“The Texas program isn’t set up for films with budgets smaller than $250,000,” says Anthony Pedone.

He’s referring to the current Texas tax incentive scheme, which requires a minimum spend of $250,000 for a project to qualify. (At that budget level, a film would see a return of seven and a half percent; the highest budgets receive up to 22.5 percent.) Anything smaller slips through this crack in the state system—a loss that Pedone, for one, will not take lying down.

A moviemaker and producer himself, Pedone is the founder of the Victoria, Texas-based organization Film Exchange, as well as the Victoria Texas Independent Film Festival and Self-Medicated Film Expo (RxSM). He’s also something of a rock star in Victoria—which, with a population of 65,098, might not be the first town moviemakers think of in their hunt for a perfect shooting location.

With the Film Exchange, Pedone has taken it upon himself to design unofficial incentives for low-budget producers looking to shoot in Victoria and the region: “We are like the film commission for Southern Texas.”

In 2014, the organization incentivized seven films. In return, they received a small percentage of equity—negotiable on a case-by-case basis, but generally between seven and 15 percent. “If you come to us, it’s good to have at least a small budget,” Pedone says. “We want co-production opportunities.”

A one-stop moviemaking shop, Film Exchange has a wealth of material available for partnered productions. Pedone rattles off a list: $400,000 in film production gear, including Blackmagic URSA and Canon C500 4K cameras, lights, and sound packages; post facilities, helicopters, picture cars, office space, 40 terabytes of data storage, Internet service, locations and permitting, even insurance.

Pedone makes use of his network of relationships in order to save projects even more money. Whatever Film Exchange doesn’t own, they trade for: “We get many restaurants that donate food for some of the days, in exchange for one of our actors wearing their shirt.” Film Exchange even has access to a 13-room hotel, recently restored by a friend of Pedone’s. “It’s this beautiful slice of 1850 with massive industrial kitchens. We can house festival guests or film crews, as well as using the kitchens for feeding crews—or even as sets. He gives us super reduced rates, or access in exchange for equity in the projects.”

In fact, Pedone relishes particularly tricky challenges—the more obscure, the better. “For a period piece, we needed 20 pre-1990 cars,” he remembers. “I called a friend of mine that runs a car dealership. He went to auction and bought the cars. We used them and he sold them after we were done. It cost about 1,000 bucks. Something like that would usually run $12,000.”

“We would shoot in one place and then just order lunch, eat there, and walk our gear down the street to the next location,” says Kenny Riches, who shot his 2013 short “Isip the Warrior” in Victoria. “Easiest company move I’ve ever had to do.”

Robert Lorie in The Strongest Man. Photograph by Tom Garner.

Robert Lorie in The Strongest Man. Photograph by Tom Garner

After that experience, Riches convinced the Film Exchange to produce his Miami-shot feature, The Strongest Man, remotely. “He came to us looking for some great gear, so we gave him the gear and took seven percent,” says Pedone about that film. The Strongest Man, which Riches describes as “an existential comedy and love story that follows a Cuban construction worker down a strange path to his power animal,” premieres at Sundance in 2015.

“We were all shocked that it made it to Sundance,” says Pedone. “We spent less than $100,000 on it. It goes to show that stuff like that really happens.” (Riches agrees: “I got the call from Sundance and did my best to not pee my pants while on the phone. After I hung up the line—well, we don’t need to go there.”)

“If you have to rewrite your screenplay to fit the Texas landscape, do it,” says director Bianca Butti, whose film Eyes of the Moon is another Film Exchange alumnus, and shot in Marfa, Texas. “And Texas does have amazing landscapes, full of vast deserts, mountains, swamps, seas, rivers, lakes, prairies, small-town Americana, and even big, sprawling cities. Victoria has a beautiful historical district filled with old Victorian houses, like something out of Gone with the Wind.

Ty Mitchell in Eyes of the Moon by Bianca Butti.

Ty Mitchell in Eyes of the Moon, a film by Bianca Butti

Despite all those resources, current legislation still makes it “hard for Texas to compete with New Mexico and Louisiana,” Pedone says. “Right now the state film incentive program is maxed out at $90 million. Once you’ve incentivized a $200 million movie, you’re done. That’s what happened with Transformers: Age of Extinction—we got them to come to Texas, but the majority of state funding went to that production. We’d love the state to open up their incentive programs for $100,000 films and bring multiple indie movies instead of just one major movie. Hopefully, legislation will go into place and our film incentive program can become more robust.”

Until then, as director-producer Bryan Storkel, yet another Film Exchange alumnus, says: “Having the Film Exchange on board will be like being given the keys to the city.” MM

Feature Image: Robert Lorie stars in The Strongest Man, directed by Kenny Riches with the help of Film Exchange. The film premiered in the NEXT category at the Sundance Film Festival January 2015. Photograph by Tom Garner.

Visit the Film Exchange’s website here.