Making the Case for Houston: Spotlight on This Texan Metropolis, With State Film Incentives on the Line

Commonly known as a business-heavy port city, Houston—surprisingly to some—is an ethnically diverse hub where a community of moviemakers, far from Hollywood, have opportunities to create whatever they want.

From the versatile vistas to the teeming population, Houston provides a great deal of material for budding moviemakers to cull from, as well as strong production resources. If you live in Texas, the city and its environs may be a viable setting for you to stake out a real career in filmmaking: You can film a desert scene just an hour outside of Houston, then move to an old Victorian house in Houston Heights before shooting a roller coaster ride on the pier at Galveston Island. You can craft a science-fiction dystopia out of the modern architecture downtown or a horror film in the nearby suburbs. It’s a city that’s as scenic as you want it to be.

Many wrote off Texas as a worthwhile moviemaking location after budget cuts hit the state’s film tax incentives in 2015: The overall budget was cut from $95 million to $32 million that year, discouraging a then-robust community. In April this year, Texas House voted to pass a bill that slashes the budget entirely. Meanwhile, according to Texas Monthly, “the Senate version of the bill—which currently allows for funding up to $3.4 million, also split over two years—slashes the incentives program, which began in 2009 [and] offers a cash grant for a percentage of the cost of some of a project’s expenditures in the state (between 5 to 20 percent), including certain wages paid to Texans.”

The politics: Any portion of the federal budget not going toward defense spending is “waste.” (Art makes us weak, weapons make us strong.) The reality: Job growth in the local film-based economy—20,000 full-time jobs were created through $168.4 million from the Texas Film Commission’s incentive program—now faces stagnation. Although key players have already begun meeting with lawmakers in an effort to secure a larger incentive program budget by the time of next year’s legislative session, some who’ve made their living making movies in the area fear that a move is inevitable.

So, what happens when you mess with Texas’ film business? To probe the city’s production scene, MovieMaker spoke with Rick Ferguson, the executive director at the Houston Film Commission, who shared his insights into how working independents are capitalizing on Houston’s prime film/TV locations to help drive the local industry.

A prickly view of Galveston, Texas. Courtesy of Visit Houston

Ryan Williams, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What are some of the unique factors that contribute to the moviemaking scene in Houston?

Rick Ferguson (RF): There are a lot of aspects that make the area very attractive to filmmakers. Certainly things have changed a little bit over the years, but a lot of what was applicable when I first started 30 years ago is still applicable. Both the location of Houston—next to the Gulf Coast—and the architectural style of the city are contributing factors for young filmmakers. In addition, the topography and geography is very different within a 60-mile radius in all directions. You’ve got thick, piney woods to the north and the east. If you go west, you’ve got the coastal plains of the Texas Gulf Coast. One of the most aesthetically interesting places is Galveston Island, about 50 miles south of Houston. Then, if you go northwest, you get a very flat landscape, reminiscent of the Midwest.

Back to Houston: There you’ve got a very modern style of architecture that has sprung up since the 1960s and ’70s. Everything is pretty new, with a lot of buildings still being built, even as we speak. Parts of downtown Houston are a sea of cranes with new construction going up. On the peripheries of downtown is the oldest part of Houston, Houston Heights, which has maintained its period integrity. There are a lot of different aesthetic values within close proximity to each other.

The bane of Houston’s existence is the tax incentive program. At this point, we are in the middle of a tax incentive program, currently waiting to see what’s in store for the next biennium—legislatures only meet every two years as opposed to every year. Whatever decisions are made between now and the beginning of June, we don’t just live with for one year, we live with for two. Literally and figuratively, the jury is still out.

MM: What is the current mood about the incentive programs?

RF: I wish that I could give a prognosis for the future—and it will be known very quickly—but I have confidence and optimism that we will still be in the ballgame. Obviously, the most important component is the appropriation of funds for the incentive program. We’re hoping that it will be where it was previously. We certainly hope there will be an added amount that will make us even more competitive.

We do features and we do television, but Houston’s primary market is in commercials. We do a lot of car commercials because of the locations and topography. The makers of these commercials are attracted by incentive programs but not as much as feature films and televisions series are. If there is a negative change in incentive programs then we will certainly be able to maintain the primary market we’ve established.

The Houston skyline. Courtesy of Visit Houston

MM: Do you still have a lot of feature films that are made in Houston?

