By J.D. Alfone
The Heart of Texas
Friendly folks and photogenic landscapes are not enough. States in the Southwest have had to adopt innovative strategies to lure production to the region and remain competitive in the global marketplace. While incentive programs in Texas aren’t quite as generous as the tax rebate program offered in neighboring Louisiana or the loan program and wage reimbursement for production companies available from New Mexico, there can be no denying the state’s wealth of experienced crew people. With its seasoned professionals, state-of-the-art facilities and around $330 million worth of production expenditures last year, Texas is in the enviable position of having producers regularly coming back for more.
“What we cannot offer in a rebate, we more than make up for in a great crew base, tax incentives and a long track record of satisfied customers,” says Austin Music and Film Office manager Brenda Johnson. “Word of mouth has done Austin well.”
Home to directors Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez, state capital Austin is considered by many to be the crown jewel of the Texas motion picture industry. “For features, we had close to $200 million worth of films made here in Austin last year,” estimates Paul Stekler, head of the University of Texas Radio-TV-Film program and coproducer/director of the 2002 Texas election documentary Last Man Standing.
Other cities in Texas offer great shooting locations. Documentary maker Amy Maner recently shot Lubbock Lights in the city that spawned Buddy Holly, the Flatlanders, Roy Orbison and the legendary Stardust Cowboy. It explores the unique sounds of the Texas Panhandle and how its isolation has shaped the musicians who’ve lived and worked there.
“On the state level, I didn’t have to pay tax on anything, including the hotel,” says Maner, who also works as a costume designer for commercials and features. “While there is no film commission [in Lubbock], it was very easy to shoot because all of the locations are very accessible and the people are so nice. They will cook you breakfast while you’re there—very true.”
Independent producer Dirk Higdon believes incentives in neighboring states will simply allow them to reach a level Texas is already on. He nonetheless believes independent filmmaking is critical for the sustainability of the industry in Texas.
“Our crew base is one of our best assets,” says Higdon, who recently co-produced the $1.3 million feature Drop Dead Sexy, set in Austin. “Their professionalism and skill level is on par with any production center on this continent. Although the Louisiana and New Mexico programs are very smart, they are also designed to help train and enhance their crew base to a level we already enjoy. We must still continue to support the smaller productions as they are the training grounds for the next level of crew where often people are allowed to move up into areas they would never be able to on larger productions.”
Janis Burklund, director of the Dallas Film Commission, believes that while financial incentives are enticing, there is no substitute for the technological and crew advantages Dallas holds.
“We have state-of-the-art equipment, many equipment companies locally including Panavision, sound-proofed soundstages, and the only two 35mm film processing labs in Texas,” she says. “In addition, we have award-winning companies in emerging technologies including high-definition, animation, effects, sound design, and other aspects of post production. People forget there are a lot of costs involved when you can’t get equipment and crew in the same place.”
Joe Dishner, co-producer of 2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, much of which was shot in Texas, applauds the state’s many assets, but believes there’s still more that can be done to lure filmmakers.
“People already film in Texas because of great crews, locations and film commission support,” he says. “Locally, there is a very good situation with the Teamsters and IATSE. Their leaders are very can-do and are aware how to work within various-sized budgets.”
On The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dishner worked closely with the Austin Film Office and the Texas Film Commission, both of which were “very helpful in helping us find locations and explain to landowners the economic importance of filming in the state.”
The more aware the Texas legislature is of the financial benefits in Louisiana, he says, the more incentive the legislature has to pass similar legislation. “I don’t think it would take much more incentives to get people to film here because they already like it.”
New Mexico: Aggressive Growth
One of the most beautiful of the 50 states, New Mexico also has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the country. To bring production to the Land of Enchantment, the state recently began offering various aggressive incentives to attract out-of-state productions. Since the program was launched, it is estimated that it brought $80 million into the state’s economy in 2003. That was massively up from the $8 million the industry generated in the state in 2002.
New Mexico’s incentives include an interest-free loan of up to $7.5 million for approved productions where substantial filming is done in New Mexico; a gross receipts tax deduction also known as the NTTC program—a deduction taken at the point of sale on many production costs; a film production tax credit—a rebate of 15% of eligible direct production costs on any expenditure that has a state tax payable through the Tax and Revenue Department; and both a Workforce Training Program and Mentorship Program that fall under the Job Training Incentive Program (JTIP)—programs that provide a 50% wage reimbursement to production companies who employ qualified trainees.
According to New Mexico Film Office director Lisa Strout, to qualify for either the loan and JTIP, 60% of the workers must be New Mexico residents.
One filmmaker who speaks highly of his experience shooting in New Mexico is Bob Salerno, coproducer of the feature 21 Grams. “While we did utilize many of their tax breaks and incentives, I’m not sure we qualified for the loan program,” he says. “We really decided to shoot part of 21 Grams in New Mexico for the look.”
It was Salerno’s second experience shooting in New Mexico. “I always love shooting there. The crew was talented and willing to go the extra mile. The Film Commission was also always there supporting both productions.”
To make the film and video industry more sustainable with in-state entities, New Mexico’s Film Office takes a pro-active stance. “For the past four years, the New Mexico Film Office has supported our efforts to produce New Mexican made films while training the state’s crew,” says Claudio Barrientos, marketing director of DigiFest Southwest, a digital movie-making festival held annually in the second week of June.
In recent years Louisiana has aggressively pursued a program of incentives to lure outside production into the state while improving prospects for its own film and TV crews.
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco sheds light on the upswing in production. “Since the incentives were passed, filmmaking revenues have improved to $100 million in the 02/03 fiscal year—up from $30 million in the 01/02 fiscal year,” she says. “For the first time in decades, Louisiana is a model for other states to follow in terms of growing a prolific film and television industry from the ground up. The state’s new film industry business model has created partnerships with venture capital companies, banks, investment bankers, accounting firms, tax credit attorneys and corporate businesses to provide local funding and financial assistance to aide in the filmmaking process.”
Among the incentives are a tax credit that gives back 10 percent on any investment of a production exceeding $300,000 and 15 percent if the production exceeds $8 million. A separate employment tax credit returns 10 percent of the total payroll of Louisiana hires on a production exceeding $300,000 and 20 percent if the production costs exceed $1 million.
Louisiana also exempts sales and use taxes (4%) until January 1, 2007 by production companies that report expenditures of more than $250,00 on a project based in the state. To cash in the tax credit, producers must find Louisiana residents and companies with state tax liability to whom they can sell the tax credit.
Independent writer/filmmaker Virginia McCollam and partner Sandy Kaynor are directors of start-up Pelican Capital, a company that does tax matches under Louisiana’s incentive programs. “Louisiana’s incentives work because producers everywhere are looking for ways to get more of their money onto the screen,” says McCollam.“ New Orleans film and video commissioner Stephanie Dupuy can speak a language producers understand as she once worked in production: “I know New Orleans is very anxious to recapture its position as a film center.”
By J.D. Alfone