Getting With the Program

Dukes files bill to shore up Texas film industry

House Bill 873 – the latest push by Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, to reform the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program – is steaming through the Lege with near-universal support. The proposal isn't an arts subsidy, Dukes explains. Instead, it's a sensible way to secure an existing industry that's taking a pummeling.

Incentives have become the norm for states competing to attract film production, but Texas isn't competitive. Nationwide, Dukes told the March 4 meeting of the House Culture, Recreation & Tourism Committee, the median tax credit among other state programs is 25%. Texas only currently offers a capped 5% cash rebate on the budget of qualifying TV, film, commercial, and video-game productions. What's on the table not only increases the total amount available to the program (Gov. Rick Perry wants to boost it from $22 million last session to $60 million for the next biennium) but also increases the number and type of productions eligible. As well as reaching out to independent and straight-to-DVD productions, Dukes said, "We would be able to increase the potential for more episodic television [shows], which are long-term projects." Another Friday Night Lights moving to Texas could mean years of stable jobs, plus the potential for tourism. Take the old TV show Dallas. "People wanted to see Southfork, and it's this itty-bitty place in Parker," she said.

The bill's biggest structural change gives the Texas Film Commission more authority and latitude over payouts. That bucks the current trend of legislators fighting to restrain the power of appointed commissioners. Dukes argues that the current rules leave com­mis­sion Director Bob Hudgins with far less rule-making authority than his counterparts at other agencies. Hudgins said the new proposals address "the dire need for flexibility" when it came to tooling rebates to the exact needs of individual productions, while still getting their tax dollars into Texas and enforcing accountability on his office. "There will still be rules; there will still be supervision," he assured those fearful of another rogue agency.

The market in incentives is getting tougher. Louisiana, Massachusetts, and New York have all upped their programs in recent months, while on Feb. 20, California (which has never suffered for production) introduced tax credits. The right incentives attract producers: In 2002, the last year before New Mexico introduced incentives, that state had only $8 million in film production. In 2006, that number had jumped to $400 million. Dukes could even point to individual productions that Texas has lost. The upcoming Roller Derby movie Whip It!, based on a novel set in Austin, "is now being filmed in, of all places, Michigan, where incentives are much higher than in the Lone Star State," she noted.

Out of the roughly 80 witnesses at the March 4 meeting, only one – Michael Sullivan, president of arch-conservative Texans for Fiscal Responsibility – spoke against the proposal. The rest – including motion picture industry and union representatives, the Texas Hotel Association, and film professionals such as director Richard Linklater and animal wrangler Gil Dean – were all in favor.

The good news, Hudgins told the committee, is that the current incentives have attracted commercial and video-game production – mainly because no other state incentivizes them. HB 873 gives them a bigger boost and opens up the program to educational and instructional videos – like commercials, not as glamorous as big-budget movies, but an untapped market that could keep production crews busy and soundstages booked.

Attracting productions, Dukes said, is really about protecting the Texas film industry's permanent infrastructure and skills base. Both are under threat: Rebecca Campbell, executive director of the Austin Film Society, told the committee that two recently renovated soundstages at Austin Studios are currently empty, while Steve Belsky, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 484, said a third of his members had moved out of state for work. These are well-paid jobs being lost, Dukes notes: Local crews and actors can make between $100 and $500 a day on a union picture, and the blue-collar workers are more likely to spend their wages in Texas. If current estimates hold, the reforms add another 4,500 jobs. Hudgins added, "There aren't too many industries out there that can pull the switch, and suddenly projects roll in."

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Texas film industry, 81st Legislature, Dawnna Dukes, Texas Film Commission

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