Tuesday, September 02, 2008

by Craig Berlin, Founding Board Member (Retired), Texas Motion Picture Alliance, http://www.txmpa.org

Acting is something close to my heart. Talent does not guarantee
success and even though I did a lot of acting in high school and
college, I opted to go behind the camera as a career because it felt
safer (hah!) So, the plight of the production industry in Texas
touches me both from a business and personal standpoint on more than
one front.

Recently I was asked to address the Alliance, a network of Austin
casting directors, agents and acting coaches in order to keep them
up-to-date on the state of the industry but most importantly to help
them reach out to their clients, the myriad of actors we have in
locally. I’d like to pass along the information I shared with them
statewide and specifically address what I understand to be some of
the specific concerns actors have about TxMPA.

You may have heard that the Texas production business is hurting,
making it harder for actors and crew to find work and generally
impacting the state’s econcomy in a negative way. The alarm bells
being sounded regarding production business in Texas are from real
numbers, not just protectionist fear. Texas used to be considered
the “Third Coast” but that has changed. Producers who want to come
here no longer can because the money people won’t allow it. To be
frank, who can blame them? After all, as an industry of “artists” we
spend much of our time trying to convince the traditional business
community that film, music and the arts are “business” too, so we
can hardly expect the business decision-makers of production to
behave substantially differently in regard to “the bottom line” than
other bean counters would.

The truth is, production incentives work and a lack of them hurts.
In 2002, pre-incentive Louisiana had about $20 million/year in
production business. Since the advent of incentives, their business
had grown to over $640 million by 2005. Similar figures exist for
New Mexico. Michigan is currently building the second largest
production studio in the state as a direct result of new business
brought in by incentives, according to the mayor of Lansing. The
list of migration and infrastructure growing elsewhere goes on.

By contrast, Texas is DEAD LAST on the list of states with
incentives. As a result, our business has correspondingly shrunk. We
are now into the billions of dollars in lost revenue. Prison Break
left Dallas and even Robert Rodriguez is likely producing his next
feature in Michigan. We were barely able to hang on to Friday Night
Lights and that had a lot to do with help from the local support and
there are MANY more examples.

As the Third Coast, Texas offered talented and plentiful crew and
actors as well as varied locations, good facilities and of course,
Texas charm. While the charm and locations may remain, the rest of
our infrastructure is eroding due to lack of business. Some studios
are not being built because we lack incentives; others are not
getting badly needed upgrades. Our crew and actors are working
out-of-state more than they are working locally and that makes it
difficult to keep your roots here. As of now, the local crew labor
union IATSE reports they have more crew working out of state than in
Texas. While talent agents typically do not report specific numbers,
a SAG survey included alarming information as well. One talent agent
reported nearly 100 performers, or 75% of the agency roster, had
found work in Louisiana or New Mexico in the past year. Another
agent cited 36 film and television projects in Louisiana employing
75 of the agency's Texas performers and five projects in New Mexico
employing 9 Texas performers in the past year. A third agent
reported total gross earnings from out of state in 2007 comprised
27% of the agency’s film/tv gross and increased to 28% in 2008,
whereas five years ago there were not measurable out of state
earnings. With the possible exception of commercial business in
Dallas, we simply cannot be satisfied with the status quo and expect
to have any kind of industry left in this state.

It is widely believed by those in the trenches that we have about 9
months to get our act together (no pun intended) and make something
happen or our a signficiant portion of our industry will be dealt
such a severe blow that it will literally wither and any opportunity
for regrowth will be years down the road. It is imperative that
actors join the cause individually and both JOIN the TxMPA and
participate in the grass roots effort by writing their legislators –
ESPECIALLY the naysayers such as Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden
in Williamson County.

While Bob Hudgins, Texas Film Commisioner, is an amazing advocate
for our industry, he is not in a position legally to take an
official stand and furthermore, his office is underfunded and
understaffed to do all the marketing we need to bring more business
to the state. Once we have successfully achieved better incentives,
the TxMPA needs to have a long-term mission of helping to solicit
business for our state and help improve our infrastructure, as well
as making sure that the “total package” we offer stays attractive
and competitive with other states.

It is often difficult for even the most talented actors to get jobs
when business is plentiful. Just imagine how it will be when
business is virutally nonexistent. Personally, I hope to do some
acting again in the future and my daughter is interested as well.
Beyond that, my job depends on a healthy production community.
Production business is not only good for the entire state but is
also significant part of what makes Texas “cool,” much as is live
music is for Austin. More importantly, we and our friends and
colleagues may have a mass exodus if we aren’t able to turn things

As a local vendor, it has been difficult enough to compete with
internet companies to supply a local clientele made largely of
transplants from California and elsewhere who do not share the “Buy
Local” mentality of old in regard to their current home. With the
local business migrating elsewhere, it is likely that what remains
of local producers and potential location shoots may very well be
left with few options when the number of local suppliers left to
serve them shrinks even further. Just last week I learned that the
mobile HD editing facility Confidence Bay is moving to L.A. so they
can sustain their business until the industry climate is better
here, at least they have the ability to come back, if and when we
fix things. They are not alone.

A fair number of actors seem to have a particularly difficult time
believing in the issues or supporting TxMPA. There has been
concerned expressed by some regarding where the TxMPA money ends up.
As the first treasurer for TXMPA I can vouch for the fact that at
least 90% of the money raised goes to lobbying expenses. It case it
hasn’t been made clear, with over 5000 bills in front of a
legislature which only meets every other year, NOTHING gets passed
in Texas without a lobbyist. Most of the remainder of the money goes
to fundraising and promotional expenses. There are no paid board
members, employees or other gravy trains and most expenses such as
travel are absorbed by individual board members. As Chairman of the
Membership and Fundraising Committee our first year, if I went to
other cities to promote the organization I paid my own way.

Any way you slice it, our first priority must be to pass better
incentives to put Texas back on the list of viable choices and that
is the TxMPA’s prime directive. We can’t do it without the financial
and grass-roots support of the entire community, including actors.
Please let me know if you need help with specifics about how to get
involved beyond joining the organization; otherwise please visit
http://www.txmpa.org and sign up. It’s an investment in your future
and we need you.

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