Why cultivating the motion picture arts may be the next best step for Fort Worth’s innovation economy
They’re ubiquitous now: Fort Worth co-working spaces, new nonprofits, public-private partnerships – all cultivating innovation and tech and startup businesses. It’s an important endeavor, to be sure, and one that must continue. But as anything grows, so, too, does its shadow, and shadows sometimes inadvertently starve other valuable seedlings of the light they deserve and need.
One shadowed sprout might be Fort Worth’s film and television production industry. That’s a shame – and ironic – since a six-year Harvard study, and others, have isolated the arts (including TV and film) as a precursor for innovation.
The City of Fort Worth, while vocally supportive of the local motion picture business, has yet to offer any funding. Public support, while strong and growing, has yet to reach a tipping point. If it’s an innovation economy Cowtown wants, the next best step may be for the city and the public to become more involved in their burgeoning film and TV industry.
In early 2015, two filmmakers presented the case for a Fort Worth Film Commission to the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau, and subsequently, in a private meeting, to Mayor Betsy Price. (Full disclosure: this writer was one of those filmmakers, along with Red Sanders, president of Red Productions.)
In October 2015, the commission was formalized and founded as a division of the CVB, headed by an immediately effective commissioner, Jessica Christopherson. The budding organization’s mandate is to garner more motion picture production for Fort Worth and to assist producers with the logistics of those productions.
Working with the Chamber of Commerce and private donors, Sanders and the CVB were able to finance the two-year startup phase of the commission, which ends this October, and the CVB is committed to funding the film commission for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The City Council has yet to become financially involved, but the CVB has not yet asked it for funding.
The film and TV industry may be sexy, but it’s difficult for the layperson to wrap his or her head around the tremendous positive impact the industry can have on a community. The bulk of the benefits – economic and social – are often indirect and therefore elusive to some. Skeptics can look to Texas’ neighbors to the east for proof.
LOCAL BENEFITS OF FILMS
In 2016, Louisiana generated $1.3 billion in new sales from film and TV production – $41.4 million for local governments – and spent a mere $289 million on incentives. That’s a return on investment of almost 500 percent. Georgia gained $9.5 billion in economic benefit during fiscal year 2017 by incentivizing more productions than anywhere else in the world. Thanks to concertedly simplifying and increasing its incentive program, Georgia grew direct benefits by nearly 400 percent in only a decade.
State-level support may prove the greatest challenge. While Louisiana and Georgia were simplifying and raising production incentives, Texas was defunding incentives to nearly a third of its recent heyday. The state funded its Moving Image Industry Incentive Program with $95 million for 2014-15; for 2017-18, it slashed funding to $22 million.
Naysayers will argue: “The City of Fort Worth doesn’t have the resources to fork over millions in tax credits. What can we do?”
Despite the draconian cuts on the state level, one Texas town 90 miles south of here has proven all it takes is modest city-backed financial incentives and a fortune’s worth of local pride.
THE MAGNOLIA EFFECT
In 2011, a young couple was struggling to make ends meet flipping houses. They maintained a blog that somehow made its way to the inbox of an HGTV producer. The producer fell in love with the couple’s whimsical and warm tête-à-tête. In 2012, the show, Fixer Upper, was born.
The City of Waco and its residents saw the opportunity and swarmed to support the young couple – Chip and Joanna Gaines – in every way, including small tax incentives. Grateful for that support, the Gaineses ensured that Waco became an integral part of the show and its offshoot businesses.
What has become known as the “Magnolia Effect” hoisted the struggling city up off the mat. Waco has since returned to glory in a way it hasn’t seen since it was Texas’ major cotton exchange in the early 1900s.
More than 20,000 people a week visit the Gaines’ Magnolia Market. Between 2011 and 2014, the population of Waco’s 76701 ZIP code grew by 32 percent, compared to the 1 percent annual American growth rate. And this population surge brought with it mostly new residents between 25 and 34 years of age – the cohort coveted for its innovation and entrepreneurship.
In contrast to Waco, the City of Fort Worth remains laissez-faire, despite similar coming opportunities. For example, lifestyle and interior designer Grace Mitchell (astoriedstyle.com) has a pilot set to air on an undisclosed network in early 2018 for a series she refused to make anywhere other than Fort Worth. The Film Commission is going above and beyond to support Mitchell and her show, and many others.
INGREDIENTS ARE HERE; TIME TO COOK
Fort Worth has the talent, the infrastructure and the opportunity to benefit from a community-wide effort to cultivate motion picture production. It’s no accident that big and small screen luminaries have roots in Fort Worth – Betty Buckley, Kate Capshaw, the late Bill Paxton and the contemporary Oscar-nominated Taylor Sheridan, to name a few.
Fort Worth is unique, inimitable. Dallas, for example, would be just as believable as an East Coast, Midwest or West Coast city. Not so with Fort Worth. Jimmy Stewart, the great actor who fell in love with Cowtown, agreed: “I don’t know of another town, and I’ve seen quite a few, where you could enjoy great art on one side of the street and take in a cattle auction on the other,” he said in the promotional film Fort Worth: The Unexpected City, which he narrated for the city in 1977.
Fort Worth offers what film and TV producers crave: an utterly distinctive personality and sense of place.
The city and its city council must become more involved – financially and with rallying public support. The public has a duty, too. Tell people about the valiant efforts of the commission, lobby the state for stronger incentives, donate to the commission, and give eyeballs by watching and sharing the projects shot here at home.
If it’s innovation Cowtown wants, the movie and TV industry is an ideal catalyst. Innovation requires these essential ingredients: money, people and creativity. The motion picture business may be one of the few that brings all three.
Duke Greenhill is vice president of creative and strategy at J.O., a full-service marketing and PR firm in Fort Worth. He’s a widely published writer, film producer and screenwriter. Reach him at email@example.com.
During fiscal year 2015-16 (Oct. 1 to Sept. 30), the Fort Worth Film Commission:
– Assisted with 150 projects;
– Reported 70 projects were filmed in Fort Worth;
– Pitched 25 projects.
For FY 2016-17 (as of July 31)
– 130 projects assisted;
– 48 projects filmed in Fort Worth;
– 32 projects pitched.