The reel deal: Ahead of legislative session, Fort Worth directs attention to supporting film project
by Marcheta Fornoff, Fort Worth Report
Taylor Sheridan (left), creator of “Yellowstone” and “1883,” received the Larry McMurtry Award at the 2022 Lone Star Film Festival. His colleagues, Ryan Bingham (center) and LaMonica Garrett (right) won the Stephen Burton Award and Spotlight Award respectively. (Credit: Brooks Burris | Courtesy: Fort Worth Film Commission)
Fort Worth is more than 1,400 miles away from Hollywood, but the recent addition of major TV shows filmed in the city, like Taylor Sheridan’s “1883” and production of a forthcoming spinoff on Bass Reeves, makes the distance feel much smaller. In a list of their priorities for the upcoming state legislative session, members of Fort Worth’s City Council declared their support of state appropriations that incentivize or benefit film and TV projects within the city. “Simply put, I think it’s just really smart business for the city of Fort Worth. And more importantly, because we have such a great start already in place,” Mayor Mattie Parker said. “We founded this film commission out of nothing, and it’s been incredibly successful for our city. We want to leverage that possibility in Austin and importantly, make sure we’re telling the right story of the return on investment.” The return on investment is something that state lawmakers will consider at the upcoming 88th Legislative session when they set the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program’s budget for the next biennium. The grant program was established in 2007 with the intention of stimulating the economy and bringing jobs in film, TV, commercial and video game production to the state. In 2021, legislators allocated $45 million to the program and its administration for the 2022-2023 biennium, a decrease of $5 million from the previous funding cycle. “Filmmaking means big business for Fort Worth, but it also enhances our visibility nationally and beyond,” Mitch Whitten, COO of Visit Fort Worth, said. “So we want to make sure that, as the lawmakers in Austin evaluate their budget and how much is allocated to film incentives, they can see how much Fort Worth benefits from the film industry.” Visit Fort Worth has a contract with the city to promote tourism and represents the hospitality industry. It is also the home of the Fort Worth Film Commission. The commission was created in 2015 to coordinate film requests in the city and assist productions with things like obtaining permits, finding film locations and connecting crews with local vendors.
Productions that were filmed in Fort Worth like “Miss Juneteenth” and “12 Mighty Orphans,” benefited from the state’s incentive program. “Miss Juneteenth” received a grant around $44,400 after spending about $593,000 in the state and “12 Mighty Orphans” received a grant just over $2.3 million after spending more than $10.3 million in the state. The productions created 184 and 828 jobs for Texans respectively, according to state records. Since its inception in 2007, the incentive program has brought $1.95 billion of in-state spending to Texas and created over 183,000 jobs for its residents, according to the Texas Film Commission. “The numbers are great, but it means a lot when we’ve received letters from companies like dry cleaners who say this really helped us having this production in town because they had to have costumes cleaned and that gave us an injection of business,” Whitten said. “Anecdotally, we hear from restaurants and again service businesses … who benefit when productions come to town, whether it’s a car commercial or a movie.” The upcoming Bass Reeves project is expected to spend $70 million in Texas for expenses like lodging, restaurant bills and local hires and “1883” spent $81 million, according to 101 Studios, the company behind both productions.
David Glasser is one of the studio’s co-founders and its CEO. He explained what brought production to Fort Worth. For one, Taylor Sheridan, has strong connections to the city and is a graduate of R. L. Paschal High School. The setting of the stories they wanted to tell was another draw, but Glasser said that the city’s collaboration and cooperation also helped bring production here rather than a soundstage.
