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The Hollywood of Texas


Just outside the window of Pocket’s Grille, a large, rustic water tower announces the name of the small Texas town of Smithville much like the giant HOLLYWOOD sign does in California. Inside the restaurant, people sit around enjoying their meals and conversation amid large signs and props from the 1997 movie Hope Floats. One might think that the owner, Troy Streuer, has a mere obsession with the film, but the truth goes deeper than that; the movie saved his business. “I was literally about to close my door. I’d been open like 8 months or so and I wasn’t making it. And all the sudden, Hope Floats starts filming and everything turns around. I have this deep love for [the film] because it somehow got me over the hump.”

The movie, starring Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr. was the first of more than 80 movies, television shows, and commercials that have filmed in Smithville, bringing in a significant revenue stream and putting the town on the tourist map.

It is All in the Name

Adena Lewis, Director of Tourism and Economic Development for Bastrop County and former President of the Smithville Chamber of Commerce, credits the town’s mayor for putting Smithville in the limelight. “Because of the smart thinking of Vernon Richards, our mayor at the time, the name of the town, Smithville, was used in the film. [The producers] came to him and asked him if they could repaint the name on the water tower to match the name of the town in Arkansas that was in the script. Vernon said ‘that’s kind of an expensive thing to do. Why don’t you just use the name of our town?’ The location guy said that was entirely too complicated a process. Vernon said ‘why don’t you just give me a dollar.’ The guy reached into his billfold and gave him a dollar and Vernon said ‘you’ve just bought the rights to use the name of the town Smithville in your movie.'”

That thinking became a tradition as more films came to Smithville. “If you walk in the Hall of City Hall, you’ll see framed dollar bills or dollar checks from lots of production companies that have come to Smithville,” Lewis added. “It’s become a tradition to collect a dollar from them in order for them to be in Smithville.”

A Location Destination

Many big productions have since been filmed within the few city blocks of Main Street including Doonby starring John Schneider, Beneath the Darkness with Dennis Quaid, Lost in the Sun featuring Josh Duhamel, and Oscar Winner The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt. More recently, the pilot for the television show Kevin (Probably) Saves The World was filmed in town.

Filmmaker Peter Mackenzie wrote and directed the 2013 movie Doonby and had planned on shooting at Spiderwood studios in nearby Elgin, Texas, when a producer recommended Smithville for location shooting. “I drove down and it was incredible. It was exactly what I’d written. ‘Oh yea, there’s the police station. Oh yeah, there’s the bar.’ It was absolutely perfect as a film set. I knew I was in good company because on the other corner the Coen brothers were doing scouting.” Mackenzie sees the value of the town as a shooting location. “You’ve got this little town itself which is a dream to film in with locations everywhere you look. You have this wonderful countryside all around it.”

April Daniels, the Executive Director of the Smithville Chamber of Commerce, echoes Mackenzie’s thoughts. “Mostly people come here because they want to shoot onsite. They want to shoot our beautiful old main street buildings. They’ll put up new awnings for us or they’ll paint the side of our buildings or paint signs. For Kevin (Probably) Saves The World, they dressed up the windows up and down the street.”

Smithville has a film commission that interfaces with the production companies before and during the filming process. Skeeter Sewart, the film commission’s chairman, volunteers his time to help producers find locations. “What we try to do is when the movie contacts me, I show them around and show them what [the] locations are and then give the heads up as to what fees and permits and everything else is required.”

When a film is on location, it brings in a lot of traffic and business for the town. Sallie Blalock owned the Katy House Bed and Breakfast for 20 years. She recalls when The Tree of Life was shooting, the producers went out of their way to minimize the disturbance of bringing in trailers and finding places to park them. “Terrence Malick did not want to disrupt the town at all so he rented every property that was for sale or rent so they didn’t have to bring in trailers and a lot of equipment.” She appreciates the business that production companies bring. “Valero came and did three or four commercials in town and filled up the bed and breakfast for three days in the middle of the week. You can’t beat that.”

If You Film It, They Will Come

While many of the residents appreciate the film industry for the revenue it brings directly, there is another benefit to having movies shot in town. Lewis recalls when she first joined the Chamber of Commerce she noticed that a lot of people coming into town were coming because of Hope Floats. “I don’t think any film has been as popular in bringing tourists to us as that original [film]. People still come here to get married, see the house.”

Sewart also sees the benefit tourism brings to the town. “They come in, they eat at Pockets, they buy gas. If their car breaks down, they get it fixed. It brings in revenue.”

A True Love Story

To say the town has a love affair with the movies is not just an understatement; the movies have a love affair with the town as well. Streuer has made lasting friendships with many of the production crews, many of whom return for new projects. “I think once you get that reputation of being easy to work with from the government standpoint all the way down to the people, I think that really carries.” When the crew members move on to become producers and directors later in their careers, Streuer states that “they remember Smithville and they come back.”

Peter Mackenzie calls Smithville home as well. “These are close family friends, not just acquaintances. All the actors who were on Doonby have all stayed very close to the people of Smithville. They all consider it as a place where they have a bunch of friends. John Schneider is in love with the place and is always around. Several of the other actors become very much a part of the world in that little town in Texas.”

Sallie Blalock recalls Dennis Quaid helping out the town in its time of need as it recovered from the wildfires of 2011. “Dennis Quaid was in the police station to shoot a scene for Beneath the Darkness when he noticed a barrel in the hall and asked what it was for. The Sherriff said it was for Blue Santa and it was usually full of toys for kids. This was right after we had the wildfires and everybody was tapped out and the barrel was empty.” Quaid brought his band in and held a sold out concert and the proceeds went to help the town with the Blue Santa.

