Local film observers weigh in on studio plan


A. Lee Graham lgraham@bizpress.net

The prospect of a multimillion-dollar film studio in Fort Worth has industry observers curious yet cautious. “It can’t be built in a vacuum. It’s not just the mentality of build it and they will come,” said Janis Burklund, director of the Dallas Film Commission. Having seen other studio plans fizzle, Burklund was somewhat skeptical in October when news broke that Hillwood property in north Fort Worth could become a major film studio. No deal has been struck, but some hometown residents and a former Hollywood movie executive are discussing the possibility with the land developer as they hope to boost the city’s economic allure and make Fort Worth a hub for feature film production.

“This is a way for Texas to grow and become more competitive in the film industry,” said Tabitha Russell, a former Fort Worth video producer and actress who is overseeing her own video production company in Long Beach, Calif. Sharing Russell’s cinematic dream are Peter and Rudy Pulido Jr., her Fort Worth cousins who are using their respective insurance and real estate backgrounds to study the plan’s economic potential while currying local support. Though better known for their family’s namesake Mexican restaurants, the Pulido brothers hope their latest vision makes their hometown even tastier for film crews looking for location shooting sites. “What we’re looking to do is bring some major films out here,” said Peter Pulido, aware not only of the sales taxes that could be generated by film crews patronizing area restaurants and shops, but also property taxes that a major industry could bring from home sales.

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To that end, the Pulidos and Russell are seeking land for a major film studio. They have discussed the idea with Hillwood. “They have specific land that is of interest to us,” said Russell, declining to provide further details until a deal is struck. Without knowing details on projected employment, cost estimates and studio facility specifications, Burklund said, she could not comment specifically on the project. But she welcomed anything to make Texas a more competitive film landscape. “It is an ongoing competition with other states,” said Burklund, citing Louisiana, Georgia and New Mexico as among states also offering incentives for production crews. “We’re holding our own, but it isn’t easy. We have to fight to get what we can get,” Burklund said. Texas lags behind several states, including industry beachhead California, in terms of financial incentives despite offering its own advantages. Through the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, the state provides cash grants based on the percentage of a film project’s eligible Texas expenditures, including wages paid to Texas residents. The state also offers sales tax exemptions on items rented or purchased for use in films, as well as refunds of the 6 percent state occupancy tax on hotel rooms occupied for more than 30 consecutive days, according to the Texas Film Commission, which is operated through the governor’s office. Despite such resources, Texas lags California, New Zealand and other states and countries that allocate more film funding. “In Texas, we have to see how we can compete more effectively,” said Russell. She is determined to build a bigger local film industry, one providing more job opportunities for students earning film degrees from area universities.

A local filmmaker said he would welcome new film facilities but, like Burklund, would like to know more. “When you say ‘movie studio,’ you could mean a warehouse insulated for sound that has electricity. That’s a soundstage,” said Red Sanders, whose Red Productions film and video production company has helped put Fort Worth on the cinematic map. “I think when the general public thinks about a movie studio, they’re thinking a major studio [corporate complex], and the odds of a Paramount moving here are rather remote,” Sanders said. The Hillwood proposal includes no studio headquarters; rather, it would house soundstages with green screens – backdrops used to simulate often otherworldly vistas in ordinary surroundings. “We need more spaces like that,” said Sanders, whose film crews have used Trinity Valley School, Ol’ South Pancake House and other Fort Worth sites for location shooting.

Meanwhile, several area studios are not available for production. The former Studios at Las Colinas in Irving is reserved by current owner Glenn Beck, and several South Dallas warehouses converted for film production are locked into long-term leases by other production crews. “There are a lot of smaller studios around Fort Worth, but a lot of them are for commercials. What we need now is big studio space,” Sanders said. Establishing a Fort Worth film commissioner position is another part of the plan. “It’s the bridge between the community and the motion picture industry,” said Russell. She said Dallas and other municipalities employ such people to connect local businesses with movie productions, promote economic development through motion pictures and work with universities and private investors to promote the industry at a city level. Burklund serves that role in Dallas. Local film production feeds more than cinematic dreams; it brings business to restaurants, hotels and retailers serving film crews. In the Dallas Film Commission’s fiscal 2013 economic report to the city manager, film production had a $322.5 million economic impact on North Texas, including Dallas and Fort Worth. About $140 million of that represented direct spending, including wages paid to film crews, food purchased to feed those crews, sets purchased and lumber bought to build those sets. “Numbers are up from the previous year,” said Burklund, citing video games, animation and other burgeoning industry niches as helping bring big business.

Russell hopes for similar success in Fort Worth. “From a developer’s standpoint, it [the Hillwood property] can hold soundstages and expand into a potential studio complex. I want to bring it to Fort Worth – my hometown – and to Tarrant County because Tarrant County doesn’t have that,” Russell said. The film promoters have shared their plans with several city, county and state officials as they pursue possible land transactions and tax abatement requests. “It sounds like a pretty big deal,” said Tarrant County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gary Fickes, who met with Russell and Peter Pulido at their request to learn about the project. “Something like that could be a tremendous economic boom if they could do it,” said Fickes, wondering where funding would originate. While declining to specify project costs, Russell pointed to private and public dollars as funding sources. Private investors also could help pay the bill. Russell is no stranger to North Texas media. Before establishing Coconut Media Productions LLC, a video film production company in Long Beach, she was a broadcast training producer for RadioShack Corp. in Fort Worth, among other area positions. “There is great potential in Fort Worth, and I’m excited about what’s ahead,” Russell said.