Thirty Years on Location
A History of the Texas Film Commission
"You hear so many times about government not working, but that has never been true of the Texas Film Commission. It's such good industry, filmmaking, because it's clean. They come in and hire a lot of people, they throw a lot of money around, they do their work, they clean up their mess, and then they leave."
-- Former Governor Ann Richards
Leonard Maltin's capsule review of S.F. Brownrigg's 1971 shocker Don't Look in the Basement pegs the film as an "amateurish horror thriller about inmates of a secluded Florida insane asylum who contrive a bloody takeover." That's brief even for Maltin, and the one-and-a-half stars he accords the film seem almost like a slap in the face. What's with that half-star, anyway?
Maltin might not like the movie much, but Brownrigg (who, clearly a man on a roll, would direct the even more reviled Scum of the Earth the next year) holds a special place, if not in the pantheon of great filmmaking, then at the least in the history of the Texas Film Commission: His production was the very first shot in Texas -- Tehuacana to be precise -- following the commission's formation in 1971.
Other, more prominent films quickly followed, including Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show in Archer; Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway in El Paso, Huntsville, San Marcos, and San Antonio; and The Sugarland Express, directed by a young upstart named Spielberg. It wasn't all critical hits and marquee names, of course: The TFC's comprehensive list of films made in-state since their formation notes something listed only as "Japanese Television Special" on the 1972 slate, as well as a number called Sunrise in Hell, both of which appear to be lost to the vagaries of film history.
The list today runs to 38 pages, and that's not counting the myriad industrial films, commercial shoots, and still photography work in which the commission has had a hand. The office, currently headed by Executive Director Tom Copeland under the office of the governor, fields roughly 150 phone calls a week, each and every one seeking information on shooting in Texas: how to do it, where to do it, when to do it, and, of course, how much is it going to cost?
There were films made in Texas before the commission existed, of course. The WWI epic Wings, recipient of the first Academy Award for Best Picture way back in 1927, was shot at Fort Sam Houston and around Bexar County. George Stevens' Giant transformed the rural township of Marfa from a dot on the map to a somewhat more iconic dot on the map in 1956, while Martin Ritt's Hud effected a similar transformation on the Panhandle backwater of Claude some seven years later.
But it wasn't until Governor Preston Smith (himself a former theatre owner from Lubbock), with assistance and prompting from a 25-year-old Rice graduate by the name of Warren Skaaren, signed the commission into existence on May 24, 1971, that Texas had its own state-sponsored way of dealing with Hollywood and its ongoing love of all things Texan.
It'd be nice to say that Texas was the first to come up with the idea, but it wasn't; both New Mexico and Colorado had established film commissions of their own prior to 1971, although once Smith created the TFC, Texas quickly overtook the others in both the number of productions and overall quality of services provided.
That said, like any other government organization, those not in the loop tend to wonder what, exactly, a film commission does, and for once the answer is fairly straightforward. The TFC facilitates the production of virtually every single film made in the state, from small independent films, like the Austin-lensed Coen brothers' 1982 debut Blood Simple, to major Hollywood blockbusters like Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor, which utilized the USS Lexington moored off Corpus Christi, as well as the aforementioned commercial and industrial shoots.
Local film commissions in Amarillo, Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, El Paso, Houston, Lubbock, San Antonio, and South Padre Island act in cooperation with the state commission, where they maintain, among other things, a data bank of location information and a comprehensive (and voluminous) collection of photographs depicting literally every corner of the state. If a producer needs to know where he can find a ramshackle old house in the middle of a corn field 30 minutes or less from a major transportation hub, chances are the TFC will know exactly where to send him.
But wait, there's more, including the TFC's film production hotline (463-7799), which lists every production being shot in the state, an online presence at www.governor.state.tx.us/film/index.htm, and the mammoth, invaluable Texas Production Manual -- a sort of Texas filmmaking bible providing information on everything from where to scare up a decent gaffer to how to go about locating a craft services outlet. In just one office you have all the information an incoming or homegrown production might need to set up shop on Texas soil. (Now how much would you pay? Nothing: It's all free.)
