From the hit “Giant” of the 1950s to the recent “Friday Night Lights,” the Lone Star State has taken on a major role in the movie and television industry. Counties often reap financial and other benefits when cameras are on location.
Texas averages about 50 projects annually, said Tom Copeland, director of the Texas Film Commission. These projects include independent films, music videos, commercial shoots, documentaries, reality television and Hollywood films.
During the past decade, film projects in Texas have had a total budget of $2.8 billion. For each project, the commission expects crews to spend at least half of their budgets on location. In 2003, the total budget for Texas projects was $229 million, meaning $114.5 million was spent in the state.
Crews tend to patronize local businesses while on location. That money can be spent on such items as hotels or restaurants, gasoline, and items for sets. Crews often frequent hardware stores, antique stores, thrift shops, and dry cleaners.
“Floating factories” is how Copeland described the movie industry, meaning they spend money when they are on location, then move on to the next job.
The film industry also means jobs for Texans. Many of the crews are Texas-based, Copeland said.
In addition, the crews often make donations after a project is completed to thank a community for letting them film, said Copeland, and for the “disruption to everyday life” caused by their stint in a community.
With the state’s geographic and community diversity, projects have been shot all over Texas. Small towns are a common location, and Central Texas often doubles for the Midwest, said Copeland.
Local government involvement is key to the projects’ success, Copeland said.
“Without the help of county judges and commissioners, we couldn’t do what we do,” he added.
Streets or the courthouse may have to be closed during filming, or local entities may provide security during filming. When this occurs, Copeland said the crews follow a protocol, which can involve a variety of local entities, such as a fire or sheriff’s department.
Friday Night Lights
“Friday Night Lights,” which chronicles the 1988 season of Odessa’s Permian High School football team, is estimated to have brought $7.9 million to Ector County, according to the Odessa Chamber of Commerce. And that doesn’t even account for the publicity the film brought to the city of Odessa.
Crews were on location for 35 days, plus two additional 12-day stints. As many as 3,000 extras were hired from the community; older vehicles and Permian items were rented; and Ector County Independent School District’s Ratliff Stadium also was rented.
The chamber estimates hotel revenue at $4.4 million, stadium rental at $45,000, and salaries for extras at $1.55 million. In addition, $10,000 was donated to the two local high school bands for their march in last year’s Tournament of Roses Parade in California.
Ector County Commissioner Freddie Gardner, a self-proclaimed sports enthusiast who raised three sons who were involved in the ECISD athletic program, said, “I commend the residents of Ector County who participated in the filming of ‘Friday Night Lights.’ It was a unique and educational experience in dealing with the movie industry.”
Ector County Sheriff Mark Donaldson had a speaking part in the movie as a state trooper. Donaldson is no stranger to the stage, having had a part in the Wild West Show that has performed annually at the county fair since 1985.
Donaldson said he met the film’s director while escorting him to the stadium. He also was involved with providing time-period uniforms and worked with the film’s wardrobe director.
Those interactions resulted in an audition, and Donaldson got the role. His son even had a part as a cheerleader.
In addition, the sheriff’s department handled off-duty security for the movie’s sets and the stadium and also handled traffic control. A donation helped the sheriff’s department purchase a bulletproof vest, said Donaldson.
On Location in Far West Texas
Presidio County – the site of the movie “Giant” – has welcomed the movie industry over the years.
“We bend over backwards to help,” said Presidio County Judge Jerry Agan. “The movie industry is a tremendous boost to the community.”
Over the years, the county has had a place in quite a few films, including “Lonesome Dove,” an automobile commercial, and numerous documentaries on the Marfa lights. An upcoming Tommy Lee Jones movie, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” is the county’s latest endeavor.
For that film, Agan said crews rented every motel in town for three weeks. Crews also rented vacant stores and used local residents as extras.
Typically, the county works with crews on easements, said Agan.
“We all work together to get the job done,” he said. “This takes a lot of effort and time, but it’s worth it.”
For the county’s recent effort, Jones is helping restore a Catholic church in Ruidoso.
Filming for Jones’ latest movie also took place in Culberson, Brewster and Ector counties.
Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carillo, who coordinated security during filming in the county, said the movie “took over our lives” for about two months, but that it gave the city of Van Horn good publicity. It also gave locals the chance to see themselves on the big screen, as they served as extras.
He described the entire process as “incredible,” from the logistics to the sets, and on and on.
“A 30-second scene takes about two to three hours to film,” Carillo said. Traffic often was disrupted, as much of the filming took place in the center of town.
As the movie filming was wrapping up, the county was expecting a donation to the local hospital as a thank-you.
Reality TV in Oldham County
Vega residents expect to see their 900-resident-strong hamlet on Country Music Television this spring for its reality show, “Popularity Contest.” The show features 10 inner-city young people from the likes of New York City and Los Angeles who are dropped into a rural community to see if they can fit in.
Vega was chosen from six small towns across the nation. Oldham County Judge Don Allred said he credits the local chamber of commerce for actively working to attract the movie industry to the area.
Every three days during the month of filming in the fall 2004, Allred said residents would vote for their favorite citizen at a town meeting. The person with the least votes was escorted out of town, and, at the end of the month, one came out on top.
While townspeople were ready to return to normal after the month-long disruption, Allred said the experience “made us a better community.”
“I met people in Vega I didn’t know,” Allred said.
Contestants stayed in the homes of local residents, and the hosts changed every three days. The contest involved many social events, such as parties and dinners, as each contestant tried to become known among townsfolk.
The judge said by the third or fourth meeting, the production crew realized the show had become more about the community than the contestants. Crew members were amazed at the way residents welcomed them, he said, and were surprised at how well residents know each other.
As another testament to the community, contestants already have made trips back to Vega and are in close contact with many of the locals they became friends with during filming.
This was not the first time the county has had a film crew on hand, Allred said, and the county would welcome the industry again.
Most residents thought the experience was interesting or enjoyable, but a few wanted nothing to do with the project, Allred said.
While filming, the crew leased the county barn and a stock show facility, where town meetings were held. The station also invested into the community, making donations to such organizations as 4-H and the fire department. The winner also received a cash prize that was put back into the community.
The economic impact is not yet known, but the judge said he expects it to reach six figures. Motels, he said, were full as the show had 13 camera crews, one for each contestant, plus three more crews. Dry goods and hardware stores also saw increased business during filming.
As movie crews come and go, Texas communities likely will continue to welcome them – and then breathe a little sigh of relief when they’re gone.
By Tammy Wishard