Texas Film Commission Hacks Away at 'Machete' Incentives

in

Film Incentive Bill Signing

I was stunned yesterday to hear the news from the Austin American-Statesman that the Texas Film Commission had denied film incentives to Machete, the latest feature from Robert Rodriguez and his local production company Troublemaker Studios. The commission cited the proviso in Texas law that can deny such benefits to movies that portray the state of Texas in a negative light. Unfortunately, this means a lot of Hollywood productions are going to view Texas in a negative light for future location shooting possibilities.

For the most part, the Texas film incentives program, revised in 2009, is similar to programs in other states. Movies, TV and videogame productions over a certain budget amount can apply for tax rebates up to a certain percentage of their budget. Productions apply for these rebates after the film is completed, and usually after it is released in theaters. Machete opened in theaters in September.

One proviso in the state law is causing the problems here: The Texas Government Code, section 485.022(e), states that the Texas Film Commission "is not required to act on any grant application and may deny an application because of inappropriate content or content that portrays Texas or Texans in a negative fashion, as determined by the office, in a moving image project. In determining whether to act on or deny a grant application, the office shall consider general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the citizens of Texas." (Thanks to Rodney Perkins for pointing me at the right section.)

As Jenn Brown noted when she wrote about these regulations in 2009, the key wording here is "not required," which is not the same as "prohibited." It is not illegal to award film incentives to a movie that is considered anti-Texas in some way, it just means that the state doesn't have to grant the tax rebates in such cases. And looking at it another way, it is not illegal for the state to withhold tax rebates to a production includes negative portrayals of the state or any of its residents. Exactly what constitutes a negative portrayal? That's what the commission has to decide.

Machete includes "negative portrayals" of a corrupt Texas senator, a small-town Texas sheriff, a political consultant and a group of private militia, among other things. It is cartoonish and stereotypical. But I don't think any of the content of the movie was what decided this, sadly. It was the "Cinco de Mayo" trailer that Fox released in May, in which Danny Trejo taunted anti-immigration proponents.

Local radio personality Alex Jones jumped on the trailer as a "possible trigger for a serious race war" and encouraged his followers to write to the Texas Film Commission and ask that incentives for the movie be denied, even though none of them had seen the actual finished film. Apparently, their complaints were taken seriously, but at what cost? The Statesman estimates the rebates may have amounted to as much as $1.75 million for the Machete production, but that's nothing compared to its impact on the Texas motion picture industry.

Look at the above photo. It was taken in April 2009, when Gov. Rick Perry signed the revised Texas film incentives bill into law. The bill signing took place at Troublemaker Studios. Local filmmaker Robert Rodriguez announced at the bill signing that the new law would allow him to be able to shoot a number of his upcoming film projects in Texas.

"I'm very happy that I'll be able to shoot my upcoming Machete here," he said, as I reported in this article. Little did he know that Perry's office would deny him incentives for the very film being advertised in the background of the film-incentives bill signing.

Film Incentive Bill Signing

Gov. Perry frequently says he wants Texas to be a state that is good for business -- well, he may have just made it very bad for the moviemaking and videogaming industries in this state. The film incentives program is no longer an economic incentive that will help boost these industries. It's now a ridiculous marketing program, aimed at promoting only positive images of the state of Texas. The state is using financial muscle to control the way it is portrayed in film, on TV and even in games.

This isn't going to work, either. Productions will simply move any controversial projects that are set in Texas to other states, ones that offer tax rebates with no strings attached. The state will only be able to draw happy-shiny film productions, or productions that are shooting in Texas but are actually set in another state.

Frankly, I don't like film incentives. In an ideal world, no state would offer them and locations would have to draw film production companies on other merits, like qualified crew and a variety of good locations. That would give Austin a huge boost. Unfortunately, most states have tax incentive programs now, and Hollywood considers them very seriously. This is why Whip It, which is set in Austin, was shot primarily in Michigan, back before the 2009 Texas film-incentive law. The politicians speaking at the 2009  film-incentive signing did a lot of "nyah-nyah, take that, Louisiana and New Mexico!" Those states are probably overjoyed at this ruling.

The Texas Film Commission now has a new and potentially unpleasant job: to evaluate films, TV and videogames that want tax rebates and determine that they only show the sunny side of the state. Would Giant qualify? Would The Wild Bunch? Would There Will Be Blood? I don't envy the commission their task -- they are supposed to be working with productions and promoting the Texas film industry, which is difficult when you have to schoolmarm productions on their portrayals of the state and its inhabitants.

Of course, the legislature could change the law and remove this proviso, but that's impossible -- suddenly they'd all be portrayed as being anti-Texas themselves. I believe we've seen the decline and possible end of the Texas film incentives program. Now we all can look forward to seeing movies set in the state that look suspiciously like Georgia, New Mexico or Michigan, and local film crew can look forward to a lot more travel. Damn.

Incentives

Actually, the incentives are needed. Just having crew and locations doesn't work. When I lived in Austin, there was barely any filmmaking work. And God help you if you wanted to PA since most of those jobs were unpaid.

But when I moved back to New Orleans there was plenty of work and all of it has been paid. Incentive bring in productions, the crews and locations keep them coming back.

Still, great piece of writing.