Reeling from Rebate Cuts, Austin Film Industry Hopes for Bigger Role in Next Budget

Mar 9, 2017

At this time in 2015, the local film industry was still basking in the success of Boyhood, shot largely in the Austin area. Back then, the Lone Star State was the backdrop for several feature films and scripted TV shows.

Two years later, it's a different story.

But later that spring, the Legislature made drastic cuts to the state’s Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, cutting by two-thirds what was allocated in 2013. The rebate is paid to production companies in return for exceeding certain criteria, such as money spent on the project and the number of local workers hired. The 2015 budget passed with only $32 million allocated for the rebates, to be shared among film, TV, commercial and video game projects in the state.

Rebecca Campbell, CEO of the Austin Film Society, said the fallout was felt quickly.

“The thing that hit closest to home was the TV series From Dusk Till Dawn, which had been based at Austin Studios and which moved to New Mexico,” she said.

Yes, the series, developed by one of Austin’s luminaries and one of the city’s biggest advocates, Robert Rodriguez, had to leave town.

He wasn’t alone.

ABC’s American Crime and HBO’s The Leftovers also took production elsewhere.

Campbell said that caused a ripple effect for Austin and the state, undercutting many small businesses that support the film industry.

In 2015, the Texas Legislature made drastic cuts to the state’s Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, hurting Austin Studios and other businesses in the industry.
Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT

There are still location shoots in Texas, just not nearly as many as there were a few years ago -- and the reason is government incentives.

Texas wasn't the first state to use tax incentives to lure productions. The state started its program in 2009 after it lost several projects to Louisiana. Even California has launched an incentive program to keep Hollywood actually near Hollywood. If incentives are the way things are done now -- just the cost of doing business -- Campbell said Texas’ rebate program is actually smart business.

“We would really like people to start recognizing that it’s a rebate, which is a really different concept than an incentive,” Campbell said. “Because it means the work was done, the money was spent, and so now it’s being paid retroactively, but it still has the same effect. It got the film here, so the millions and millions of dollars were spent here.”

Film advocates like Campbell and the Texas Motion Picture Alliance will say that for every taxpayer dollar spent in rebate on a film, the state receives more than $5. But with less money to lure business, states like Georgia are taking advantage.

“I started … traveling to Atlanta to do shows and looked at how robust the market was here. I liked the town; parts of it reminded me of Austin,” Dominic Cancilla said. “You know, it began to grow on me, I guess.”

Cancilla has worked on film and TV projects in Austin for more than 20 years. He has producer credits on Puncture and Machete, among other movies. But after the legislative cuts two years ago, he had to follow the gigs.

“Eventually, it just got to the point where there wasn’t enough work to keep us supported, and I ended up getting two back-to-back shows in Atlanta,” he said. “I thought that’s obviously a sign, and so that would be our springboard.”

Georgia’s incentives have created one of the busiest – if not the busiest –production hubs outside of Los Angeles. Cancilla said there are around 40 projects in production in the Atlanta area right now. To put that in perspective, there are only a handful of current productions in the entire state of Texas.

Studios are putting down roots there. London’s Pinewood Studios has 18 sound stages in one facility, where it’s shooting several Marvel projects, including two Avengers sequels.

“You have to go where the money is and right now that’s here, New York, LA, and to a certain degree, Louisiana and New Mexico,” Cancilla said.

Cancilla just bought a home with his wife and 3-year-old in Atlanta.

For those who stay in Austin, it's getting harder to find work.

“My job is a location casting director,” Beth Speko said. “What I do is here. It’s not easy for me to just go to Louisiana, or Atlanta, or Vancouver, or New York, because my job is to know the actors and the talent in this area. So, if I don’t have work here, then I don’t have work.” 

What I do is here. It's not easy for me to just go to Louisiana, or Atlanta, or Vancouver, or New York, because my job is to know the actors and the talent in this area. So, if I don’t have work here, then I don't have work. - Beth Speko, location casting director

Not having work is doubly important in her household, because her husband also works in the industry as a cinematographer.

“I went from working full-time at home, being there with my wife and my two daughters, to spending roughly 10 months on the road each year,” Jimmy Lindsey said.

Lindsey is currently shooting a pilot for CBS in New York.

“We are in a situation where we’re not going to consider living anywhere else, at least until the kids are grown,” he said. “So, we have a window of at least five years before we would think of anything else.”

Most in the Texas film community hope the Legislature will realize the Moving Image Industry Incentive Program went too far last time and adjust it. But for now, state lawmakers are arguing over what parts of the next budget should be cut -- not increased. And if Texas is unable to keep up with other states, more work and more jobs on movies, TV shows and even video games will leave the state.