“It’s sort of an undertaking to make a show like this. There are so many things that need to happen. Film Fort Worth, and the way Jessica (Christopherson) and Mitch (Whitten) and everybody that runs it … our job becomes easier with what we want to do because they make those things available to us,” he said. “And then you add in the city itself, Mayor Parker, the police chief… You get five out of five when you come into that town, and that’s why we love working there.” Red Sanders, a founding member of Fort Worth’s Film Commission and the founder and president of Red Productions, pointed to productions like “1883” and the employment opportunities that they bring to the area. “You have hundreds of actors and extras all wearing the wardrobe and they do their laundry service with a company on the North Side. I forget what they said the bill was, but it was massive. They’ve got wranglers for all the horses. They’ve got drivers, they’ve got electricians, carpenters and painters,” he said. With projects like that in mind and other local productions, Sanders is hopeful that the state’s film incentive program will get a funding boost in the upcoming legislative session.
“In the last session, the incentive funding as a whole was cut back ever so slightly, from $50 million for the two-year biennium to $45 million for the current two-year biennium that we’re in, and that $45 million lasted us about six months,” he said. “$45 million lasted us one quarter of the time that budget was allocated for … We have a lot of work wanting to come to Texas but we ran out of (funding) really fast, and ever since then, the state has been having to actively turn away projects.” For every dollar spent on the incentive program, $5 flow back into the state, according to the Texas Film Commission.
Not every project that films in the state is eligible for the incentive program, and not every project that is eligible receives funds. The size of the rebate depends on the amount a project spends in the state. On the low end, film and TV projects that spend between $250,000-$1 million can receive a rebate for 5% of that money. On the high end, film and TV projects that spend $3.5 million or more in the state have the opportunity to get a rebate of 20% back. An additional incentive is available for productions that film in areas designated as “underutilized” or “economically distressed.” Additionally, at least 70% of paid cast and crew, including extras, must be state residents and 60% of total production days must occur within the state. Productions have 60 days after their final expenditure in the state to submit a report and supporting documentation for review. Over the course of the program’s lifetime, Tarrant ranks fourth among counties with the highest number of completed projects. Gov. Abbott has been a proponent of the incentive program in the past, but not all of his Republican colleagues have been on the same page with some criticizing using state funds on the program. However, the tide is shifting, Texas Media Production Alliance’s Communications Director Mindy Raymond said. She hopes growing bipartisan support will lead to increased funding. “We’re going to swing for the fences this session in hopes that we’ve been able to prove time and time again that our industry is worth investing in right now,” she said. “There’s a clear correlation: If we have more incentives to offer, more money is going to be spent in Texas.” The ripple effects from this program are large, Raymond said. Bringing more film projects to the state develops a skilled workforce and builds infrastructure for future projects, even if those productions don’t directly receive money from the program. During the last legislative session, Texas allocated $45 million for a two-year period. Oklahoma has an incentive program that funds up to $30 million in rebates per year despite having a significantly smaller state budget to work with, Raymond said. “We’re woefully underfunded compared to our neighboring states,” she said. Rep. Craig Goldman, R- Fort Worth, recognizes that there is fierce competition when it comes to state film incentives. “I was a huge supporter of (“12 Mighty Orphans”) because, especially when you’re producing a film having to do with Fort Worth, I want it filmed in Fort Worth,” he said. “And they were days away from going to film in Oklahoma because they were offered more economic incentives to go to Oklahoma.”
But he is cautious about trying to outbid Texas’ neighbors. “The problem is there’s such great interest to come here and film here that that money is already gone before we even go into session,” he said. “There are other states out there that give greater incentives, and we can’t compete with the incentives that a state like Georgia gives.”
Finding the sweet spot for the funding is a delicate balance. Budget writers likely didn’t think the last round of funding would last for only six months, but even if the state put $100 million into the program, it would still get spent, Goldman said. “Obviously, there’s interest. I don’t sit on Appropriations, so that (number) is up for the budget writers to figure out in the House and Senate. I can’t tell you what that is,” he said. “But I will encourage all those projects that come to Texas to come to North Texas…I’ll do all that I can to help promote the filming of projects in Fort Worth.” For Whitten, Visit Fort Worth’s COO, things like music, film and TV projects help tell the city’s story. “When you promote creative industries like film and music, it makes us more attractive as a place to live,” he said. “We’re focused on tourism, but a benefit of these activities is helping people understand the quality of life here.”
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