In return, of course, Texas makes money, often a very large amount of it. The 1991-2000 breakdown totals incoming monies in excess of $2.26 billion. In 2000 alone, the combined production budgets of films shooting in the state (41, if you were counting) ran to $280 million. That's a lot of simoleons, even with Hollywood's often "creative" accounting.
As one might expect from such a comprehensive, state-sponsored enterprise, there have been bumps on the road to perfection. Recently, Texas -- along with most other state film commissions -- has been losing ground to Canada. Texas is a right-to-work state, and state law recognizes motion picture producers as manufacturers, meaning most work, rentals, film costs, and similar expenditures for a production shot in the state are exempt from taxation. Still, Canada's tax breaks and shooting incentives rival and often surpass those in the U.S., and countless Hollywood shoots have headed north. Money is, as always, the bottom line.
Still, Texas and the Texas Film Commission prosper; Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America (and former friend of the Johnson administration), has called it the single best film commission in the country.
No one seems to be disagreeing with him.
If you need to find a single, specific starting point for what would later become the Texas Film Commission, Warren Skaaren is it.
In the Beginning
During the early- to mid-Eighties, well after he had left the TFC, Skaaren parlayed contacts from his four-year tenure as the commission's executive director into a successful screenwriting career, maintaining a lengthy and mutually profitable relationship with the blockbuster producing team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer -- for whom he wrote or contributed to Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop 2 -- and with Tim Burton, on Beetlejuice and Batman. Skaaren died of bone cancer in late 1990, but his beneficent shadow clearly marks the TFC to this day. His name is frequently mentioned in tandem with the commission's many success stories, and he has become something of a legend, both in Texas and in Hollywood.
But in 1971, Skaaren was pushing pencils and talking waste management. Two years out of Rice University, he had gravitated to Governor Preston Smith's office, where he signed on first as chief human resources analyst and then as urban development coordinator. By all accounts Skaaren was flat-out brilliant at his job and immensely well-liked; conversations about him often involve the word "genius."
When Smith's press secretary Jerry Hall -- a friend of Skaaren's and the man who had hired him two years before -- noticed that New Mexico seemed to be doing pretty well with its recently formed film commission (he had seen The Ballad of Cable Hogue, shot on location in that state, and been impressed by both the film and the fact that New Mexico was onto something big).
"Bill Parsley was a friend of mine from the Texas Legislature back in those days," recalls Hall, "and he came by my office one day with a clipping about what they'd done in New Mexico. I looked at him, he looked at me, and we both said 'Why can't we do this?'"
Of such meetings are great things born. Soon after, while out hunting, Hall and Parsley decided to have Skaaren draft a memo to Smith. The memo ran 14 pages, and Smith, impressed by Skaaren's enthusiasm and the fact that neighboring New Mexico had netted a cool $35 million just the year before ("I think that should have been Texas' money!" he bellowed to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram), took the trio up on their offer.
Smith signed the executive order creating the TFC, appointed 42 "prominent citizens" (among them actress and Dallas resident Dorothy Malone, then best known for her Best Actress in a Supporting Role Oscar for 1956's Written on the Wind) to what was essentially an advisory board, and "charged them with the task of developing the film communication industry in Texas." By that time the only real question was who would run the thing.
"Warren was eager to apply for the position of executive director," recalls Hall. "I asked him if he knew anything about the movies, and he said, 'Not much.' So I gave him the job."
Initially the TFC was very much a learn-as-you-go operation; Skaaren's first purchase with the $100,000 operating budget bestowed by a skeptical Texas Legislature was a 35mm camera with which he could document the Texas terrain for curious producers and location scouts. Soon after, he made his first hire, Joy O'Dil (now Davis), with whom he had previously worked in Urban Development.
Recalls Davis, "There really wasn't any data bank that we could go to and withdraw information about how a film commission was supposed to work, because there weren't any others except New Mexico and Colorado. We just had to develop and gather the information as we went. The phone didn't ring a whole lot in those days."
