June 08, 2007
Texas Film Commission bill signed

The State of Texas wants you to make your movie here.

Texas, a rejected suitor that has watched 32 film projects consider the state's charms only to waltz away, taking big economic benefits with them, is putting millions into a film incentive program meant to lure the next blockbuster ... and the one after that, and the one after that.

All looks bright.

But it's the movie business, so cue the scary music.

The Motion Picture Association of America, a leading organization in the very business that Gov. Rick Perry is courting, last week urged him to veto the bill, saying the state was leaving itself open to a lawsuit.

Perry signed the $22 million bill into law Thursday with fanfare, joined by the rakish Dennis Quaid, a Houston native who is moving to Texas in a couple of years and wants it to become "the new Hollywood."

But there's a catch. Isn't there always a catch?

However, the new law has a provision that allows film grants to be denied "because of inappropriate content or content that portrays Texas or Texans in a negative fashion."

Texas is the first state to enact such a provision as part of a film incentive program, said Vans Stevenson, senior vice president of state government affairs for MPAA, who wrote the letter and said it speaks for itself.

A letter from Stevenson said the provision would permit state government to review and approve motion picture scripts to be eligible for a production incentive, which it said "contravenes the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression, and it will discourage filmmakers from coming to Texas."

"This provision is a direct indictment of the creative process and American values of free expression that are fundamental to our democracy," Stevenson wrote. He added later in the letter, "Moreover, this legislation is subject to immediate constitutional challenge in federal court."

Stevenson said Thursday that he still would have preferred that Perry veto the bill, but he applauds the governor and Legislature for wanting to create an incentive program. He said there are no plans at this time for litigation.

"I think our hope is that we can work to fix this," Stevenson said. The next chance to do that would be in the 2009 legislative session, unless Perry calls a special session before then.

Gah, not the S word again. Bite your tongue!

When senators added the provision, one cited the film Glory Road about the Texas Western Miners from El Paso, a basketball team whose starting lineup was African-American. Texas A&M-Commerce, which during the 1960s era depicted in the film was known as East Texas State University, called for an apology for the unfavorable way it was portrayed.

Perry, who signed the measure before a stage backdrop of a lake at an Austin Studios hangar (it's built on the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport property), downplayed worries and played up the potential benefits of the overall package.

"There's been a lot of misplaced concern about that provision," Perry said. "Dennis and I were talking about it earlier, that some folks see this as a First Amendment issue."

But Perry suggested the provision would be implemented judiciously: "Look, what we're trying to do here is ... trying to get the film industry to come and reinvest and invest in a big way in the state of Texas. And if the first thing that happens is we start seeing some type of censorship, it's not going to happen."

When I think of negative portrayals of Texas, I think of the old TV show Dallas. Quite a few of my high school classmates, upon hearing where I was going to college, invoked that show in some form. On the whole, it's hard to say that the Ewing clan was a net negative for the state and its economy; its image is another matter. I guess the question is who gets to decide what a "negative" portrayal is? How does this thing get enforced, and how to avoid looking all the worse for it when it does?

In the end, it's probably not a big deal. One presumes that with this provision or not, the commission was going to have some kind of latitude. It just seems a bit weird to spell it out so explicitly in the statute like that. The Observer blog has more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 08, 2007 to That's our Lege