SXSW: Tackling the hurdles and mastering the process of Texas filmmaking

Pictured is the Fort Worth Film Commission panel with Red Sanders, James Johnston, Toby Halbrooks, David Lowery and Augustine Frizzell.

Fort Worth Now kicked off day two with a panel by Film Fort Worth, Spotlight on Texas Filmmakers, that featured writer-director Augustine Frizzell, Sailor Bear producers Toby Halbrooks and James Johnston, and writer-director David Lowey. Red Productions producer Red Sanders moderated the discussion.

Being on a panel as part of Austin’s South by Southwest festival has been a nostalgic experience, as many of the panelists explained that various SXSW years have acted as steps to propel them forward in their careers.

Lowey and Johnston said 2005’s festival was their turning point.

“It was the first time we showed something to someone that wasn’t friends and family, and it was the first time we felt a part of the community of filmmakers,” Lowey said. “It really opened our eyes to the world  … That year really let us know what this was something that was accomplishable.”

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Johnston added that because filmmaking is a collaborative process that takes a team effort “finding your family is very important.”

But being a part of a community of creatives is about more than just the familial aspect, it’s also about finding a place you can call home, Halbrooks said.

“We took [projects] to Fort Worth because when you can call somebody and know that the city will help you, [that’s incredible],” he added. “That film family is important but your home is important too.”

The panelists explained that home for them is not only Fort Worth but on a broader scale is North Texas and Texas as a whole. Lowey said that part of what has kept him in the area ia that this is where he’s grown up and lived and work and there’s a comfort to that. But more than that, there’s a hospitality factor he says is a “mythical quality” unique to texas.

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Because Texas is home, these filmmakers are passionate about being able to film in Texas, eploy Texans and patronize Texas businesses.

“They (people in Fort Worth) were really supportive and helpful in getting [film production] done and you couldn’t get this anywhere else,” Frizzell said.

In addition to trying to find and employ local talent, and be a part of the local community, Frizzell has made it a point to equally consider male and female talent. But I’ll let her explain her process.

“I have a great support system of men who I love and respect, and I’m incredibly lucky that I have such great male collaborators in my life, but I have a wonderful female producer part of the team as well and we all discussed from the start to bring in as many [women] as we could.

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“It was just about opening up the opportunity for women. So, when I went looking for a director producer, I made sure that the list included several female names, and it just so happened that the best candidate was a woman.

“It wasn’t like I have to have women for this, but it turns out there are so many incredible females in the industry that may not have made the list if I hadn’t made that goal to include womens names on the list,” Frizzell said.

Another hurdle for filmmakers includes local legislation making tax incentives and other vital cost savers available to filmmakers coming in and producing locally.

Sanders explained that because they learned how to make movies in Texas, these filmmakers want to keep making them in Texas, helping the local talent pool and bringing money into the local economy. However, though that’s always their goal, sometimes a lack of incentives in one place coupled with a lower cost somewhere else can keep movies and movie production out of Texas.

“Old Man and the Gun that we just finished that was shot largely in Ohio for Tax purposes even though it takes place in DFW,” Sanders said. “But it was important for us to know we could shoot parts of it in Texas … to have that stamp of approval and that je ne sais quoi.”

“We’ve called in a lot of favors. It’s nice to bring a movie to town that can pay everybody,” he continued. “And then we were able to do post production there.”

But to get more films producing and filming in Texas — Halbrooks has an idea.

“I know what people can do. You’ve just got to get people in [politics] so people can pass the laws that gives us the incentives,” Halbrooks said. “We had to shoot (Old Man and the Gun) in Cincinnati, Ohio … because the difference was millions of dollars and we couldn’t afford to shoot the whole thing in Texas — and that’s a real drag and I think we should fix it.”

Incentives are paid by cities or state governments to a production company to reward them for hiring a local crew and paying local businesses, Sanders said. And all the money goes through a strict verification process to make sure it is invested in the local economy.

“The other cities we’ve been to are cities that have state incentives so you’re getting the full backing of the entire state and government so it’s a slightly different story when its a city functioning on its own,” Lowey said, adding that for example having someone help with location scouting is a great way to get things rolling and is a pretty affordable incentive.

Lowey added that the way small movies get made is by getting free stuff and getting help, and then, when those people are working on a bigger movie they want to spend the money in the local community because they know it’s going to a place that cares about art and film and the creative community.

“Fort Worth was great about offering economic incentives beyond just a grant,” Johnston said. “They were able to get us hotels, locations, permitting for street shooting and all these logistical things are really important to productions to help push things through.”

Fort Worth is becoming more known for its art — having had its first film and music festival and being named Texas’ first music friendly community — and people are taking notice.

“There’s definitely something new in the city. I can’t honestly say what accounts for it.”

It’s one of the fastest growing cities for some reason, I don’t know why,” Johnston said. “I used to feel like i had to go to Dallas to find other people who work in film but now I get emails from people in Fort Worth all the time who are trying to do something.”