Why the writers’ and actors’ strikes are ‘unbelievably bad timing’ for the Texas film industry

The state’s film incentives program has received a huge infusion of cash from the Legislature to make Texas more competitive – just as major productions have halted.

By Amanda Kari McHughAugust 18, 2023 11:19 am, ,

On Aug. 3, roughly 100 writers and actors – and on this particular day, a large presence of stunt performers – marched outside the Netflix building in Manhattan, calling for fair contracts. Their chanting quieted down as Fran Drescher took the megaphone.

“We are not going to back down. We are not going to be stepped on anymore for CEO greed and Wall Street greed at our expense, when they can’t do it without us,” said the actress and activist. “We are the foundation of the wheel. Nobody can own our likeness. And our minimums have to meet with inflation, none of this other BS. Forget about it. And we must get a piece of the platform that we are building for them.”

For the last few years, Drescher has been the national president of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA. What her group and the Writers Guild of America – both on strike – are asking for is to not let their jobs be taken by artificial intelligence, and for their paychecks to be adapted to our modern world of streaming and inflation.

While you’re not likely to see the same strike presence here in Texas, that doesn’t mean the Texas film industry isn’t feeling the brunt of them. And it’s not just writers and actors.

“All of the big production relying on Screen Actors Guild talent and ultimately Writers Guild of America scripts and other, has come to a close,” said Steve Belsky, founder and former president of Local 484, the Texas and Oklahoma chapter representing studio mechanics for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

Michael Minasi / KUT

Steve Belsky

The only exception is projects that have gotten exemptions because they aren’t under contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. So all crew members who were working on productions that are or would have been under alliance contracts are out of work, too.

James Brown and Marissa Lovely, crew members in the Teamsters Union, Local 745, said lucky timing is the only reason they were able to finish a show they were working on.

“They were able to get all the scripts done before the strike. The SAG strike happened after we were on the show, which is stalling out other work,” said Lovely, who works in locations.

Added Brown, who works in transportation: “Yeah, so we’ve had a few shows, one show that’s basically shut down had started – and basically shut down due to the strikes. And I know of two others that were planning to come here over the summer and just … put their shows on hold. So we have seen some impact as far as new work coming in.”

‘People are just desperate for work right now’

Texas is a right-to-work state, meaning that whether you’re in a union or not, you can’t be denied work because of your union status. While writers and actors aren’t crossing any picket lines, people like electricians, painters, set designers and sound engineers are all impacted by the strike.

Christian Oliveira, who is in the Editors Guild, Local 700, just had to leave Austin to move back home with his parents in Dallas because opportunities for work have drastically slowed down. He said that really started at the beginning of the year when strikes were rumored – then when they hit, rates went down, too.

“Magnolia is a great example of somebody that I just saw recently post like a night shift assistant editor job, 50 hours a week, paying like $1,000 a week, which is an absurdly low rate for that job and the skills it requires,” he said, referencing Magnolia Pictures, an independent film studio and distribution company with a location in Austin. “And they filled that job very quickly because people are just desperate for work right now.”

Courtesy Christian Oliveira

Christian Oliveira has created an editing bay for himself in a spare office at his dad's workplace in Dallas.

Magnolia produces a lot of independent films, which is what Texas is currently known for, alongside commercials. These productions usually employ non-union crew members – who are also impacted by the strikes.

Colton Wilie – a non-union gaffer and owner-operator of his own lighting company, which mostly works on commercials – said that because so many union folks are out of work, there’s more competition for the work that’s left.

“There’s more people available to take jobs,” he said. “When union jobs go away, narrative or otherwise, then they take on these non-union, smaller corporate-type jobs that I usually interact with. … I mean, it’s just more availability for other workers to compete on jobs.”

A long-awaited boost for Texas’ film incentive program

Not everyone in the film industry attributes the slowdown in work to the strikes. Some say Texas is still feeling the impact of the pandemic. Others think it’s the heat or inflation. Still others will tell you that Texas hasn’t ever really had a steady stream of work because of the rise and fall of its film incentives.

“I would say Texas, prior to this legislative session, we were pretty much at the bottom of the barrel when it came to incentives,” said Mindy Raymond, communications director of the Texas Media Production Alliance, which was formed in 2006 to lobby for bills that would bring more film production to Texas.

This year, the state Legislature approved $200 million in funding for the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, up from the $45 million it received in the 2021 legislative session – and more than double its last highest budget, $95 million approved in 2013.

The incentive program is intended to draw more video productions – which includes animation, video games and commercials – to Texas, by way of providing grants to projects that are within a certain budget range and hire a certain percentage of Texans. The amount that each project is given varies, depending on how much of the production costs are going back into Texas’ economy, among other factors.

Of the $200 million budget, $155 million went into effect immediately, as of June 1, so that it could be allocated to previous projects that might have been waiting for promised grants that the previous budget didn’t allow payment for. The remaining $45 million will go into effect Sept. 1, alongside House Bill 4539, which lowers the Texas residency requirement for the incentive program from 70% to 55%.

Raymond said the reduced residency requirement will make Texas more competitive with markets like Georgia, which has no minimum requirement for in-state hires.