It rang enough, apparently. During Skaaren's four-year directorship, the commission pulled in a total of 39 major motion pictures and an unknown number of commercial and television productions. The office was off and running, and no one has looked back since.
"Warren intuitively knew what to do," says Hall. "When I was growing up, my parents owned a silent movie house in Stanton. I'd been going to movies all my life -- I loved movies -- but that was about all I knew about them. Warren understood immediately, and then taught all of us, that this in fact was a business -- a rough, tough business. And the whole idea was not to take sides or get involved in the politics of the production of a movie. He found their locations for them and he stayed out of their business. Warren made us understand that these people were dead serious about what they were doing. And that's still the way that the current director, Tom Copeland, carries on today."
Certainly, filmmaking was different back then, in many ways. For instance, says Hall, "In the early part of this thing nobody knew what an independent filmmaker was -- it was all studio stuff. But here again we had a tax break for them, no union problems, and Warren used that. ... That created more interest in the beginning than just about anything else."
Managing the day-to-day operations with Davis, Skaaren took his new gig on the road, flying frequently to Hollywood to beat on the doors of the big studios and let them know that the TFC, and by extension the state of Texas, was open for business. The strategy paid off, and although the commission's original office was furnished with little more than a desk, a stack of boxes, and the traditional worn carpeting, there was even then a distinct sense of possibility: Texas was officially in the game. Even under the Smith governorship, though, it was tough to get the more conservative members of the Texas Legislature to understand what exactly this brand-spanking-new office was doing, a problem that has dogged the commission to varying degrees throughout its 30-year span.
"It's so damn tough to get the politicos to understand that this is not fun and games and drinking and whooping it up," opines Hall. "I'm not a numbers guy, but I know that Warren generated at least a million dollars that first year. Each movie brings X amount of dollars into the economy, and it's a smokestack-free industry, but those politicians don't ever stop to think about that. They've got their minds on the parties and the starlets."
Skaaren's tenure as executive director came to a close in 1974, when he went off to pursue other film-related endeavors (first among them suggesting a title change for a little horror film called Leatherface to the more shock-tastic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), eventually becoming chairman of FPS Inc., a Dallas-based film and television studio and production house that provided production equipment to the long-running hit TV show Dallas and the film Tender Mercies, among many others.
Open for Business
The commission, meanwhile, remained tethered to the governor's office until 1986, when it was moved to the Texas Economic Development Commission under Governor Mark White (it would later move back to the governor's office under Ann Richards).
Diane Booker, one of Skaaren's original hires to the fledgling TFC, took over his vacant position from '74-'77; Booker was followed in turn by Pat Wolfe ('77-'82) and Joel Smith ('82-'86), both deceased.
Grant Fehr, who served as assistant director under Pat Wolfe, recalls that during those early years "the ratio of productions that called our office to the ones that actually ended up filming here was about 6:1, because a lot of them just had a property and some seed money and they were just trying to put together a package."
At the time, there were precious few homegrown independent productions being shot in Texas. Indie saviors Robert Rodriguez and Rick Linklater were still a good 10 years in the future, and a glance at the TFC's film listings from those years shows a fair number of larger productions -- Semi-Tough, Barbarosa, Piranha (the latter penned by John Sayles, who would later return to the state to make Lone Star in 1996) -- amidst a slew of television productions and movies-of-the-week. Most of them were spread all over the state, with a handful concentrated around Austin. The "film capital of Texas" had yet to be anointed, but that would soon change.
