A year ago big cuts hit Texas’ film incentive program, and now the industry is starting to feel it.
“See I have this giant list, but it won’t get bigger,” said Mike Blizzard, the board president of the Austin Film Society. He was hunched over his phone, on which he'd just pulled up a tiny spreadsheet. “Ah, there we go.”
Now that he could actually see it, Blizzard read off a list: "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "True Grit," "Dazed and Confused," "What’s Eating Gilbert Grape" – all were features filmed in the Austin area. Blizzard scrolled through another 300 or so features, documentaries and shorts shot and produced in town.
“We have a 45-year history of making feature films in this town,” he said.
As a production location, Texas has a lot going for it: a romantic Western image, a versatile landscape and a pool of actors and crewmembers to staff big projects.
But starting in the ‘90s, other states started giving Texas a run for its money. They put incentive programs in place to entice big Hollywood productions. Soon even stories based in Texas started getting made elsewhere.
“To have, you know, books that were written about Texas, or scripts, going and shooting in other states and pretending it’s Texas, is particularly galling. The biggest example was 'No Country for Old Men,' which was a Texas story, and was shot in New Mexico,” Blizzard said.
In 2005, the Texas legislature created its own incentive program. It offered film productions rebates for a percentage of what would spend in-state. Productions can get back between 5 and 20 percent of what they spend.
Funding for the incentives, though, has varied over the years. In 2013 the program got $95 million, the most ever. Last year, things went in another direction.
“They cut the budget by about two-thirds,” down to $32 million, Blizzard explained. The reason for this is that many newly elected lawmakers were generally against government-funded incentive programs.
“I don’t think there’s any questions that we’ve missed an opportunity for certain TV shows, certain films to come here because of that," Blizzard said.
The first two series of the television series "From Dusk Till Dawn" — the series based on the 1996 Robert Rodriguez film — were both produced in Austin, Texas.
"Then as a direct correlation to the decision by the State of Texas and the budget, we had to kind of regroup,” said Teresa Wyatt, who heads up corporate development for Rodriguez’s El Rey Network. She said the crew moved to New Mexico to follow a better incentive program. Season three is in production there.
As big projects opt to film in other states, locals worry about what comes next.
“What you don’t want to have happen is that crew people and actors move to other states. That will lead to more of a death spiral because part of the reason TV productions come here, Hollywood films come here to shoot is because they know they can hire local actors to fill out supporting roles," Blizzard said.
Katherine Willis is an actress based in Austin. People would most likely know her as Jason Street's mom from the series "Friday Night Lights."
Willis recently auditioned for two shows set in Texas that ended up moving out-of-state to film.
“In 20 years in Austin, this is the first time I’ve really seriously asked myself, ‘Do I need to relocate?’"
Willis said she has lots of industry friends who’ve already made the move.
“As a matter of fact, I ran into the top casting director in Atlanta at an event here in Austin a couple weeks ago, and he gave me a big hug, and he said ‘Katherine, if you were in Atlanta you’d be working constantly,'"she said.
She’s going to Atlanta in a couple weeks for meetings, but she’s not eager to move there.
“It really does make me pause,” Willis said. “I don’t want to leave Austin. My kids are in school here. This is my home.”
Film industry proponents say they’re already meeting with legislators to try to secure a bigger budget for the incentive program during next year’s legislative session.