investment and created thousands of paying jobs. Copeland stuck around through the legislative session just to make sure it passed before handing the office over to his longtime assistant Carol Pirie.

However, it's not like Copeland headed to a rocking chair after giving up that downtown parking space. Instead, he took up a new challenge, teaching film in the theatre program at Texas State University. In fact, for a long time he was the program's sole instructor, but his Business of Film and Short Film Development became a must-take course. Copeland became a tireless advocate for his students and the program, establising a BFA in Theatre with a film production concentration. He reached another milestone after his second retirement when, in 2019, the TSU System Board of Regents agreed to build dedicated production space for the program – something for which he had pushed for years.

He also played a key role in the establishment of the Texas Music Commission. According to his predecessor as executive director, Joseph Dial, it was Copeland who proposed that the budget allocated for music promotion to the TFC be used to spin out a separate statewide music commission – the first of its kind in the nation.

He also remained an active part of the film scene: indeed, his latest film as a producer, The Stars at Night, had its world premiere at last year's Austin Film Festival.

Marking his death, the TFC issued a statement that its staff was “devastated” by his passing, adding that “the list of individuals whose lives he touched through his work is immeasurable and the staff at the Texas Film Commission count ourselves proudly among their number.”

The Texas Media Production Alliance also mourned the loss of “our dear colleague.” Calling him “a cornerstone of our industry,” the statement praised Copeland as “a warm-hearted, passionate leader full of the Texas 'can-do' spirit. Tom's dedication, and unwavering belief in the power of film will continue to inspire generations of Texas filmmakers to come.”

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Tom Copeland, Texas Film Commission, Texas State University, Texas Media Production Alliance

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