A still from Toddy Burton's "The Aviatrix" a film shot in Texas.
“Making a movie is like moving a mountain,” says Toddy Burton, the Austin-based filmmaker behind The Aviatrix, a film about a girl struggling with cancer who finds an escape from her troubles by becoming The Aviatrix, a superhero who rockets through outerspace. Currently touring the festival circuit, the film is a fictional short, although it draws heavily from Burton’s own experience with illness and the superhuman power of the creative imagination to offer a little hope. Still, she recalls, “In mind and in reality, I didn’t have any money.”
Over the years, the changing economy has affected location-based film production. When budgets are cut, state-funded film offices and arts councils are among the first to suffer. Yet while many filmmakers are turning to new innovations in funding, there are still traditional state-based roads to navigate in financing an independent project. It is in the best interest of a state to support its local filmmakers, especially smaller cities that hover outside of big-name film destinations like New York or Los Angeles. Thriving film and related media arts industries offer states significant cultural and economic benefits and new development strategies have begun to reflect that.
It isn’t often we hear much about the funding for the arts in Texas, which has traditionally lagged behind most other states, but in the past several years the state has adopted policies to make it easy to create, produce and distribute films, and now provides financial incentives to attract industry activity. Through university-based programs and local initiatives, cities from Houston to Austin are marketing the state to the film industry. The Dallas Film Office, as well, servicing the Dallas Fort Worth area, proudly bills itself as the “filmmaker’s partner from project conception to completion.”
In 2007, the state passed the Texas Film Incentive Program, allotting $22 million to aspiring filmmakers. Now, popular festivals like South By Southwest and the Austin Film Festival have carved out further space for Texas to become a contender in attracting the film industry’s attention. In the past year alone, a handful of independent films, like The Aviatrix, have come out of the Lone Star State, to gain notoriety at festivals and secure theatrical releases. Texas cities are staking their claim on the independent film map, and the state has made up some ground against its competitors, now landing spots on national top ten lists for filmmaking locales.
“There’s a really encouraging environment here,” says Burton of Austin where she developed The Aviatrix as her graduate thesis at The University of Texas at Austin. “It’s a supportive community of creative people.”
As the state capital, Austin secures more state arts grants than any of its in-state peers despite being a fraction of their size. The city’s arts organizations pride themselves on their grassroots fundraising approach. However, according to Graham Davidson a long-time producer and Austin native, the city’s budding film scene is a double edged-coin. “It’s quickly becoming more saturated and funding sources are being inundated.” With more and more people pursuing donations and independent financiers, turning to the state may be an effective strategy.
“The in-kind mentality only goes so far,” Davidson explains. “If you want to step it up a bit then the state film offices can be extremely helpful.” Citing the state’s tax incentive program and other advantages, he states that “at the minimal,” film offices can help streamline the process of securing locations, obtaining access, and accessing tax credits on in-state expenditures, all of which inevitably contribute to financing a film.
“I began with very low ambition,” said Burton, recalling her daunting budgetary restraints. “I was ready to shoot on DVD. I just assumed I’d have to make all these sacrifices.” But, after acknowledging the visual potential of her storyboard and with guidance from Davidson, who convinced her that 35mm was the way to go, Burton realized that funding must be out there. After receiving a grant from The Austin Film Society, she saw The Aviatrix to completion. As it turns out, according to Burton, “the world of superheroes lends itself well to visual filmmaking.” Now, the Austin-based writer and director is staying put to develop her concept into a full-length feature.
With the current state of the economy it just may take superhuman powers to tackle the obstacles of funding an independent film. But the bottom line: in the inevitable bout between film and finance, it’s not unlikely that your city is on your side, if you know where to find it.
Funding Resources for Filmmakers in Texas
Humanities Texas: (formerly the Texas Council for the Humanities) is the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Grants are available for production and post-production of projects grounded in the humanities that are designed for a Texas audience. Visit: www.humanitiestexas.org.
Texas Film Commission: as part of the Office of the Governor, the state film commission has detailed information about the state film incentive policies and available resources for funding. Visit: www.governor.state.tx.us/film
Texas Commission on the Arts: is the state agency that oversees the development of a “receptive climate” for the arts in Texas. Provides grants, information and assistance to artists. Visit www.arts.state.tx.us
Houston Film Commission: is a state organization that helps filmmakers secure operations in all aspects of production, provides detailed resources about the state’s economic incentive programs and runs an annual showcase for local films. Visit: www.houstonfilmcommission.com
Austin Film Commission: as part of the city’s visitor’s bureau, the Austin Film Commission, offers information about available resources for independent filmmakers in the Austin area. Visit: www.austintexas.org/film
The Austin Film Society: is a non-profit educational organization, spearheaded by filmmaker Richard Linklater, which provides local filmmakers with grants and also assists artists in the showcasing of finished works. Visit: www.austinfilm.org
Dallas Film Commission: is the official film commission for the great Dallas Fort Worth area and a department of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau. It provides information about local resources. Visit: www.filmdfw.com