Three years ago, a Texas-native movie director and producer visited Fort Worth. They scouted for locations to shoot a Hollywood feature film. 

In the second half of 2019, actors Luke Wilson and Martin Sheen were seen at various parts of Fort Worth, including the Masonic Temple in downtown Fort Worth, Gateway Park and Farrington Field. They regularly had lunch with local film crews and staff.

On June 11 of this year, Hollywood-style red carpets will be rolled out and Fort Worth will be in the limelight for the world premiere of the Sony Pictures Classics-distributed “12 Mighty Orphans.” 

Those in the Fort Worth film industry hope the movie sets the stage for more productions to be shot locally. 

“Lots of content can now be built around it. It’s a huge opportunity for the city,” said Jessica Christopherson, Fort Worth Film commissioner. “There are opportunities that will follow from a tourism standpoint, too, with tours and people just wanting to see where the film was shot in Fort Worth and learn more about the original story, too.”

The movie, directed by Ty Roberts, tells the uniquely Fort Worth story of a football team formed in the Masonic Home and School of Texas, an orphanage in the southeast part of the city. During the Great Depression, legendary coach Rusty Russell took over the team and developed the players who eventually made it all the way to the state championship.

Production crew of “12 Mighty Orphans” in between filming scenes at the Masonic Temple in Downtown Fort Worth. (Fort Worth Film Commission)

News of the World,” another real-life North Texas story was recently turned into a feature film and released last year. The Tom- Hanks-starer movie bagged four Oscar nominations, including a nod for best cinematography. However, although the viewers are treated to striking views of North Texas landscapes, the movie was shot in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

Meanwhile, famed director Martin Scorsese started production of his new movie – a murder mystery based on real events surrounding a Native American tribe and a former Texas Ranger – in Oklahoma in April. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. 

Why not film in Fort Worth instead of Santa Fe or Oklahoma? Fort Worth, or North Texas in general, offers desirable locations, technical support and a skilled labor pool for Hollywood. But, according to personnel in the local filmmaking and video production industry, the failure to attract as many blockbusters boils down to a lack of financial incentives for filmmakers.

“What we need is to maintain strong state economic incentives,” Fort Worth film producer Red Sanders said. “And these aren’t just handouts for Hollywood, as some of the elected officials might call it.”

Texas’ state-sponsored incentives for filmmakers have dwindled in recent years. At the same time, nearby states have upped their funding.

So, Sanders, joined by other local filmmakers, is taking matters into his own hands by creating a separate fund in addition to any state incentives film projects would receive.

“There’s this idea that rising tide lifts all boats. So I think we’ve seen the tide rise,” Sanders said. “There’s still a lot more room to grow.”

Focusing the lens on Fort Worth

Of all the large Texas cities, Fort Worth was the last to establish a film commission. Since its founding in 2015, the Fort Worth Film Commission has worked to contribute to the city’s economic development.

According to a 2019 proclamation from the Office of the Governor, the Fort Worth Film Commission has generated $46 million in economic impact and created over 4,000 jobs in its initial four years of founding. 

However, Sanders said he thinks Fort Worth has potential for more. According to a study, the film and visual industry in Austin yields $280 million annually. Austin also provides tax incentives to film projects.

By contrast, the City of Fort Worth does not offer any incentives to filmmakers. 

Fort Worth Film Commission lists incentives as one of its top long-term priorities. 

To fill the funding gap, Sanders is forming a nonprofit organization that will raise funds for creative people in the filmmaking industry. The fund has not officially launched yet, but the seed funding is about to be completed, he said, after which more details will be disclosed.

“It would exist to help lessen the burden on the state from an incentive standpoint,” Sanders said. “When people are trying to compare what they get in New Mexico, what they get in Louisiana to what they get if they come shoot here, we can up the ante through a public nonprofit.”

The plan is to ask private individuals and foundations for donations to the fund. The money raised will be invested on targeted film projects from across the country. Depending on the success of the films, the gains would be diverted back to the fund to be invested on future film projects.

“There’s a lot of stories that are shot here and considered to be shot here that would qualify for a fund like this. It would hopefully bring more film and TV projects here in Fort Worth,” Sanders said. “The other two people I’m starting (the fund) with, they also have ties to Fort Worth. We want it to be a statewide thing. But it’s founding roots all go back to Fort Worth.”

