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Officials hope to bring showbiz back to Texas
Lights, Camera ... Cut?

Texas' film industry was a booming business for a decade, contributing more than $150 million to the Texas economy in 2004 alone, according to the Texas Film Commission. But in 2005, that reel has run out.

"Early to late spring in Texas should be a busy time for productions, and it's not this year," said Carol Pirie, assistant director for the Texas Film Commission.

The Film Commission provides production crews with free information on Texas locations, support services and financial services.

"We continue to pursue every lead that we can and market Texas locations," Pirie said. "Our work is pretty much very specific to each project. We don't do a lot of shotgun marketing, like an ad in a magazine."

Greener pastures
Texas has been a popular place for film over the past decade, providing locations for movies like "Office Space," "Friday Night Lights," "Spy Kids" and "Miss Congeniality," according to the film commission.

Television shows "Jack and Bobby" and "Barney and Friends" also were shot in Texas. But the industry's interest in Texas is waning, according to the Film Commission.

The incoming calls have dropped by about 25 percent since last year, Pirie said.

"Last year, we identified 11 different projects that had budgets for $117 million that chose to locate those films in other states," she said.

The 11 projects would have meant 1,400 jobs, more than $25 million in wages and nearly $60 million in direct spending for Texas communities, according to the commission.

The relocations boil down to money, Pirie said. New Mexico, Louisiana and other states offer financial incentives for filming that can save productions 10 to 20 percent of production costs. New Mexico added an incentive in 2001, and the number of projects filmed in the state tripled by 2004.

Catch up costs
To catch up to these other states, the 2005 Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill (S.B.) 1142 by Sen. John Carona. The bill would award productions a grant of up to $750,000.

That could be just the thing to reinvigorate Texas' film industry, said Kim Davis, a Dallas-based scout and location manager.

"It's so imperative that this go through now because we're at a point that it will benefit us in amazing ways," she said in May, before the Legislature passed the bill.

The state will fund the grant by allocating about 16 percent of the money collected from the hotel/motel occupancy tax to the Tourism Department and the Film Commission. Of the newly allocated $30 million, $20 million will help fund the grants and the rest will go to tourism promotions.

The grant will be available to all commercial, film and television projects shooting in the state and contributing to the Texas economy. The amount of each grant will depend on how much each project spends on local salaries.

All television and film projects will be eligible for a grant of up to $750,000 if they pay Texas residents a minimum of $500,000 while shooting. Commercials are eligible if they spend a minimum of $50,000 in Texas wages. Shoots that spent at least 25 percent of their time outside Austin, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth are eligible for an additional grant worth 5 percent of the wages paid to Texans.

Only salaries paid to technicians and non-leading actors will be considered in the grant calculations, however, to keep higher-paid leading actors' and directors' salaries from inflating the amount of money paid to Texans and depleting the grant fund.

Spend a little
The grant isn't the only financial incentive Texas offers. Texas also provides a sales tax exemption to all film projects produced in the state. But that exemption isn't enough to make Texas stand out in the crowd of cinema-hungry states.

"Financially speaking, we offer sales tax exemptions, but many other states do that as well," Pirie said. Thirteen states and nine Canadian provinces offered financial incentives to filmmakers in December 2004--incentives that beat what Texas has to offer, according to the Film Commission.

New Mexico and Louisiana, two of the busiest film production centers in the United States, offer a rebate, a tax credit based on a percentage of what local residents are paid while working on the production, Pirie said.

"For New Mexico, if you end up with a credit, or no tax liability, the state just writes you a check," Pirie added.

Staying in the game
Keeping up with these states is the key to competing and keeping experienced film crews in Texas, Davis said.

"Quite a few people are considering leaving the business and leaving the state," Davis said. "They've bought homes and invested their time and money but they can't afford to live in Texas and support their livelihood. States like Louisiana are siphoning off our talent."

David said that had S.B. 1142 not passed, Texas would have lost talented people in the film industry to other states.

The talent pool spread across the state is one thing that keeps film crews coming to Texas, Pirie said.

"We have an incredible array of locations, whereas most states have one city that is their film center," she added. "In Texas, you've got the Austin area, the [Dallas-Fort Worth] Metroplex and Houston. All three have readily available local film crews."

Local crews save productions money too.

"You don't have to fly them in, buy them a hotel room and their rate is the same that they'd pay some other person from somewhere else," Pirie said.

Paying Texans for Texas
Tying the grant to the amount of money spent in Texas puts more money into the Texas economy, said Linda Dowell, the executive director of the Texas branch of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). SAG is the television and film industry's leading union for actors and represents nearly 1,250 performers in Texas.

"A few more productions [a year] can mean a performer being able to stay in Texas and a [SAG] member getting their insurance," Dowell said.

That helps actors get paid, but more importantly, it allows film crews to give a lot back to local communities.

"As far as local spending goes, we estimate that 50 percent of a project's budget stays behind in its host community," Pirie said.

Davis said filming in Texas not only lines locals' pockets, it also changes their lives.

"I really see how it touches the people around them," Davis said. "They're buying clothes, they're buying groceries and it creates so many memories when [movie] people walk into their lives for a few months."

Ann Holdsworth