Tom Copeland, with his longish blond hair, amiable manner, and battered tan Ropers, does the term "boyish" no disservice. The TFC's current executive director and all-around historian (and the director most closely associated in style and ability with Skaaren), he notes that until the mid-Eighties, the majority of incoming productions were scattered across the state's 267,000 square miles more or less in accordance with the sort of terrain an incoming film might require. There had been a particular focus on the Dallas/Fort Worth area, which boasted a bustling international airport and an established crew of film professionals who had hammered out a solid reputation over the years. There was also the Studios at Las Colinas in Irving; at 100,000-plus square feet, it was (and remains) the largest motion picture production facility between the coasts. Built in 1982, it had served as a major draw for productions ranging from 1983's Silkwood to the recently canceled Walker, Texas Ranger.
Austin & the 'Anson Factor'
Dallas' position as the state's film hub began to shift around 1986, when the city became known as a union town, prompting the television networks and studios to pull up stakes and begin scouting elsewhere for sources of cheap labor and talented crews. Budgetary considerations were certainly an issue, and for a time Texas lost films to more cost-effective locales like Atlanta, Florida, and Arizona, all of which had developed their own competent film commissions by that time.
The landscape was another consideration: Whether you go north, south, east, or west, the area around Dallas doesn't change much. The commission turned its attention to Central Texas, hoping to focus on both Austin and San Antonio. "We realized that when you started looking for a city that has a great deal to sell and a great deal going on around it," says Copeland, who had by that point begun working in various capacities at the TFC, "that the Austin-San Antonio corridor was ideal. People fell in love with Waxahachie and did all sorts of pictures up there some years before, and we knew that in and around Austin we had places like Georgetown, Lockhart, San Marcos, Elgin, Taylor, Bastrop, and this whole diversified countryside."
Film productions had always come through the Austin area, but had too often brought in their own people, from cast and crews to craft services and gaffers. The core crew that Austin enjoys today had yet to arrive.
In 1986, screenwriter Bill Wittliff shot the Willie Nelson vehicle Red Headed Stranger with a predominantly Austin-based crew, but it was a couple of little pictures that came in under the radar that really shook things up and set the capital city on the path to cinematic righteousness. One of them was 1988's The Lone Star Kid ("No one's ever heard of this film," admits Copeland), directed by Happy Days alumnus Anson Williams, who -- post-Potsie -- had previously shot some movies-of-the-week in Dallas with director Ron Howard.
"Anson came in with this little Lone Star Kid film," relates Copeland, "probably $500,000 or $600,000 total budget, very small, and then with our help put together a local crew that was totally unbelievable. The whole thing was a great experience. From that point on, when somebody would call the commission to ask if we had a crew down here, we'd tell them to call Anson Williams, who would then tell them how great his experience had been.
"Right after that there was another show that came down called Doodles, which was a TV pilot. Columbia/Tri-Star had tried to set it up in Houston, but the producer couldn't find the town they were looking for, came here, fell in love with Georgetown, and said they wanted to do it in Austin. We put them in touch with Anson and they did it. The [show] never went anywhere, and it didn't even get picked up, but that producer and that line producer went back to L.A. and said, 'Oh, man, you've got to go to Austin!' to everyone out there."
With Austin suddenly on the upswing, a flood of TV movies arrived to shoot in the midst of the Texas Hill Country. Disney was first in line with Save the Dog!, a shaggy dog story best left unremembered, in 1988. Here, too, the sublimely mysterious "Anson factor" played a role: Cindy Williams, late of that unholy Seventies pas de suck -- Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley -- starred as Becky, the wannabe actress with a sick dog, a broken-down car, and a 'do that just plain didn't.
Well, it was a start, anyway.
Dana Shelton headed the TFC from 1986-89, a tenure that saw a host of major studio productions arrive on native soil. Originally a still photographer who had planned to open his own Austin-based studio after graduating from the University of Texas' Department of Radio-Television-Film, Shelton had known Warren Skaaren casually since the mid-Seventies.
The Director's Chair
In the fall of 1979, Shelton, then doing freelance photography, received a call from Skaaren, who asked him if he'd be interested in a job at the TFC as a location scout. The position meant reading scripts, doing script breakdowns, shooting location photographs, and traveling all over Texas. Shelton jumped at the chance, and ended up staying with the TFC for nearly a decade, having begun during the Bill Clements administration, working through Governor Mark White, and finally back again to Clements. In 1986, he was named executive director.