Raul Alonzo / Texas Standard

Another thing it will do is bring much-needed additional crew members – who will hopefully end up staying – to Texas.

Belsky said that, despite being a large state, Texas doesn’t have the number of A-level crew members  – “experienced and fully skilled in their specific craft; capable of working with home-based and visiting crews of the highest caliber” – necessary to supply more than four productions at a time. That’s compared with an estimated 15 A-level production crews in Louisiana and 30 to 40 A-level production crews in Georgia.

Belsky said that a large production such as the TV series “Walker” requires, conservatively, 200-250 crew members on a day-to-day basis. He and Raymond believe that Texas filmmakers would plant roots in the state if they knew that they could count on large incentives to come around year after year. But since the support has been so erratic, they often move to busier markets.

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The state’s investment is a long time coming. Caesar Morales has been working in a number of film departments on major productions for the past 15 years – and even though he is from Texas, he’s mostly been working in New York and Europe.

“Then every time I come back, there’s always this push of like, ‘yeah, San Antonio or Austin’s going to be the next big filming capital of the world. We’re building studios in Austin.’ And every time I come back, nothing’s happened,” said Morales, who moved back home to San Antonio last year and took a job at a radio station because there wasn’t enough work in film. “And it’s just stagnant. It’s stale.”

Paul Jensen, executive director of the Texas Media Production Alliance, told lawmakers at the Capitol this spring that even stories about Texas are going instead to other states with stronger rebates and lower barriers to access them

“I’ll give you a couple examples: Tom Hanks, “News of the World” – it’s a Western that takes place in Texas; it was shot in New Mexico,” he said. “A project called “Hit Man” – it’s a uniquely Texas story; it first appeared as a Texas Monthly article – it was produced by Texas filmmakers, and they just wrapped in Louisiana.”

If more Texas stories could be produced in-state, more Texas filmmakers could stay at home to work, too, instead of having to travel outside the state to where the work is – people like transportation department worker James Brown.

“I was here when we had a pretty good incentive and it was really good in our area. And then I either had to travel outside of Texas or sit at home,” Brown said. “I’ve worked out of the state for several weeks and months at a time, but always come back home.”

‘Unbelievably bad timing’

So the $200 million incentive funding is something to be celebrated, right? Yes, except for one problem: The strikes.

Right now, most larger productions aren’t going anywhere, Texas or otherwise.

“It was unbelievably bad timing,” Belsky said. “We have all of this candy in our bag, and no one can taste it yet with major productions halted.”

With a two-year limit to use the funding, and no clue as to how long the strikes will last, some worry that if Texas isn’t able to use it all, there won’t be enough evidence to show how the incentives boost Texas’ overall economy.

Amanda Kari McHugh / Texas Standard

Writers, actors and stunt performers picket in New York on Aug. 3, calling for fair contracts.

“So going into June, when we got the great news of our incentive program, we were talking about $1 billion coming back into the state of Texas,” said Raymond with the Texas Media Production Alliance. “That will obviously be determined largely on when the strikes conclude and when people can get back to work and when we can start getting those productions in Texas happening.”

She said the incentives provide a 5:1 return on investment, meaning that for every dollar spent on incentives, five are cycled back into the state. The idea is for it to trickle down into the rest of the economy since media production doesn’t just financially benefit filmmakers, but also equipment houses, food vendors and even big box stores like Walmart – and Belsky has seen the impact firsthand.

“There was a downtown operation of Ready Ice here in Austin in the early 2010s who testified that it had made their year. The amount of ice they sold that summer changed their entire economic picture. That’s really just one example. There are paint stores that don’t sell exclusively to the film business, but boy, they love the film business.”

With the timing of the strikes, folks are also concerned that since the incentives budget is shared with commercials and the video gaming industry, money that could otherwise foster major film and television productions could be disproportionately allocated to other media projects.

But Brian Gannon, director of the Austin Film Commission, isn’t worried about that, noting that “the state’s really good at kind of spreading that money to make sure it’s not all going to one place.”

The Austin Film Commission assists film productions with finding locations, permits and providing a local crew directory. Gannon said there’s currently interest and investment in new spaces to support the infrastructure needed to take on more, larger projects.

“We do have a handful of studios that are looking to build currently,” he said. “And part of that is now that they know that there’s incentive funding, it’s a lot easier for them to move forward knowing they can have tenants.”

Amanda Kari McHugh / Texas Standard

A crowd of SAG-AFTRA stunt performers poses for a group photo after marching on a picket line together in front of the Netflix building in Manhattan on Aug. 3.

And even amid the strikes, Gannon is optimistic.

“I just have no doubt that it’s gonna be very busy once things kind of resolve,” he said. “And with that ton of money, it’s just that given that there’s gonna be a lot of different projects inquiring on top of the ones that have already kind of reached out.”

Everyone is holding out hope that agreements with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers will come soon. But it may not be the end of uncertainty: Film and stage workers represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees are watching closely, as they’re set to come back to the table in 2024.

In the meantime, Texas filmmakers will have to hurry up and wait to see what’s in store for them with the state’s incentives.

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