Texas Film Commission chief weighs 'Waco' standoff and funding issues

The Dallas Morning News/May 29, 2009

It's been an odd month for Bob Hudgins, director of the Texas Film Commission. First came charges of censorship; then came word that the future of the Texas movie industry could be determined by Hurricane Katrina.

To recap: The Texas Film Commission unofficially rejected filming incentives for Waco, a planned big-screen tale of the 1993 raid on David Koresh's Branch Davidian compound. The commission cited a previously untested 2007 provision barring incentive payments to movies that "portray Texas or Texans in a negative light."

Meanwhile, the Legislature may tie an additional $40 million of the state's film incentives program funds to federal FEMA funds owed the state in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The move essentially would make the funding boost a one-time measure without a permanent funding source.

So is Hudgins' move censorship? And, as the Austin American-Statesman wondered on its editorial page, would this content provision have kept Giant and The Last Picture Show from shooting in the state? The first answer depends on who's talking. The second answer is no because the content provision only applies to films based on actual events.

First off, Waco producers have yet to submit an incentives application. Hudgins says he showed the script to both a law enforcement official featured prominently in the script and a journalist closely involved with the story. Both people, whom Hudgins declined to identify, questioned the accuracy.

"If they are depicting real events and they don't do it accurately, we've got to say no to them," Hudgins said. "They can show scoundrels as long as they are accurately portrayed."

Waco co-writer and director Rupert Wainwright, who remains interested in a $30 million Texas shoot if incentives are offered, wants to know what the alleged inaccuracies are. "We have spent a lot more time investigating this story than the head of the film commission of Texas has," he said.

That includes, he says, talks with retired FBI agent Byron Sage, former assistant U.S. attorney Bill Johnson and a few surviving Branch Davidians. He and co-writer James Hibberd, a University of Texas grad now writing for The Hollywood Reporter, also scoured court transcripts and brought on documentarian Michael McNulty (Waco: The Rules of Engagement) as a consultant.

Wainwright goes so far as to hint that unnamed federal officials have put pressure on Texas officials to quash the film. That's a charge Hudgins flatly denies.

It's a film standoff that points to the vagueness of the content clause, added in 2007 by Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, in response to the film Glory Road, which some say exaggerated racism within college basketball. Interestingly, Hudgins says the script for the long-delayed film Tulia, about a racism-tinged Texas drug bust, has been OK'd for incentives.

Part of the film flap may stem from how fact is portrayed on the big screen. "We're not making a documentary," Wainwright said. "We're making a docudrama. At every step of the way, we've put truthfulness at the top of our priorities. But we are forced to condense characters. We have to condense time."

Don Stokes, president of film lobbying group Texas Motion Picture Alliance, said initial film incentives funding wouldn't have been approved in 2007 without the content provision.

"The reality is calling it censorship is a bit of a stretch," Stokes said. "It's saying we as the state of Texas will not help fund your film. You're still free to shoot it here."

The likely next North Texas recipient of incentives? An unnamed film from Andrew Stevens, who has shot five films in Texas in the last three years. His Tommy and the Cool Mule, featuring Ice-T as the voice of a talking mule, comes out on DVD in June, and Fire From Below airs on the Sci Fi Channel in September.

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