Asked about the relationship of the TFC to the governor's office during his time there, Shelton notes that the commission, wisely, was apolitical.
"[Politics] is the kiss of death for any business service organization," he says, "whether it be a film commission or an economic development organization. Once the information you pass on to private businesses is perceived to have a political spin to it, your information is suspect. Your job as a film commissioner is to put as much useful business info on the table as you can, and then to allow business people to assess it in terms of what is practical and what is doable. If you begin to politicize it or if there is any perception that the info is filtered, then you immediately begin to lose credibility."
The politics of the film commission, or lack thereof, was a thorny issue that would later become downright troublesome during the administration of Governor Ann Richards. In the meantime, however, Shelton had his hands full with productions like Paul Verhoeven's hyperviolent Robocop:
"Now that was a good example of what a film commissioner does," he says. "Here we had a major studio shooting a futuristic, science fiction film in Dallas, while Dallas continued to function as a contemporary city.
"One of the scenes in Robocop required the use of a public street owned by the city of Dallas with private businesses along one side. We negotiated to dig [special effects devices called] firepots in the street -- on a public street with a backhoe, mind you -- over which six to eight automobiles were placed with the intention of blowing them sky high. We also had working businesses in this retail area that needed their windows replaced with candy glass so that when the explosions were set off, the windows would appear to shatter from the concussion.
"The logistics of coordinating that with fire personnel, police, legal, and crowd control were tough, but that was what the TFC did best. The fire department needed to know what sort of materials were going to be used to create these explosions, and so we arranged for a demonstration out at the training area where the DFD teaches their cadets to fight fires. We took them out there and blew up a sample of the chemical cocktail that would be used during the real shoot. Once the firemen understood what materials would be used and what exactly was going to happen, they allowed the production to go forward. That was all a matter of good information, negotiation, and working with the right people -- pretty much what the film commissioner does on a daily basis."
Shelton exited in 1989 and was replaced by Joseph Dial, who, like his predecessor, had been doing location work prior to his being named to the post.
One of the first things Dial did after taking over the reins was to send Comptroller Bob Bullock an idea that eventually resulted in the application of the manufacturer's sales tax exemption to film productions. Previously, films shooting in Texas were taxed like anything else; Dial's plan resulted in another financial incentive to bring filmmakers to the state.
What most concerned Dial, however, was making sure the commission was given a workable budget from the governor's office, a situation that has presented itself in one form or another to every commissioner thus far. Often, there's simply not enough money to go around in any given year (although there's always been enough to keep the commission functioning).
"I think it's a widespread problem that's not necessarily focused on the film commission," notes Dial. "There are a lot of agencies who think they need more funding. For the TFC, I always made the argument that because of the dollar-for-dollar return from the money spent on the film commission budget and because of the fact that you had film commissions such as the state of Florida, which has a budget around or in excess of $1 million, the TFC should naturally merit a more sizable budget. It's just a necessary expenditure needed to market the state to Los Angeles and New York City, even more so these days, now that we have to compete against the tax incentives available in Canada. I suppose there was never a problem specifically directed at the TFC during my time there, but there was always that difficulty in trying to convince people to give you a bigger budget and a bigger staff, and I suspect there probably always will be."
The other major development during Dial's watch, though it had less to do with film than with Austin's longtime love affair with live music, was the creation of the Texas Music Commission.
"Tom Copeland came to me one day and said, essentially, 'Hey, we've got this budget for music but we never have time to do anything with it. Texas has this great music industry, right, so why don't we try to create an office for this right here?' Which is how the Texas Film Commission's sister agency the Music Commission was created. We hired Casey Monahan to head it up, and he's done an excellent job ever since. And we had the first state-government-sponsored music office designed to provide incentives to the music business of any state in the country. Another first for Texas."
