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Can Austin stop 'Friday Night' blitz?

City officials, lawmakers fighting to keep NBC series from being picked off by New Mexico, Louisiana

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Texas football in the wilds of New Mexico? The bayous of Louisiana? It's one thing to pass off Toronto as New York City in movies and TV, but small-town Texas football is another matter entirely.

"Friday Night Lights," NBC's highly acclaimed drama series created by filmmaker Peter Berg and based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's book about Odessa football, has been shooting in Central Texas for more than a year. The crew and supporting cast are heavily local, and the California imports have blended seamlessly into Austin.

Michael Muller NBC

'Friday Night Lights,' an NBC series about small Texas town's high school football team based on a book by the same name, infuses Austin's economy with about $1.5 million per episode.

The show's big names, including Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, hang out at local spots such as Jo's Hot Coffee. Younger stars, such as Aimee Teegarden and Taylor Kitsch, proclaim their love for the city in videos on NBC's Web site.

But the city's days in the network spotlight might not last beyond this season. Other states are aggressively courting the production, hoping to steal the series and the $1.5 million per episode it brings to Austin.

Everyone from the governor of Texas to former Austin Mayor Bruce Todd are lining up to help the fictional Dillon Panthers stay here if the show is picked up for another season. State legislation could be fast-tracked.

"I am fighting a really tough fight right now with NBC, because the city and the state of Texas are not coming up with incentive money to keep us here," said co-executive producer and Austin native Sarah Aubrey. "There are obviously lots of creative benefits to being in Austin: the local casting has been incredible, as have the locations people who have made the show what it is by finding these great places to film and the really strong local crew base.

"Unfortunately, all that gets outweighed when you're talking about savings of $100,000 per episode" — which would be the case if the show moved to a state that offers economic incentives, such as Louisiana or New Mexico, she said. And both are pursuing "Friday Night Lights."

Aubrey is working informally with Todd in hopes of negotiating a deal.

A meeting between production executives and City Manager Toby Futrell is scheduled for Feb. 26.

"It seems to me there has to be an amount that's pleasing and acceptable to the constituents, benefits the community and also works for the network," Todd said. "My hope is the resolution involves both the state and the city of Austin. I would like to see Texas as the choice for this type of production. It's tremendously important to the state."

Futrell said the city already clears hurdles to the show's production, such as closing streets, waiving fees and providing city facilities. She does not know what else the city can do to help until the meeting with the producers.

"It is not always just about a direct rebate of some form of tax," Futrell said. "There are many other creative ways we help."

She said the city certainly benefits from the show's direct financial contribution, including jobs and sales tax. But there is also a less tangible gain.

"Part of what Austin is known for is its cultural vitality, the creative class," Futrell said. "Things like films and TV series contribute to the appeal of our community to the creative class. It helps brand Austin."

If the city offers any sort of tax incentive agreement, Futrell said it will have to follow the city's economic development policy, which requires the recipient to meet certain performance measures before receiving any tax rebates.

According to Gary Bond, director of the Austin Film Commission, "Friday Night Lights" infuses the local economy with about $1.5 million per episode. Over the course of the season, that amounts to about $33 million.

That figure includes local salaries, housing rentals, set constructions, catering and myriad goods and services the production requires.

Since neighboring states began offering incentives in 2003, Texas has lost $704 million in production budgets and 4,500 jobs to incentive-offering competitors, according to the Texas Film Commission.

New Mexico, according to its state film commission, saw its production revenues soar from $8 million in 2002, before incentives were enacted, to $428 million in 2006.

Gov. Rick Perry has proposed a $20 million appropriation in general revenue for the Texas Film Commission to attract film and TV projects to the state. On Friday, officials said legislative leaders want to expedite the approval of the funding (which could become available in May rather than in September) to keep projects such as "Friday Night Lights" from leaving.

"We want to keep them here," said Ted Royer, Perry's deputy press secretary. "We want to try for two-third passage (of the funding package) so it can take effect immediately. That would make them eligible for incentives funding immediately."

Royer said Perry aides have been actively involved in trying to keep the show in Austin.

"Other states will throw truckloads of cash to try to take these productions away from Texas," Royer said. "Texas doesn't have to do that because we have so many other things working to our benefit: great crews, a large pool of talent, geographic locations that make for great shooting."

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, has filed House Bill 1496 that would make changes in the Texas Film Incentive Fund — approved by lawmakers two years ago but never funded — to guide how the $20 million can be spent.

"Everyone is talking with us on the city and state level, but it's really a matter of timing," Aubrey said. "We want to work with them. We're not demanding X amount of dollars by a certain date. We just want a plan in place, because things aren't moving as quickly as we need. In the next six to eight weeks, we need to know."

NBC could decide by the end of April whether to pick up the show for a second season.

Ratings for "Friday Night Lights" have been low, finishing third or fourth in its Tuesday time slot and not much better after moving to Wednesday nights, but the show has been competing with powerhouses "American Idol" and "Dancing with the Stars."

Last week, however, the show ticked upward, and NBC entertainment chief Kevin Reilly is a strong supporter.

All of which means the chance for a second season is good. Whether Texas high-school football remains in Texas is the question.

"It makes me sick to think of shooting Dillon, Texas, football somewhere outside the state," Aubrey said. "I wish I could say we couldn't do this somewhere else. It would be difficult but not impossible. We do have to be good partners (with NBC), especially for a show that isn't a home run in terms of getting renewed."

Staff writers Kate Alexander and Mike Ward contributed to this report.; 445-3608

'Friday Night' sights

University of Texas Football coach Mack Brown isn't the only local to make a cameo on the NBC series. You might have seen one of these Central Texas locations so far this season:

Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar Boulevard

Broken Spoke

Capital Chevrolet

Cheapo Discs

Del Valle High School

EZ's restaurant on North Lamar Boulevard

Landing Strip

Millennium Center

Pflugerville High School (in the pilot)

Smitty's Market in Lockhart

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