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Nothing's ringing anymore in some offices around the country. The combination of an ailing economy, dwindling cash from fewer film shoots and a drop in tax revenues has shuttered several commissions.
Closings or significant cutbacks have come in Ohio, Massachusetts, Michigan, Wisconsin, Colorado, Arizona, St. Louis and Orlando. Closer to home, Dallas and Fort Worth severed their joint commission in another funding shakeup in 2002. The prior year, the state said Dallas had pulled in an estimated $75 million in film productions, compared to $117 million for Austin and $18 million for Houston. (Ferguson says Houston figures the revenues far more conservatively than the state.)
Ferguson knows the budget stresses well. His job as an assistant in the commission was cut in 1991 when then-mayor Kathy Whitmire ordered the convention bureau to trim expenses during a city fiscal crisis. The commission director wound up leaving instead, and Ferguson soon returned as the director. His office's budget is financed by a portion of the hotel room tax proceeds.
Today, Houston is back wrestling with projected shortfalls of several million dollars, although there have been no calls for paring back the commission's $341,000 annual budget.
"If Rick is successful in booking one film, it pays that 341 back tenfold," says Jordy Tollett, head of the convention bureau. "And he's better than that, with a good array of relationships. It's a very wise investment."
As for the film commission's efforts, Vaughan and several others interviewed lauded Ferguson's abilities. "You talk to other people from other states and from L.A., and you get a sense that we're even luckier than we thought to have him and the commission," he says. "They're an extra team you have working for you."
Some other regions have been lobbying to increase incentives for filmmakers, although battered governmental budgets are unlikely to yield to more discounts. New Mexico has a relatively new program that actually makes the state an investor in films that shoot there and use local workers.
Ferguson would welcome more help in attracting projects. He's also eager to be rid of the disincentives, such as the marathon street work that has shooed off films with urban settings. "It has made it a little difficult, unless the scripts have got something to do with road construction," he says through a wince.
Movie studio representatives were mute about Houston and its problems. A former crewman for a film shot in Houston two years ago lauded the cooperation he experienced here, but says that's expected at any location.
"Houston shouldn't beat itself up about the situation," the film staffer says. "There's nothing particularly attractive about Houston -- or bad, for that matter. These are financial decisions. Until the finances change, the situation isn't going to change."
Ferguson feels that, just like Hollywood's ever-shifting preferences from comedies to musicals and war films to horror, the major productions will be heading back eventually.
"Anybody who has been around for a long time realizes that the film and video [industries] are very cyclical," he says. "In all aspects -- story lines, talent and more -- everything is cyclical."
Ferguson likes to cooperate with other film offices, realizing that his commission occasionally needs reciprocal help for a local project. But he admits that some of the requests, like a certain call from Winnipeg, are hard to endure.
The makers of the Enron movie, which had turned down Houston as a location, had a request for him: Could he send some Texas license plates, so the movie would be more authentic?
"Every time you put a stamp on something and send it off to Canada," he says, "it kind of hurts a little bit."