Copeland discusses future of Texas film industry


By Marc Speir

University News Service


SAN MARCOS -- Texas State University-San Marcos has ushered its fair amount of film and theatre talent to the nation with actors Powers Boothe (24, Deadwood, Sin City), Julie White (Best Actress Tony Award, Nadine on the television show Grace Under Fire, upcoming role on Desperate Housewives) and film director Thomas Carter (Coach Carter, Save the Last Dance, Swing Kids).

While the Department of Theatre and Dance at Texas State offers only limited courses in film, including directing for film and television and the business of film, there is an increasing interest in filmmaking at the university and in the Lone Star State. The rise of digital technology has also led to a sharp increase in aspiring filmmakers, with Texas State holding digital film festivals the last couple of years.

“It’s pretty easy for anyone to go out and buy a camera now,” said Tom Copeland, adjunct professor of the business of film and problems in theatre courses at Texas State. “Sadly, what is often overlooked is the most important process – the story.”

Copeland, a former student of the theatre program at Texas State, former director of the Austin-based Texas Film Commission from 1995 to 2005 and current senior vice president of Austin’s Villa Muse Studios, says that the film industry in Texas continues to mature.

“In the 70s you went to Dallas because of the Dallas TV series and various and sundry others that were there,” Copeland said. “Thanks to the (Texas Film) Commission, Hollywood came here...and then to Austin because of costs -- but it’s all cyclical, and it all changes.”

Copeland is a player in the Texas film industry, seeing the growing pangs of a business loosening its monopolies in the cities of New York and Los Angeles and opening up to areas such as Austin. Beginning his career with Austin City Limits, Copeland gravitated toward film and television production. During his 22 years at the Texas Film Commission, he saw an unmistakable metamorphosis. 

“When Texas was a right to work state there were a lot of producers coming here to avoid the unions that were just killing them,” Copeland said. “It was all fine and good until they started abusing their power (against non-union workers) and now everyone (in film) is unionized…not just in Texas, but nationwide.”

Nevertheless, Austin still enjoys a reputation as a cost-effective city with the most open environment for independent filmmakers and a variety of locales.

“You have six different looks in a 30-40 mile range that could look like almost anywhere,” Copeland. “The weather is usually good, too.”

Copeland says Austin became a Mecca for moviemakers because of the artistic community and the universities located in central Texas.

“The guys like (Richard) Linklater, (Robert) Rodriguez and Mike Judge really picked it up in the 90s,” Copeland said. “Things have leveled out a bit and we need to pick up the incentives to bring people here.”

While head of the TFC, Copeland did get incentive breaks passed by the state legislature to entice major studio productions. Unfortunately, his efforts were in vain when the funds were never allocated.

Two years after Copeland left the TFC, a scaled-down version similar to his bill was passed this summer advocating $20 million up front that could be awarded to productions spending considerable money on projects in Texas. The new bill is an attempt to recapture film business lost to incentive-laden Louisiana.

“Louisiana has gone a little too far with their breaks,” Copeland said, acknowledging that the state may not be stimulating its economy enough to cover all the incentives they’ve awarded. “I think (film companies) will start looking back at Texas again.”

Copeland says that companies retreating to untested locations for such breaks probably won’t save as much as they hope after compounding the costs of assembling an outside crew and feeding and lodging them.

“Austin has the indie stuff and that’s the way you grow an industry anyway,” Copeland said. “There are great ensembles already in place here that can read each other’s minds, not like (incentive-laden places) that bring in people that don’t know each other and can’t work together.”

These are the types of problems that Copeland addresses in his courses at Texas State. 

His classes are designed to critique film as an investment, factoring in a number of positions required for movie making and meeting the demands of tight schedules and meticulous budgets.

The struggle for creative control is often tied up with monetary resources in the development of making a film from a conceptual idea to pre-production preparation and the filming process.

“Sometimes my students have a thing like a train hitting a car in their script,” Copeland said. “I have to look at them and ask if they think they can really pull this off.”

While Copeland says he enjoys working part-time at the university, he says he’d like to put together a film program at Texas State.

“It wouldn’t need to be a traditional RTF (radio, television and film) department,” Copeland said. “My idea is more of a trade school approach with real ideas of what the jobs are and how to do it.”

Quick to give honest advice, Copeland maintains that the way to make it in film is to work up the ladder.

“You’ve got to be willing to do grunt work,” Copeland said. “That’s actually why I came here to Texas State to teach in the theatre program because these students have a real strong work ethic.”

While many students are disappointed by the realization that they won’t start out as executives or directors, Copeland says it is an attitude that must be understood.

“There are tons of guys out there with RTF degrees selling cars or doing something other than their degree because they didn’t have a realistic approach to how this business works,” Copeland said.

Copeland’s many contacts place students at internships nationwide, giving him a chance to utilize his oversized Rolodex.

“Most of them work as production assistants to start out,” Copeland said. “The question every one of my interns must say yes to is, ‘can you work with other people?’”

 Copeland plans to continue consulting with Villa Muse Studios and would like to eventually form a collaboration between the studio and the university.

He says that further inter-departmental work between the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Department of Theatre and Dance would also benefit film studies at Texas State.

“These are two outstanding programs at our school,” Copeland said. “We just need to focus them a little more for film.”