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Austin Actors
Jeff Nightbyrd

The Austin Film Industry: Where It Is Now and What Can Be Achieved
by Jeff Nightbyrd

March 2004

People are excited about the Hollywood films that are shot here in Austin, but it is largely the excitement of fans hoping to meet Stars. Few see filmmaking as a major American industry. Even fewer think of the good jobs films produce, nor the major economic impact film has on the Austin economy. The year has only just begun and already five Hollywood films and two TV pilots are underway in Austin. In addition there will be bout 30 national and regional TV ads shot here - many in Spanish. We will also be the locale for numerous print ads as well as significant voice work for animation, the video game industry and advertising.

It is estimated that $220 million in Hollywood film production took place in the Austin metro area in 2003. That is more than ten times the figures for either Dallas or Houston. Austin dominates filmmaking in Texas. Add in advertising and the production figures exceed $250 million. Hard figures for the large Austin-based video game industry are difficult to gather, but nationally video game sales are even larger than the profits from movie box office.

After Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, Austin competes with Miami, Orlando and the North Carolina tri-city complex as the 4th biggest film center in America. In this era of negative job growth, movies and TV production offer Austin a unique opportunity for economic stimulus and good paying jobs. If a high tech consortium were offering to bring a $250 million business to Austin, city officials would flit about like bees to honey, but for now our city has no blueprint for developing the business of film and TV production and no marketing plan to ensure Austin future production growth. This needs to be remedied. Just because Austin has enjoyed explosive film and TV production gains in the last five years is no guarantee the trend will continue.

Other cities and states are taking a more proactive approach. Visit the Film Commission websites of Florida cities and click on "incentives." They offer producers an array of inducements, including a 15% rebate on qualifying expenditures and a $3 million fund out Governor Jeb Bush's office. Recently Oklahoma, New Mexico and Louisiana passed laws with incentives to woo film business to their areas. An economic study prepared by the Florida Governor's Office calculated that film produced $484 million in wages for Florida 2002. The study concluded that film alone generated $1.16 billion dollars in sales for the state in 2002. That is big business and Florida competes for it aggressively.

The City of Orlando - home of the Disney production center - also markets aggressively. Here is a quote from that city's literature: "The City of Orlando has introduced the City of Orlando Film and Television Network Incentive. This cash incentive cuts your production costs within the Orlando market by 15%, proving that this community is committed to remaining a competitive production destination."

Production is cost driven. Hollywood goes where money can be saved. Canada became a world leader in filmmaking because they offered enticing incentive packages for film production and because of the cheap Canadian dollar. However the Canadian dollar's value has increased about 20% in the past two years, and that has created the opportunity to win back production to the United States.

New Mexico and Louisiana have legislation similar to Canada's in order to attract film production. Austin and Texas needs to compete in this new environment. A lassaiz-faire approach will not suffice. One key to the Canadian legislation in this arena is that incentives are tied to hiring locally. Austin has a large and excellent pool of actors and production crews but if film projects bring in workers from outside the production does little to help Austin employment. We need to sell the idea of hiring and casting locally.

Our city has worked hard at creating economic opportunities for minorities. Because the film and TV business is national or even global, productions mirror the multicultural national and world markets. In our area the number of TV commercials shot for the Latino/Hispanic market has grown more than 5 times in the past three years. Nowadays many commercials are shot in Spanish language for the Mexican and Spanish-speaking markets. Tech companies, for instance, use our talent base to market as far away as South America.

Film, TV and commercials offer excellent-paying jobs for Hispanics, African Americans and Asian Americans, by the way. It is not that producers are color blind. It is just the opposite. Los Angeles-based producers are hard-nosed counters of the bottom line, and the bottom line is that marketing to an ethnically diverse country means a need for ethnically diverse talent. Simply put, hiring minorities is good for business.

The promise of business in film here in Austin is extraordinary, and it is particularly city-friendly. Film and TV production does not require building new roads, schools, sewer lines or other infrastructure. It is a non-polluting and creative business that also gives minorities a fare shake. With proper city planning and incentives, Austin can continue to grow its share of the film business and compete against other production destinations. Our Hispanic roots give us a unique advantage. By adding competitive incentives, it is not utopian to foresee a half billion-dollar industry here within five years.

Jeffrey Nightbyrd is the director of Acclaim Talent,.
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