“There’s this idea that rising tide lifts all boats. So I think we’ve seen the tide rise. There’s still a lot more room to grow.”

Red Sanders, film producer and president of Red Productions

Along with the big-name Hollywood projects, the fund will also boost the burgeoning film and video production industry of Fort Worth. About half-a-dozen film and video studios have opened in Fort Worth within the last five years, according to the Fort Worth Film Commission.

Currently, 531 film production crew members are registered with the film commission who can work on a variety of film projects. All are from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

The workforce include talent categories such as: animators, visual effect artists, cameraperson, script writer, stunt coordinator, etc.

The film industry is broad and “extends beyond what people might think as the traditional film and television,” Christopherson said. 

“A lot of positive things are happening right now,” she said. “So you really want to keep that momentum going and try to nurture the creative class we have here as much as possible as well.”

Chasing the light

When much of the world was at a standstill last June because of the pandemic, film director Erica Silverman and her husband, musician Robert Ellis, moved from Austin to Fort Worth.

Alongside being a financially motivated choice, the decision to move to Fort Worth was a creative one as well. 

“The pandemic has rewired your brain on how you think about work,” Silverman said. “You want to love where you’re living because you spend most of the time there.”

Silverman said they have enjoyed living in Fort Worth, which has a large community of talented creatives.

Ellis produces many of his music records, including his most recent album, at Niles City Sound in Near Southside. Since coming to Fort Worth, Silverman has shot several music videos for Ellis. She has previously worked with the likes of Gregg Allman and Avril Lavigne.

 Erica Silverman and Casey McGrath directed “Topo Chico,” from Robert Ellis’ 2019 album ‘Texas Piano Man.”

She currently offices at Backlot Studio and Coworking space, which features a pre-lit 2 wall cyc, a green room, make-up room and a 14-foot grid for filmmaking.

“I’ve worked with certain people who are around the area before, and it’s been awesome,” Silverman said. “Now, since I’ve been working here a little more, I just keep hiring everyone from around the area. I’m getting to know more amazing people.” 

Christopherson said the film commission is in talks with several new movie and TV projects.  Television series with high commercial value and independent films are its top targets, she said.

“There’s so much collaboration and footwork that people are willing to step in and help,” Christopherson said. “That’s been truly a selling point. We do have these different districts and community partners who are really willing to get behind this because they see the opportunity in it.”

Lights, camera, and… incentives

Silverman’s next project is a feature film set in Florida. She said if there were good enough incentives for her to shoot in Texas, she might have considered it.

“We don’t offer what those other cities offer. We don’t offer what other states offer,” she said. So, like, if we offered more of an incentive for people to come here, then people would make more stuff here.”

Film production companies filming in Georgia enjoyed an estimated $915 million in tax credits in 2017 – the most generous film incentive program in the nation. That is why an increasing number of new movies and television series thank Atlanta when the credits roll.

Oklahoma offers a cash rebate of up to 37% on film expenditures made in the state. New Mexico also offers up to a 35% refundable tax credit program. Los Angeles provides subsidies and tax breaks to entertainment projects in addition to California’s state incentives. 

“Georgia has unlimited cap on their incentives. I don’t think we need that. But we’re competing. And next-door Louisiana (has) a $150 million cap, New Mexico (has) a $100 million cap. Even Oklahoma has a really great rebate program,” Sanders said, adding it’s similar to states and cities offering businesses incentives to relocate or expand.

For the 2020-2021 biennium, the Texas Legislature funded the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, which provides incentives to filmmakers, with $50 million. 

At the program’s inception in 2007, the Legislature had set aside $62 million for it. In 2013, about $95 million flowed into the program.

“We’re in the legislative session right now,” Sanders said. “(Funding the film industry) is a thing that is always, every session, debated. So we want to make sure that we at least keep it where we are at, if not grow it.”

Sanders said the nonprofit fund would supplement the costs the state isn’t prepared to provide.

“I hope it just continues to grow and would like to stay on this nice upward trajectory we’ve had,” Sanders said about Fort Worth’s film industry. “I’d love to see Fort Worth have a film shot here that goes to the Oscars.” 

Note: This story was edited to clarify both the director and producer of “12 Mighty Orphans” are from Texas.

Neetish Basnet is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at neetish.basnet@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Neetish Basnet

Neetish Basnet is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. He has previously worked as a business reporter at Fort Worth Business Press and Dallas Business Journal. He graduated from University...

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