RF: We do and, thankfully, we still have a great number of features that are produced, financed and filmed here in Houston. We have a thriving and growing ethnically diverse industry that we are very proud of. As a recent Los Angeles Times article [“How Houston has become the most diverse place in America”] re-confirmed, we develop our business on the fact that Houston is a very, very diverse city. Each one of the ethnic communities is developing its own homegrown film industry. There are a lot of films coming out of the Hispanic, African-American and Indian communities. It’s not that they are separate, but there are projects being made specifically for and by the members of these communities. There is also a crossover of that product so it’s becoming a little more homogenized. It’s being consolidated to one industry as opposed to a faction of industries. It’s been a tremendous boon to us, due to having tremendous crew and support growing out of these communities. All of this locally grown talent gives a foundation that will help Houston bring in products geared towards specific audiences.

MM: What separates Houston from metropolitan Dallas or artistic Austin?

RF: It’s a number of things but certainly the diversity of Houston, compared to the other cities in the region of Texas, has become a source of pride for the people of Houston, as well as a source of stories to be told. It’s a way to get these individual stories brought forward and find a market for them. The Texas Association of Film Commissions and us are competitive, to be sure, but we work in tandem to better the situation in the state as well as work on our individual cities. The markets are certainly different and that has a great deal to do with population and diversity.

We’ve done a project since 1994 called the Texas Filmmaker’s Showcase where we screen short films at the DGA. There’s a very different kind of look to films shot in Austin, or films shot in Dallas, or even other areas such as the Valley and El Paso. It’s not only from a location standpoint but also from an interpretive visual standpoint. Within the first five minutes, you can determine the geographic area that the films come from. That’s a really good thing because it gives an individual identity to each one of the industries and each one of the markets.

MM: Can you tell us some recent examples of films or shows shot in Houston?

RF: The Louis C.K.-produced Amazon series One Mississippi is, like its namesake, about Mississippi, but they shot part of the last season here. The Houston and Galveston area was meant to stand in for Mississippi. It’s really a very smart series. There’s also a very large horror market. A lot of the smaller films coming out of Houston are either psychological thrillers or pure-and-simple horror. These are coming out of the mixed-ethnicity market. You don’t necessarily think of any type of genre appealing to a specific ethnicity, but there’s sort of a ballooning of genre representing various ethnicities and creating a cohesive community that specializes in horror films.

MM: What other examples are there of Houston fostering a special environment for homegrown moviemakers?

RF: I can only speak on behalf of the Houston area but our previous mayor has always been very supportive of film production in the city. We have a new mayor, Sylvester Turner, who is also very supportive and is starting to accelerate that support. Another thing we do, that we’ve done in the past is that the City of Houston has a Houston Filmmaker’s Grant, which is a matching grant, for local filmmakers. It is based on a submitted script as well as various pages of criteria in order to be a recipient of this grant. It’s a $30,000 grant and it comes both from my office and from the city of Houston. We’re hoping that that works successfully and serve as a springboard for projects that don’t have quite enough money to get started. This grant has happened every other year since 2013.

A moviemaking crew shoots along Houston’s boating docks. Photograph by Bo Svensson

MM: Do a lot of these local talents go to film school in Houston?

RF: A lot of them go to school here in Houston. All of the universities here have film programs. Admittedly, most of them are RTF [Radio-Television-Film, from University of Texas] programs. University of Houston, Rice University, Texas Southern University… Our local community college, the Houston Community College has an ever-expanding program and a brand new campus dedicated to film production. A lot of filmmakers are buying a camera, working with friends, creating organizations to help support them—not only with financial aid but with personnel. Some of the product that comes out of these collaborations has been pretty great. I’m not saying that you should or shouldn’t go to film school but it certainly does prove that with tenacity and talent, you can make it yourself. Houston offers both the resources and the financial support to be able to do this.

MM: Can you tell us a bit about the availability of rental and equipment houses in Houston?

RF: Our equipment houses have absolutely everything that you could need. Texcam is a great resource and has been around for a very long time. There is a situation where a large project, maybe a television series or a longer feature film, will get their equipment from the Austin area. Absolutely everything, however, is available in abundance here. MM

Featured image photograph by Craig Busch.

1 Comment

  1. Guillaume Kosmala

    May 19, 2017 at 2:02 pm

    Didn’t realize that I had so much to be proud of with my hometown!

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