On Ypsilanti Roller Girls and Inverse Proportions

Five percent really packs a punch

Who needs to shoot a movie about Austin in Austin when incentives-rich Ypsilanti, Mich., will do just as well?
Who needs to shoot a movie about Austin in Austin when incentives-rich Ypsilanti, Mich., will do just as well? (Illustration by Craig Staggs)

The uproar over Texas' film-incentives package reached a fever pitch recently with the news that Whip It!, the Drew Barrymore-directed adaptation of Shauna Cross' semi-autobiographical novel Derby Girl – about a teenager in small-town Texas who joins the Austin Roller Derby revival of the early 2000s – would not be shooting in Austin but rather in incentive-rich, Roller Derby-poor Ypsilanti, Mich., the home of such cinematic landmarks as Eastern Michigan University, the Sauk Indian Trail, and Willow Run Airport, at the Belleville Road exit off I-94.

Now, normally the Chronicle doesn't like to take sides, but in this case, we have to applaud our state legislators, who – unlike the handwringers who weep and wail that our 5% incentives are causing a mass migration of movie productions and revenue out of Texas – had the foresight and courage to see the positive effect a film-incentive package costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars and invaluable estimation in the eyes of the film industry would have on Texas' reputation.

We like to call it the No Country for Old Men Inverse Proportional Relationship Effect.

If you recall, No Country is set in Texas but was unable to shoot here because we didn't provide the film's producers with any financial incentives. New Mexico did, however, and so, except for a few days' worth of exterior shots, the production didn't spend any time in Texas at all.

Score one for us.

That's right, because No Country for Old Men went on to become a huge hit and critical favorite and won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Which got our lawmakers thinking: So what if we're losing money by the barrel-full every time a big-budget Hollywood movie is forced to look for locations that resemble Houston in Shreveport? And so what if our roads are falling apart and our kids don't have textbooks or chicken nuggets as a result? Movies about us but not shot near us win Oscars! And, if a movie set in Texas with only a few exterior scenes actually shot in Texas can win four Academy Awards, imagine what a movie set in Texas but shot entirely outside Texas could win. An Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award? A Presidential Medal of Freedom? A Nobel Prize? Wouldn't you like to hear Texas mentioned on the podium in Oslo?

In short, what our brave lawmakers have done by passing a 5% incentives bill is enhance the legacy of Texas in the movies by making sure no one ever makes a movie in Texas again. And as a result, movie-lovers from all over the world will soon come pouring into our state – euros, yen, and yuan in hand – anxious to stand in the same spots stars like Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem never actually stood in.

So, forgoing the hip streets of Austin for the Rust Belt despair of Ypsilanti was actually the best thing the producers of Whip It! could have ever done, both for their movie and for Texas. Sure, its cast and crew will suffer living in Michigan for two months, and sure, Texas will take yet another revenue hit and slide down yet another tier in the eyes of the film industry. But who cares? Because as sure as the sun rises in Texarkana and sets in El Paso, Whip It! is going to be an enormous, unprecedented success, taking in hundreds of millions at the box office, turning Shauna Cross into the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood, and spreading her stories about the greatness of Texas all over the world.

Provided, of course, those stories continue to not actually get told anywhere in Texas.

To find out more about Texas' film incentives and their adverse effect on local crews, see Joe O'Connell's piece "Abandoning the Nest" (May 23, 2008), as well as News' ongoing coverage.

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