In 1990, Dial stepped down, and Copeland -- who had by that time been with the commission as long as anyone and was roundly regarded as the backbone of the operation -- was appointed for the first time as executive director of the TFC. The appointment lasted only two years; incoming Governor Ann Richards, arriving with a Rolodex full of contacts and friends in Hollywood, brought in her own director from Los Angeles, longtime friend Marlene Saritzky, in 1991.
To say the move rankled some within the commission is putting it mildly. The tension was palpable, reportedly with much if not all of the TFC office siding with Copeland while an ambitious Saritzky, former director of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, decided to shake things up a bit.
Rancorous feelings exist to this day regarding Saritzky's aggressively proactive leadership style and her decision to take the commission in a decidedly more political direction, a move that was anathema to many and to Tom Copeland in particular.
For his part, Copeland says the Saritzky years were "incredibly alienating."
"First of all, we lost people. There was an exodus of people out of this office. People who had been working here for years were either fired or quit. We lost something like 40 years of experience in a couple of years, and that really hurt us.
"The reality of the situation was that, yeah, there were all these people calling from Los Angeles, but there weren't enough people actually in the office to do the job. So, that was not exactly a pleasant three and a half years. It was a very productive three and a half years, but it wasn't necessarily a pleasant one."
For her part, Saritzky, who vacated the office when Governor Richards lost to George W. Bush in 1994 and eventually returned to Los Angeles to work with Sony -- she now lives in San Francisco -- has a far rosier recollection of the time she spent helming the TFC.
"I count those years as a really important period of time," she says. "Texans are very protective, and it was difficult for me to sort of come in from the outside initially. I think it was tense at first, sure, and I probably made some decisions that people might not have liked at the beginning but I think we did the job well and had a blast.
"Here's the thing," she continues. "Governor Richards decided to make the film and television industry part of her economic development agenda. She was elected, she saw to it that the commission became part of the office of the governor, and she asked me to help her move it forward. So, coming in under a new administration, with a new structure and a new mandate, of course there were changes. Some of them were just very uncomfortable for people.
"But, we moved forward, we upgraded the office, we leveraged resources much more effectively, we got active support from the Legislature by enacting legislation and regulations that encouraged yet more business, we created more cooperation amongst the critical local city film commissions, we got more and more positive media coverage, and, more important than anything else, we had successive record-breaking years during that administration. I believe strongly that all those efforts were worth it."
For Saritzky, the job meant using the many contacts she had developed during her time in Los Angeles and forging alliances with key Hollywood players, including agents like Mike Simpson. Unabashedly political, Saritzky's style clashed with the existing, apolitical Copeland team at the TFC. Sparks were bound to fly from day one, and they did.
Adds Saritzky, "It was an incredible time for the industry and it also coincided with Rick Linklater and Robert Rodriguez arriving on the scene, so to speak, as well as the beginning of both the South by Southwest and the Austin Heart of Film festivals. I really believe that I was just lucky. I just came at a time when lots of things were bubbling up. Of course we were going to succeed."
Mike Simpson, Warren Skaaren's former agent at the William Morris Agency, adds, "During Marlene Saritzky's tenure at the Film Commission, the TFC really came to Hollywood and began playing on their terms, instead of just sitting back and saying 'Here we are, drop by if you want to talk to us.' That sort of aggressive reaching out, literally coming to L.A. to meet with and know the people that make the decisions certainly benefited the TFC and Texas as well. That made a big difference during Marlene's run in terms of how much business was done in Texas. And from what I understand that's been carried forward and amplified by Tom Copeland."
Regardless of lingering bad feelings on anyone's part, Saritzky's tenure did indeed see a host of big-budget, profitable films arrive in state, among them Rush, Flesh and Bone, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and Apollo 13.
The Film Commission remains in the governor's office to this day.
Tom Copeland, who probably knows the Texas Film Commission better than anyone alive (Saritzky concedes that "what Tom has in his head is just extraordinary"), has been the executive director since 1995 and looks to be in that position for the foreseeable future, a situation that everyone involved appears more than happy to maintain.
