The Texas Film Awards in Austin: No Politics, Just Art

At the Texas Film Awards scene, where Red State vs. Blue State politics were almost entirely absent, even as filmmaking in the state remains in jeopardy.

The tent full of celebrities and film executives in a beautiful setting gave hope for the weekend’s filming. No, not Indie Spirits – that was another tent, 1,300 miles away.

The Texas Film Awards took place on March 3rd at Willie Nelson’s famous Luck, Texas ranch outside of Austin. Beneath the crisp Hill Country open-air canopy, Jonathan Majors, Margo Martindale, John and Janet Pierson and Mike De Luca were inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame by hosts such as Luke Wilson, “Justified” creator Graham Yost and Kevin Smith. It was a remarkable night that defied the Red State vs. Blue State tropes that dominate cultural discourse — even as politics make Texas filmmaking even more challenging.

Earlier in the day at the Film Awards press conference, DeLuca praised the state as its source “new voices, underrepresented voices, new stories being told because LA can be a very bubbly community. That’s why I’m so committed to being an advocate for what’s going on here and in so many places around this country and around the world that we can watch from.” The co-chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Picture Group often spends long weekends in Fort Worth, where his children live.

“We’re all really paying attention to what breaks through these (regional) festivals,” De Luca said. “It is essential to refresh the industry. Otherwise, you’re going to see a billion reboots of Iron Man or Batman… Batman is ours, so I’ll take it off the list.”

John Legend’s producing partner Mike Jackson, who moved to the Austin suburbs during the pandemic, lamented the LA bubble: “You don’t even notice it because you’re constantly navigating your reality (there).”

That night at the ranch, Majors talked about growing up in Georgetown, north of Austin. (At Sundance, he said he’s still a huge Dallas Cowboys fan.) The actor left the state when he was 18 and said it was important not to return until he “made something of myself” — just three years ago returned. , when he was 30 years old.

Martindale’s comments about his home state defied some Texas stereotypes. Born in Jacksonville, Texas, the 71-year-old grew up with severe scoliosis, which required him to wear a chin-length, full-torso brace. She couldn’t even take it off to sleep, wearing it between the ages of 13 and 18 – but her classmates supported her so much that she was selected for the cheerleading squad, and she still visits her hometown every year.

Attendees of the Texas Film Awards enter the saloon of Willie Nelson's Luck, Texas ranch.

Attendees of the Texas Film Awards enter the saloon of Willie Nelson’s Luck, Texas ranch.

David Brendan Hall

The Texas Film Awards also allowed Austin’s well-heeled and the state’s film leaders to raise their oars for donations. Prizes included attending a baseball game with 50 of his friends, Richard Linklater and others from the cast and crew of “Dazed and Confused.” The evening raised $200,000 for the Austin Film Society, the extremely well-curated cinema (currently restoring “The Rules of the Game” and the Icelandic film “Godland”) and 20 acres of studio space at the former Austin Municipal Airport (the home to CW’s “Walker” and production company Rooster Teeth), as well as grants to emerging filmmakers.

“Culture is not just the art and artist side, but the industry side as well,” said Holly Herrick, director of film and media at the Austin Film Society. “Aspiring filmmakers will live in Austin if they find work here. That’s why New York and LA are still places where people live, even though they’re incredibly expensive, because you can get a job.”

Whatever the politics of the honorees or guests were, everyone kept it to themselves. “We feel like there’s room in the film for everybody on every part of the political spectrum, and we see it taking place in Texas,” Herrick said. “We’re seeing lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who support this industry because they know it’s not just for people on one side of the aisle.”

Linklater, whose career has largely been tied to Austin, described the unique challenge of working in a state that has solid incentive programs for film production — but is severely underfunded by a legislature bent on scoring points in the culture wars.

“It was a seamless continuity between Ann Richards, George Bush Jr. and Rick Perry,” Linklater said shortly before the ceremony began. “They all liked to import jobs, they cared about how culture could fuel the economy. And of all mediums, film is the most populist. Everyone loves movies. I hate that my art is in the crosshairs of a political debate. Very few of the films made here are political, especially in a regional filmmaking environment. These are not Hollywood polemical efforts.”

Texas Film Awards Brunch on March 3, 2023 at AFS Cinemas in Austin, Texas.  / Photo:

John Pierson, Janet Pierson, Mike Jackson, Margo Martindale, Mike De Luca and Christian Blauvelt at the March 3 press conference.

Heather Leah Kennedy

Linklater’s next film, “Hitman,” was originally set in Houston; rewrote it for New Orleans to take advantage of the incentives available in Louisiana. “Right now, we export most of our culture because the state does not support our industry,” he said. “There is no conflict here, only neglect. They like to punish perceived enemies, and the arts are the enemy. Art is seen as progressive because we are new ideas and certain attitudes, and the first thing superconservative people do is to shut down debate, dialogue, opposing opinions.”

At the panel that day, Jackson agreed. “Stop politicking,” he said. “The arts are not about politics. Art is about art. We live in a red state and art is not a priority, and I think that’s what’s happening all over the country. So I think we should enjoy art. Red, blue, we all love going to the cinema. We all love to watch theatre. We all love listening to music. It’s not a red or blue thing.”

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