They Shoot Movies, Don't They?

Heather Page on the state of the Texas Film Commission

When Heather Page wanted to break into the film industry, she moved to Hollywood. When she wanted to work with passionate independent filmmakers, she moved to Austin. Now she's having the biggest impact of her career on the business – as director of the Texas Film Commission.

Much as Texans have spent years complaining that the Railroad Commission (which actually administers the oil and gas industry) should change its name, "film commission" is a partial misnomer. It's the state's point of contact with the film industry, yes, but also TV, commercials, and digital media. In fact, there haven't been that many major studio films shot in Texas recently, but Page describes the state as "turnkey ready for television, and very ready for indie film production all the time." Similarly, gaming has become a major part of its creative industry, and Texas has become a world leader in virtual reality. As for commercials, Page described that market sector as developing "low and slow, like a good barbecue. Dallas particularly is a national commercial hub, and Austin has seen a lot of growth in the past two years." Many commercials are filmed away from the big production hubs, like Matthew McConaughey's Lincoln spots, shot near Marfa. Page said, "That's really important to us, because the assets of Texas, visually and crew-wise and in terms of people who are interested in film production, are in practically every town in this state."

Originally established in 2005 as the Film Industry Incentive Program, lawmakers failed to fund it until it was renamed TMIIIP in 2007, and expanded to included video games and digital media. Since then, the program's funding has risen and fallen dramatically, and the state has attracted and lost projects as a result of that volatility.

When it comes to the moving image industry, Texas is in closest competition with four other states: California, Georgia, Louisiana, and New Mexico. All four have made a big push to attract and retain projects, and to also build up their own indigenous industries. Yet Texas has some competitive advantages: Being centrally located in the U.S., it has attracted production services firms like Panavision Dallas, camera and lighting rental firms MPS and GEAR (both in Austin), and Pflugerville-based transportation experts Film Fleet. Page said, "By virtue of where they're located, those companies have been able to be supportive of New Mexico and Louisiana. Obviously," she added, "they'd like to be supportive of more production here in the state."

"Supporting the industry" is basically Page's job description. She refers to the commission as "one big customer service landing site for everything film." Founded in 1971 by Governor Preston Smith, he appointed his urban development coordinator Warren Skaaren as its first commissioner. A massive film buff, ultimately Skaaren joined the movie industry, scripting blockbusters like Batman and Beetlejuice. Page reversed that career trajectory: a 25-year veteran camera operator on projects including The Green Mile, Armageddon, and 46 episodes of Friday Night Lights. In 2012, then-Gov. Rick Perry asked her to take over as the 12th Texas Film Commissioner. Page said, "We agreed, when I joined, that I would be able to hit the ground running."

A big part of that task is administering the state's film, TV, and digital incentives, the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program (TMIIIP). She praised former commissioner Bob Hudgins for completing the long process of getting it established and funded, and his successor/her predecessor, Evan Fitzmaurice, for streamlining and reforming the process. Their work "allowed me to do some polishing when I arrived, in terms of the audits, to make them consistent and fair, and to make it move quicker, so that businesses aren't waiting two years for their incentives."

Tax credits, wage subsidies, and other incentives have become a necessary evil in the modern film industry. When it comes to attracting projects, TMIIIP has at least bought it a seat at the table. It's nowhere near as generous as programs offered by other states, but Page said it was engineered "not to be like Georgia, not have to be like Louisiana, and still see the business that we wanted to see."

TMIIIP is structured to place an emphasis on hiring Texas talent. That's bad news for attracting a studio picture, which may be bringing much of its cast and crew with it from out of state, and therefore won't see much in returns from the program. But for a TV show that might want to put down roots for multiple seasons, it's easier to hire local talent long term. "Think of Friday Night Lights," said Page. "A lot of those folks were Texans, and so it made it affordable for the production company to bring that show here. The nice result is that it launched the careers of dozens of Texans to international fame."

However, those rival states have one big advantage: Their governors and legislatures made long-term commitments to ensure their incentives are stably funded. Take Georgia: The state's highly attractive and consistent program attracted blockbusters like Ant-Man and continuing tenants like The Walking Dead. End result: The singsong slogan "Made in Georgia" tail-ends dozens of TV shows.

By contrast, TMIIIP's funding rocketed up and down for the last decade (see graph). In 2013, the Legislature trebled the available funding from $32 million to $95 million, and "we were very busy, very quickly," said Page. Then two years later, the Legislature cut funding back to $32 million, and while the lost money was bad, the volatility was worse. That 2013 boost made producers feel that Texas was serious about a long-term commitment to encouraging TV and cinema; the 2015 cut raised doubts. Page said, "When I talk to businesses that want to relocate here, they talk about certainty." The TMIIIP reduction came at a bad time for Texas' competitiveness. If the cut had not been so dramatic, Page said, "I think we would have felt that consistency, and I think we would have seen incredible things here."

Knowing that productions would look elsewhere meant that several private commercial plans to add soundstages – still in short supply in Texas – collapsed. Page said that, before the cuts, her office had been talking to several developers with "shovel-ready projects [but] when we got the reduction last session, some of them stated in the papers almost immediately that it was because of that they were prepared to go from a production facility that would have had hundreds of people employed, to a data center that might have 10."

But even before the total sum available was cut, Texas had some of the least competitive incentives available in terms of percentages paid out and eligible spending. So if the state can't send a message of consistency through the incentives, Page's office has to make studios feel secure that Texas can deliver on everything else. She said, "We wouldn't try to sell them things we didn't have here for them. It was very, very important to be honest with businesspeople about what we have available, the level of our crews, the levels that we have infrastructure-wise."

That's why her office put a big push on programs like the Texas Production Directory, which she said is "the number one most used part of our website." It's a directory of talent, crew, production businesses, and even seemingly unrelated firms that understand what productions need. Page said, "We'll get companies that are coming in and shooting a car commercial. They're here for three days, and they just need a dry cleaner. Who would be the dry cleaner that understands a 24-hour turnaround?"

Then there's a renewed interest in the Film Friendly Texas program. While there are many smaller towns and cities that would love to host a TV show or film shoot or a commercial, most don't know how. The program teaches them, Page said, "so if someone wants to shoot a commercial, and they come a week or two beforehand doing scouting locations, someone knows how to give them photos, or take them to the right places, or even get them a permit."

And then there's the biggest intangible asset. It's something that Page knows a lot about, and it's the reason that she moved here in the first place. She said, "It's about the crews. Our crews don't have attitude. Our crews get things done. It's not just a job to them. There's a lot of passion here, and they want to stay here, and they'll give of everything they have professionally to make it work here."

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Heather Page, Texas Film Commission, Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, Film Friendly Texas

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