Neighborly Concern

As the Texas film industry tries to keep up with New Mexico's and Louisiana's, the Lege approves an incentive program tall on talk but short on funding sources

It's a case of good news and bad news for a Texas film industry seeking to at least slightly level the playing field with Louisiana and New Mexico. The Legislature approved a one-time $20 million film incentive program for the next two years, but missing from the bill is an actual funding source for the incentive plan, which also includes – at least on paper – another $10 million in tourism dollars. "We've got the bill heading to the governor's office for signature," says Ken Rector, business manager of Texas Local 484 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. "From there, it's how we can find funding. We're so close that we can smell victory."

As of the close of the legislative session on Monday, May 23, no funding source had been found, but with Gov. Rick Perry having cited film-industry incentives as one of his priorities for the session, one source likely to be considered is the Texas Enterprise Fund, a $180 million program set up in 2003 to lure jobs to the state.

The Austin-based IATSE stagehands union is among a host of Texas groups, including in particular the Dallas Film Commission, that have effectively used the Internet to marshal forces in support of incentives. It's been a tough ride. They saw funding stripped from the Senate bill, then last week the House took the bill on with seconds to go on its deadline to agree to consider Senate items. A separate bill seeking to broaden hotel/motel tax exemptions for film projects died.

Even if the $20 million is found, it will be an uphill battle to fend off more ambitious offerings in our neighbor states. Louisiana has seen film production dollars spent there jump from $20 million in 2002 to $335 million in 2004, and dished out $56 million in incentives last year. Some there say that's too much, and the Louisiana Legislature is considering limiting the outlays. But for now, folks are flocking. Occasional Chronicle contributor Jeff Nightbyrd recently opened a New Orleans branch of his Austin-based Acclaim Talent. "The Louisiana film incentive program offered a unique opportunity for expansion," he says. "We are working on 18 films at the moment that are in production or preproduction – largely in the New Orleans area."

Meanwhile, in New Mexico, the cap on no-interest loans for a project has been raised from $7.5 million to $15 million and tax rebates – 80% of which is paid up front – have jumped from 15% to 20%. New Mexico drew $350 million in film projects last year spurred by $83 million in tax credits.

Here, we saw $214.8 million in film projects in 2004, according to Texas Film Commission numbers, and much of that can be attributed to homeboys like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez. Add in estimates for commercials and sports events, and we still trail at just under $320 million. But, for now, Texas still leads its neighbors in film crew, which are deep enough to have three or four studio-size projects shooting at once. Rector figures that unless Texas jumps into the incentives game, the film biz here will "dismantle to the level of 20 years ago" and be able to handle only two projects at once. The Texas film incentives have been projected to create 7,600 direct jobs and 15,200 indirect jobs each year.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Texas Legislature, Texas film industry, Louisiana film industry, New Mexico film industry, Ken Rector, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Jeff Nightbyrd

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