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  • Mindy Raymond

‘Yellowstone,’ ‘Love and Death’ Spark ‘Game-Changing’ Film Production Spike in Texas

Things have always been bigger in Texas. And thanks to some recently passed legislation, Texas film production is finally primed to take on a role befitting the state’s reputation.

After years of watching productions opt for more incentive-rich states, Texas has been home to an immense amount of film and TV shooting over the past two years, with HBO’s “Love and Death,” Paramount’s “Yellowstone,” Apple TV+’s “The Last Thing He Told Me,” the CW’s “Walker,” Netflix’s “Hypnotic” and the Houston-set series “Mo” all setting up shop in the Lone Star state. And the floodgates look set to open even further with the recent legislative passage of $200 million in state shooting incentives, a sharp increase from the $45 million the state offered previously.

For Nixon Guerrero, manager of Robert Rodriguez’s Austin institution Troublemaker Studios — which staged the largest Texas production to date with 2019’s “Alita: Battle Angel,” and recently shot the Ben Affleck-starrer “Hypnotic” in the state — the incentives boost has the potential to be “game-changing” for the state’s film future.

“In the last decade and a half, the Texas industry as a whole hasn’t grown as much as it could have,” Guerrero says. “The inflection point is now: this year, this session, this funding. This is the moment we might look back on where things really changed.”

Indeed, the fact that Texas has remained so busy with shoots despite lacking the depth of rebates and incentives offered in states like New Mexico or Georgia is a testament to what has always been Texas’ two primary draws: its variety of wide-open-space locations, and its talent base. Jay Roewe, HBO’s senior vice president of production, has been bringing productions to Texas for precisely those reasons for years, including “Temple Grandin,” “The Leftovers” and most recently this year’s Elizabeth Olsen-starrer “Love and Death,” which shot on 64 different locations in and around Austin.

“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., from the standpoint of the quality of the local crew and the sensitivity to the filming process,” Roewe says. “So in the case of ‘Love and Death,’ our priority is always to hire as many local crew people and utilize as much local infrastructure as possible.”

Texas shooting has been expanding far beyond the state capital. Taylor Sheridan’s massive “Yellowstone” franchise has been responsible for a flurry of activity in north Texas, from shoots in the Dallas-Fort Worth urban hub to the small town of Venus (pop. 4,300). It’s a far cry from just a few years ago, when Sheridan was forced to shoot his Texas-set feature “Hell or High Water” in New Mexico.

And he’s far from alone. Fort Worth-based production company Out of Order Studios took matters one step further for production of the faith-based series “The Chosen,” which dramatizes the events of the gospels. After shooting the first season in scattered north Texas locations and the second season primarily in Utah, the producers took advantage of an underused Salvation Army camp just south of Midlothian to establish a permanent home base for the series, building an expansive first-century village set and constructing a 30,000-sq. ft., state-of-the-art soundstage on the grounds. With more expansions in the works, the producers plan to use the complex to film the next several seasons of “The Chosen,” as well as opening it up to visiting productions.

“One of the biggest things that’s been lacking in Texas is true infrastructure,” says producer and Out of Order co-owner Chad Gundersen. “Real soundstages, real backlots, versus modified buildings, modified warehouses. There’s not enough soundstage space in the world right now, because there’s so much content being made. So I’ve been getting calls every week from people asking if we’re renting our stage out, and I’m like, ‘Not yet, but don’t lose our number.’”

According to Texas Film commissioner Stephanie Whallon, some of the most exciting developments are happening in smaller communities, with government assistance programs ready to offer further boosts. The state’s Media Production Development Zone program, which offers sales and uses tax exemptions for construction or renovation of media facilities, recently dropped its 250,000 minimum population requirement for participating cities, allowing much smaller communities to take advantage. The state’s Film Friendly Texas certification program has also proved invaluable to off-the-beaten-path locations, giving producers a heads-up for identifying rural and suburban communities that are primed and ready to support productions from day one.

“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 Gov. Greg Abbott. “But Lockhart is where the ‘Leftovers’ filmed; San Marcos is where ‘Boyhood’ filmed. Having ‘The Leftovers’ come in and spend $4 million over four years meant a lot to these communities. And now that community knows what to do when a production comes to town, what to expect, how to prepare, when streets need to be closed, when folks can be hired on as extras.”

There are knock-on effects found in the state’s renascent role as a magnet for tech development as well. Long a hub for videogames — “Doom” was famously developed in-state — Texas cities like Houston and Austin continue to attract and develop top talent in the tech sector. For Brad Graeber, whose animation studio Powerhouse has been based in Austin since 2001, talent-sharing between film and games was vital in the studio’s early evolution, “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,” he says.

For Powerhouse, whose deal with Netflix has seen the studio animate “Castlevania” and the upcoming “Skull Island” out of Austin, that film-games connection continues to prove invaluable as animation production ramps up. “Outside of [Dallas-based] Reel FX, there wasn’t much activity from the actual [studio] film business,” Graeber says. “So when streaming finally happened, it shifted quite a lot from a community of people doing a lot of smaller indie productions, into a group of people who are capable of working on series and shows and bigger projects. It just took us 15 years to get there.”

Even as the state braces for an influx of new shoots and new opportunities, challenges remain. As Out of Order’s Chris Juen notes: “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. We jumped from $45 million to $200 million, which is fantastic, but then if I’m bringing a project to the state, that’s all I’m thinking about. If I’m building stages and infrastructure, I want to know what’s happening at the next legislative sessions.”

But for now, the state’s thriving film community is looking forward to showing the rest of the world what it can do. “With more oversaturated markets, you tend to get a nine-to-fiver attitude from the crews, and that’s never the case in Texas,” says Troublemaker’s Guerrero. “We’ve got more than enough crew with more than enough talent, the problem has always been not enough shows. Now I’m getting calls left and right from outside productions who want to rent our studios.”

Read full Variety article HERE.

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