Christopher Swope was GOVERNING's executive editor.E-mail: email@example.com
Last week, Texas followed in the footsteps of many states by passing a big tax break for movie productions. The hope, as always, is to build up the best little Hollywood outside of California.
Here's the catch: If you take the tax credits, your film can't say anything bad about Texas.
That's right. Don't even think about making a film that portrays, say, 19th century slavery in Texas. Your film about the JFK assassination may have to skim past the minor detail of it occurring in Dallas. And when you make a documentary about the Texas legislature, following in the new tradition of state legislative movies, you may not want to mention what a boneheaded idea this law was.
OK, these are extreme examples. Still, it's fair to ask: Who will be the taste cops minding Texas' image on the silver screen? And how will they decide which films qualify for tax credits and which ones don't?
The bill gives that power to the Texas Film Commission, a niche economic development shop under the governor's office. The legislative language gives the commission wide discretion to decide for itself what amounts to a negative portrayal of the Lone Star State:
The office is not required to act on any grant application and may deny an application because of inappropriate content or content that portrays Texas or Texans in a negative fashion, as determined by the office, in a moving image project. In determining whether to act on or deny a grant application, the office shall consider general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the citizens of Texas.
I'm guessing that if Sacha Baron Cohen wants to make a Borat sequel in Houston, his moviefilm won't qualify for the tax credits. That's easy enough -- however anathema it may be to freedom of speech. What's more troubling is the idea of a director having to scrub her script in order to meet government approval.
Of course, there's a simple way around this problem: make your picture somewhere other than Texas. In the movies, Vancouver can pass for Dallas as easily as Albuquerque can pass for San Antonio. Ultimately, this is why the Texas law is so dumb. The whole point of having tax credits is to create a steady stream of jobs for all the technicians, carpenters and caterers that work behind the scenes to bring movies to life. It's not to somehow create propaganda for your state. Hollywood will surely notice the gesture Texas is making, but the chutzpah may drive away more productions than the tax breaks attract.
Written and compiled by staff writers and editors, GOVERNING View is an on-the-ground, and sometimes behind-the-scenes, look at the topics we're covering in print and online. From notes on what's up in statehouses, county courthouses and city halls, to encounters with people, places and things, GOVERNING View is a window into the side of state and local government you don't always see.