The news that 20th Century Fox Television is shooting an X-Men-connected pilot in Dallas created plenty of excitement in these parts. Understandably so: Marvel properties, from the silver screen Avengers to the televised B-team spin-offs, make and spend more money than Stark Industries in an up year, and there is something immeasurably cool about knowing superheroes—OK, mutants—are appearing on sets built in your own backyard.
It remains to be seen whether the pilot (working title: Gifted) will receive an order for a full season, although it’s difficult to imagine Fox executives turning down more episodes of anything even tangentially featuring X-Men. Just landing the pilot was a big get for the Dallas Film Commission, whose director, Janis Burklund, is nevertheless concerned that the project could soon be another one that got away.
“The odds of it getting picked up are very high,” Burklund says. “The odds of it staying in Dallas are very high if we get state film incentives.”
That’s an uncomfortably big if considering the tenor of ongoing discussion in Austin, where state House legislators last week discussed an amendment to end Texas’ moving image incentive program, which provides tax rebates for up to 20 percent of production costs for films, television shows, and video games made in state. Conservative critics trying to close a budget shortfall say the program amounts to corporate welfare, the economic benefits of in-state film production are negligible, and the money could be better spent on, for example, single mothers. There is also an unavoidable conflict over cultural values and priorities at work here, which explains why the words “Mongolian death worm,” the title of a 2010 SyFy Television movie shot in Texas, were repeatedly uttered in the august halls of the Capitol last week. (For more on all of the above, we wrote about this debate in January.)
If the program takes a dramatic hit when lawmakers finalize a budget in May, there will be no more Mongolian Death Worms in Texas. And there will almost certainly be no more Marvel TV show in Dallas, Burklund says.
The Dallas Film Commission has its own budget for incentives, big enough only to serve as a “sweetener” for the kind of large productions that keep North Texas crews employed for long stretches of time, and feed money back into the local economy. The Marvel pilot, for example, will receive about $50,000 from the city, a paltry sum compared to the millions in state rebates it’s due, Burklund says. Such a high-profile pilot didn’t land in Dallas by accident: Showrunner Matt Nix, who previously created the short-lived Dallas-set show The Good Guys, had fond memories of working here, and knew he could count on reliable crews.
But all of the city’s charm won’t mean much if the state incentives dry up, in which case the Marvel TV show would take its production to greener pastures, in states with more generous incentives, Burklund says. New Mexico and California have in recent years proved themselves adequate Texas geography doubles, and Georgia’s well-funded program has helped earn the state’s film and TV industry $7 billion a year.
Production for a full season of the Marvel television show, which has filmed in Deep Ellum and built sets at Fair Park in recent weeks, could generate anywhere from $35 to $45 million in local spending, Burklund says. You could add that number on to the $219 million Burklund estimates the Dallas-Fort Worth area already lost in 2016 from productions that expressed interest in filming here, but opted out because of the state’s already relatively meager incentives. (That lost business tally includes only those 14 projects that the film commission knows were scared off.)
A loss of state funding could also cast in doubt the future of another high-profile television show now filming its second season in Dallas, the USA crime drama Queen of the South. A Dallas Film Commission handout touts the economic benefits of that production, and Burklund says the city could see a Breaking Bad effect once the show hits Netflix, referring to the tourism dollars generated in New Mexico by fans curious to see the stomping grounds of Walter White.
With Queen of the South and the Marvel pilot, as well as numerous commercials and smaller films, now shooting in Dallas, North Texas film crews are in business. But take a big enough bite out of the state incentives program, and the glamorous productions begin leaving, followed by the crews, and the infrastructure for high-profile shoots, Burklund says. The city film commission would be forced to focus almost exclusively on commercials and smaller films, although there would probably be a drop in those as well.
Burklund says anyone with an interest in a robust Texas film industry should call their representative. Those who think that money could be better spent elsewhere can, of course, do the same. And if the Marvel show is picked up and leaves Dallas behind, we can still watch on TV. We’ll always have this 1981 comic of the X-Men at the State Fair.