In Texas, everything is larger than life. Also, new laws have made it possible for Texas to play a more prominent part in the film industry.
Texas has seen a resurgence in film and television production over the past two years after years of seeing productions choose more incentive-rich states. Shows like “Love and Death” on HBO, “Yellowstone” on Paramount, “The Last Thing He Told Me” on Apple TV+, “Walker” on The CW, “Hypnotic” on Netflix, and “Mo,” set in Houston, have all set up shop in the Lone Star State. The recent parliamentary approval of $200 million in state shooting incentives, a significant increase from the $45 million the state previously gave, is expected to further open the floodgates.
Nixon Guerrero, manager of Robert Rodriguez’s Austin institution Troublemaker Studios, which recently shot the Ben Affleck-starrer “Hypnotic” in Texas and staged the largest Texas production to date with 2019’s “Alita: Battle Angel,” says the incentives boost has the potential to be “game-changing” for the state’s film future.
Guerrero claims that the state of Texas’s economy has not developed as much as it might have in the previous 15 years. This year, this session, this cash is crucial. It’s possible that this will go down in history as a turning point.
In reality, Texas’ two key pulls have always been its range of wide-open-space sites and its talent pool, which is why the state has stayed so busy with shoots while missing the depth of rebates and incentives given in places like New Mexico or Georgia. HBO’s senior vice president of production, Jay Roewe, has been filming shows like “Temple Grandin,” “The Leftovers,” and this year’s “Love and Death,” starring Elizabeth Olsen, in and around Austin for these very reasons at 64 different locations.
From the caliber of the local crew to their sensitivity to the filming process, Roewe recalls, “I remember when we did ‘Temple Grandin’ here, and from sitting in production meetings to the people I interacted with, it almost felt like doing a show in L.A.” Therefore, “Love and Death” will employ as many local crew members as feasible and make use of existing facilities wherever possible.
Gun violence in Texas has spread well beyond the state capital. The large “Yellowstone” brand created by Taylor Sheridan is responsible for the recent rush of activity in Dallas-Fort Worth and the nearby little town of Venus (population: 4,300) in north Texas. This is a huge change from a few short years ago when Sheridan had to film his Texas-based feature film “Hell or High Water” in New Mexico because of the state’s restrictive filming laws.
And he isn’t even the only one. The faith-based series “The Chosen,” produced by Out of Order Studios of Fort Worth, Texas, goes a step further by dramatizing the events of the gospels. Season one was shot in various locations across north Texas, while season two was shot primarily in Utah. Season three moved production to a Salvation Army camp south of Midlothian, where an expansive first-century village set was built in addition to a state-of-the-art 30,000-square-foot soundstage. There will be additional room for other productions to use as well as for future seasons of “The Chosen,” which will be filmed there.
In his capacity as a producer and co-owner of Out of Order, Chad Gundersen has noted that “true infrastructure” is what Texas has been lacking. In contrast to renovated buildings and warehouses, we employ actual soundstages and backlots. There is now a global shortage of soundstages due to the enormous volume of media production. So, individuals have been calling me every week to ask if they can rent our stage, and I keep having to say, “No, not yet, but don’t lose our number.”
Some of the most exciting changes are occurring in smaller places, and government aid programs are poised to deliver further boosts, according to Texas Film Commissioner Stephanie Whallon. The minimum population criterion of 250,000 for cities to participate in the state’s Media Production Development Zone program has recently been abolished, allowing far smaller localities to benefit from sales and use tax exemptions for the construction or restoration of media facilities. Off-the-beaten-path sites have also benefited from Texas’s Film Friendly Texas accreditation program, which alerts filmmakers to rural and suburban areas that are prepared to help productions from the get-go.
“When you think of film production, you usually don’t think of [places like] San Marcos or Lockhart,” says Adriana Cruz, executive director of economic development and tourism for the office of Governor Greg Abbott. “But ‘Leftovers’ was shot in Lockhart, while ‘Boyhood’ was shot in San Marcos. It was a huge boon to these areas when ‘The Leftovers’ came and spent $4 million there over the course of four years. And now the locals know what to do when a film crew is in town, what to anticipate, and how to be ready; they also know when streets will need to be closed and who will be needed as extras.
The revival of the state as a center of technological innovation has repercussions beyond its borders. Cities in Texas, such as Houston and Austin, have a long history as centers for the creation of video games (including the now-famous “Doom”). “because [games] attracted a lot of young people who were interested in animation to Texas, and those people mixed with this old guard of feature film animators, which led to a unique sensibility for our studio,” explains Brad Graeber, whose animation studio Powerhouse has been based in Austin since 2001.
Austin-based animation company Powerhouse has found the film-games relationship to be beneficial as work on “Castlevania” and the impending “Skull Island” has ramped up. “There wasn’t much activity from the actual [studio] film business,” Graeber adds, “outside of [Dallas-based] Reel FX.” “So when streaming finally came, there was a tremendous transition from a community producing a lot of smaller independent productions to one capable of working on series and shows and bigger projects. It took us 15 years, but we finally made it!
The state is preparing for a proliferation of fresh growth and new possibilities, but there are still obstacles to overcome. “If you’re going to build infrastructure, which is crucial to keeping the base here, you need stability, and the incentives have not really been stable,” Chris Juen of Out of Order points out. It’s great that we doubled our funding from $45 million to $200 million, but if I’m bringing a project to the state, that’s the only number that matters to me. I need to know what’s going on in the upcoming legislative sessions if I’m going to be constructing sets and infrastructure.
The state’s growing film culture, though, is eager to showcase its talents to the globe. Guerrero, of Troublemaker, has observed that “with more oversaturated markets, you tend to get a nine-to-fiver attitude from the crews,” but that is never the case in Texas. The issue has never been a lack of staff or skill; rather, it has always been a lack of shows. My phone has been ringing off the hook with inquiries from outside producers looking to use our studio space.
“Yellowstone” and “Love and Death” have made Texas a film and TV production hub. Recently passed state shooting incentives of $200 million, up from $45 million, contributed to this. Producers are optimistic about the state’s film industry’s expansion, calling the incentives hike “game-changing.” Texas’ diverse locales and talent pool have traditionally attracted filmmakers, and new soundstages and backlots are enhancing its infrastructure.