The Future May Finally Be Brightening for Texas Film Incentives
The sequel to film rebates?
The Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program (TMIIIP for not overly short) has been a kickball in legislative politics since it was founded in 2005. An easy target for red meat conservatives who want to stick it to Hollyweird, the state's economic support for the film, TV, commercial, and gaming industries has seen its financing rise and fall. Yet there may be some early signs that the rebate program might be facing a better future in the upcoming legislative session.
The national scene for film, TV, and gaming incentives is undoubtedly in flux. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 31 states offer incentives, down from 44. However, in part that has been from some states realizing that they're just not in the game: Others, like California and New York, reignited their programs because they saw how Georgia's incentives turned Atlanta from a location afterthought into a filmmaking destination.
Texas still has incentives, but the big fight is over how much lawmakers will appropriate to fund them. The last six years saw the pot plummet from $95 million to barely a third of that figure. That's why lawmakers and content producers are waiting for Gov. Greg Abbott to issue his draft budget for the 2020-21 biennium, due in early January. Since the program is technically within Abbott's office, if he puts in a big request, that could put pressure on lawmakers to re-invest in the fund.
As is to be expected with incentive dollars on the line, the interested parties have already retained lobbyists (The Motion Picture Association of America, for example, has hired the prestigious lobby firm of Blackridge Rusty Kelley). However, according to Austin Film Commission Director Brian Gannon, what's becoming clear is that there's a unified push to increase the total funding, rather than groups or sectors pushing for a bigger slice of the pie. He said, "Every discussion that's been had so far, the video game folks and the film folks have clearly been working together. They see that it's not a separate deal. It's one deal for all."
Moreover, they'll have support from towns and cities that benefited economically from film, TV, and game production. House Appropriations Committee member Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, noted that the incentives, combined with Texas Film Commission initiatives like Film Friendly Texas (designed to attract productions to new and off-the-beaten-track locations) are making their own case. She said, "There's enough going on around the state that this has the potential to have some strange bedfellows in terms of folks from a variety of regions that could see this as beneficial to their community."
Incentives are rarely enough to make or break a production. However, they can be a key component in deciding where to shoot a film, or hire developers for a new game. Figures from the Texas Film Commission show that, by the end of 2016, spending $191 million in rebates resulted in $1.25 billion of in-state spending by 1,015 eligible applying projects. That's a more than six-to-one return on investment for Texas, and that's before including the impact of the nearly 143,000 production jobs created.
But how much will Abbott request to keep the program going? His position on the program has always been quietly supportive (a little too quiet for boosters who would like a little push in the way that Gov. Rick Perry used to do). However, Abbott has often sent positive signals: For example, after lawmakers slashed funding in 2015, last session he initially proposed a half-restoration, to $70 million. Moreover, last September he appointed former incentive program manager Stephanie Whallon to be the new Texas Film Commission director – a sign that the program could be a high priority.
Once Abbott has made his proposal, that's when the House and Senate start their negotiations. Predictably, arch-conservative Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, has filed House Bill 432. a measure to completely dismantle the Music, Film, Television, and Multimedia Office – and TMIIIP with it. Not that advocates should panic too much: Shaheen filed an identical bill in 2017, HB 779, and that died in the Economics & Small Business Development Committee without a hearing.
In more rosy news for rebate backers, two of TMIIIP's loudest opponents – state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, and state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving – lost their seats in November to Democrats. Not that the program is a simple red vs. blue issue. The original legislation was authored by state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, and championed by former Governor Perry: However, both left office before the catastrophic 2015 session. At the same time, the program's biggest advocate in the House, state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, was notoriously absent during vital Appropriations meetings, meaning TMIIIP had no vocal defenders.
That may change this session. Howard said there have already been discussions this session about finding champions in both chambers, with names from both the Austin area and Dallas (two of the biggest production centers) regularly touted to finally pick up the banner.