The Opposite of Average
With his six-person team -- assistant director Carol Pirie, production consultant Amy Cadenhead, location specialist Kevin Walker, film resource coordinator Shannon Wheeler, and office manager Robert Brown -- the office, lined with simple, black-framed one-sheets of everything from Miss Congeniality to Tender Mercies -- hums with activity. Phone calls pour in at a steady clip, producers call to find out where Waxahachie is, and young people arrive curious about how, exactly, they go about getting a foot in the filmmaking door.
Copeland and his staff answer all these questions, and doubtless thousands more, with a patient grace and seemingly inexhaustible supply of Texas-specific knowledge. The current incarnation of the TFC fairly buzzes with amiable productivity.
When asked how the new Rick Perry administration compares to that of previous governors, Copeland assumes a wait-and-see attitude. It was G.W. Bush, apparently, who really won the TFC's metaphorical Good Governor Award with his very laissez-faire attitude toward the commission, however.
"Bush came in and we had no idea what was going to happen," says Copeland. "When Marlene left, they asked me to be the acting director for the time being, and although I didn't really want to do it, I gave a tentative 'yes.'
"This went on for a period of time while we watched to see how things would work in the Bush administration, and to tell the truth, I had probably not seen a better working situation than what it was like under Bush. It was not political at all -- instead it was very businesslike. It was 'what do you need, what do you want, what can we do, you tell me, we'll look at it and decide.' Very cut and dried. It wasn't a high-profile thing with Bush, but it worked, and eventually I decided to be executive director again. And here we are."
Recent developments in the national economy have impacted the TFC as they have virtually everywhere else -- less money is less money no matter how you slice it -- and the continuing exodus of productions to the marginally greener fields of the Great White North continue unabated.
Filmmakers who have worked repeatedly with the commission naturally express anxiety about these developments. "On The Newton Boys, they helped us get in the Governor's Mansion with one phone call," says director Rick Linklater. "I wish they had even more support from the state -- they're always strapped, and I guess right now everybody's sussing out what [the Perry administration] is going to do, if anything. We're just kind of waiting to see if Perry will carry on that whole vibe that Richards and Bush had going on."
Austin-based producer Elizabeth Avellán echoes Linklater's sentiment and adds, "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. I hope that Rick Perry's office realizes what this business brings to Texas, because I don't know that he knows. Look how successful they've been in the past eight years. I mean, really! It's just grown tremendously."
But virtually any film-industry professional who has worked with TFC seems willing to line up to testify to the importance of the commission's role in film production and in the state economy. "One of the things that strikes me about the TFC," says Dallas-based production manager Joe Dishner (Two for Texas, The Mothman Prophesies), " -- and this is with both 20 years of working with them and 20 years of working, also, outside of Texas -- is that the commission represents not just Austin but the entire state, and does it very, very well."
Screenwriter William Wittliff (Red Headed Stranger, The Perfect Storm) seems to see little reason to think productions will head elsewhere any time soon: "Absolutely I know for a fact that the studios love to come to Texas. They'd kill to come to Texas. And that's directly related to the TFC's willingness to help out. They treat everybody like a local boy."
Copeland has been here long enough to realize that the commission will likely weather any storm tossed at it. There's simply too much work to be done to worry unduly about Save the Dog! The Sequel heading up Vancouver way instead of returning to Austin, should such an unthinkable production slate materialize in the first place.
"The thing about this office (and the Music Commission, too) that your average state employee doesn't understand is that this is a very odd business," he says. "Everything that we do, to a certain extent, goes against the grain of the traditional way the state does business. For example, if you're in some other state agency or in some other division of the governor's office, you sit down at the beginning of the year with your budget by your side and literally plan out every single expenditure for every single week.
"Here, that phone can ring today and the producer on the other end might say 'Meet me in El Paso tomorrow,' and we have to go. Trying to get people to understand that can be a little difficult at times. You're renting a plane? You're doing what?! It's just not your average state job."
Here's to not being average.