Cuts endanger Texas TV, film industry

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With budget cuts across the legislative board, some members of the acting community are worried the arts will be the first to go.

Tonight, Texas actors, producers and writers will gather at Austin Studios to share their stories and discuss the possible decrease in the Texas motion picture industry’s tax incentive.

The state tax incentive program generated more than $614 million in new in-state revenue in the past two years and has accounted for 57,669 production jobs for Texans, according to the Texas Motion Picture Alliance.

“At this point, there is $10 million in the base budget bills for this program, down from the $60 million we had last session,” said alliance president Don Stokes. “We are hopeful to gain additional funding to maintain the viability of the program.”

Because of the state’s steep deficit, the alliance will struggle to retain even a fraction of the funding they’ve had during the past two years.

Instead of congregating on the steps of the Capitol like in recent years, the alliance made last-minute changes and are turning their following Lobby Day Rally on Wednesday into a day industry members can make personal visits to their hometown representatives and senators.

According to Craig Berlin, a board member of the alliance, they are taking a more subdued approach than in past years because of the political climate. They do not wish to be perceived in any way as protesters or people rallying against policy.

“Our legislature is to be commended for the work they’ve already done and in this political and economic climate,” Berlin said. “The last thing Texas needs is to have news headlines along the lines of Wisconsin or Michigan about how we are crying about being treated unfairly. That is simply not the case.”

In addition to the sales tax exemption, the current incentive program offers the chance to get a five to 15-percent rebate on Texas spending for feature films, television programs, commercials, video games and post-production projects depending on the amount of expenditure.

Qualifications for the tax break include a minimum of $250,000 in Texas spending, 60 percent of shooting days completed in Texas and 70 percent of paid crew and cast must be Texas residents, unless the production is a reality or talk show.

“If we lack adequate funding, we essentially have no program because we will run out of money for the incentives,” Berlin said. “If that happens, productions will go where they can get an incentive and Texas will lose thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue.”

If funding is cut for the state’s motion picture industry, the alliance and other organizations would have to begin rallying support for an incentive increase by the next legislative session in 2013, Berlin said.

“We are already losing our crew and business to other states with the current incentive,” said Catherine Parrington, director of operations at Austin Studios. “It is imperative that we can at least keep what we have to continue to grow in our industry.”

Louisiana, for instance, offers a 30-percent incentive for total in-state expenditures. According to the Screen Actors Guild, under former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California Film and Television Tax Credit Program, $200 million in tax credits was allocated to 77 projects, bringing in an estimated $2 billion in direct spending to California communities.

Even with Texas’ shortcomings, the state is considered the third coast for motion pictures, said local actor Christian Bowman.

“Dallas alone has one of the largest sound stages,” he said. “If a sitcom wants to have half of the show in a hospital and half of the show in an apartment, they can set up that soundstage to be both.”

While filmmakers, producers and actors — Bowman included — are drawn to Los Angeles because of its gracious tax credits, major studios and Hollywood, the obvious double-edged sword is that Los Angeles has a cutthroat scene that can either make you or break you, Bowman said.

“It’s easier to be a big fish in a small pond, then a minnow in an ocean,” he said.

There are plenty of opportunities in Austin, both professional and independent, Bowman said, and it is inevitable that the motion picture industry will thrive.

“Texas is a great place to film,” Bowman said. “This is an amazing backdrop. If the tax incentive follows through, it’ll only invite more people to come film.”