The Challenge for the Future

Unfortunately, the love affair has been a bit strained lately as production companies have begun to opt for locations in other states. Lewis explains that it all comes down to money. “Every year at the legislature, we have to fight to get funding for the Texas Film Commission,” she said. “Texas was a leader for a long time, and now we get competition from Georgia and Louisiana. We’d never paid money to get people to come, we’d just given them a percentage back on what they spent in Texas as an incentive. We used to be the leaders on that and now we’re not.”

Sewart sees the changes as well. “The pilot [for Kevin (Probably) Saves The World] was filmed here. Now they film it in Georgia because the incentives are better. If Kevin was being filmed here, because it’s a series, they’d be here every day. Now I hear they’re just outside of Atlanta.”

Despite the legislative woes, Smithville’s old water tower stands like a beacon, bringing a bit of Hollywood to Texas. Movie makers and lovers from all over the country visit Smithville to catch a bit of Hollywood magic. Working amid the props from that first film, Streuer recognizes the magic of the movie making in his restaurant. Even after 20 years since the film’s debut, Streuer still sees the residual impact from Hope Floats in Smithville. “People still come to see the town and they still come in here.”

 

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of TexasLiving.

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Conflicting Interests and the Big Game

Another Super Bowl is done and despite the herculean last minute efforts by both teams, the game came down exactly as the prognosticators (read Vegas bookies) predicted it would. Funny how that happens. I’m not a big sports fan—never have been—and I usually only watch the teams for which I root. Since I live in Houston, I root for the Texans. Any other teams, I really couldn’t care less how they play or who they play and I rarely watch the games. In fact, I rarely watch the Texans because I have noticed that they lose the games when I watch. Of course, they lose the games I don’t watch too, so I’m not sure my strategy of support is working. It’s a moot point now anyway, as the Texans didn’t even make the playoffs this year. While the game had its intrigue, there are other shows on TV with more interest for me.

When I was younger, I watched the Super Bowl because my friends all did and I wanted to be able to talk about it with them the next day at school. This was before it became acceptable to miss work or school the day after the Big Game. Then, I watched primarily for the commercials, because the creativity if the commercials airing during the game were far superior to the regular commercials we were subjected to.

I spend most weekends, to my wife’s eye-roll, clearing out the week’s worth of recording on the DVR. Shows I missed because we were out, or because they aired opposite something else we watched or because the show came on after we went to bed tend to pile up. So, we were binge watching Unforgettable Sunday up until about 7ish. Once we finished the episode, I flipped over to the Super bowl just in time for the Half Time show. I thought the game started at 7, so I was a little disappointed that I missed the first half, not because I wanted to see the plays, but rather because I was expecting to see the commercials.

I’m not the world’s biggest Katy Perry fan. I have some of her music in the library, but there are only 2 or 3 songs of hers that I like, because I am not a teeny-bopper and I am male. Michelle holds her in slightly less esteem than I, even though we both acknowledge that she has an amazing voice and, if she wanted to, she could successfully sing much more mature songs very well. That having been said, I was very impressed with her Half Time show. It was a very elaborate and visually stunning technical achievement that used mechanics, pyrotechnics and holographics to accentuate the musical performance. One of the best aspects of the show, however, was that Katy actually SANG the songs, rather than merely dancing around half-naked to a pre-recorded track like Beyonce’s show last year. Big kudos to the half time show.

After the show, the second half started and I watched a couple of plays from both offenses and was impressed with the way the Seahawks were handling the Patriots in those few minutes of gametime. They stopped the drive with an interception and drove down the field for a touchdown to take a ten-point lead. I liked the way the running back fought through the line to get the yardage rather than falling down like a lot of modern players do these days. Impressive. Then it was time to switch over to something more interesting: Downton Abbey.

While the game I did see was good, and from all reports, the rest of the game was just as good, I had no dog in this hunt. I couldn’t get behind either team in this contest. Since Michelle and I have both become mad Downton Abbey addicts, we would rather watch Robert and Cora try to manage their wayward daughters while Mr and Mrs. Bates avoid a prison term for murder and Carsen and Mrs. Hughes flirt with each other in a stiff, starchy British way. It is the one show that exists on TV Michelle will look forward to watching.

Now that the football season is over for the next two weeks or so (there are those for whom the season never ends) I can look forward to watching shows when the schedule says they are going to start, rather than waiting for the game delays that mess up my DVR recording schedule.

If someone can successfully convince me that the NFL has gone back to the pure love of the game playing and officiating that isn’t predetermined by bookies and league officials, I may start watching games again. Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Depends if Downton Abbey is on opposite.

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We Will Return After These Messages

Tech bloggers have been calling for and planning the end of cable TV for years. The first nefarious plot to kill cable was trying to break the bundles and force cable companies to offer ala carte programming. The second effort involved forcing companies to accept consumer devices with separable security in lieu of a company provided cable box. The problem with that plan was that the consumer electronics industry doesn’t want to make consumer set top boxes. Now the plotters are counting on the internet to break cable’s hold on the TV experience by allowing networks to offer content online. HBO recently decided to offer their premium content to internet customers without the need of a cable subscription. If other content providers follow suit, the anti-cable crowd believe this will kill cable TV as we know it. What they fail to acknowledge is that if content providers offer their content this way, it will kill the TV viewing experience all together.

Linear TV has been the model of watching entertainment for decades. Networks have spent fortunes and countless hours planning the lineup to give viewers the shows they want to watch. By necessity, this meant that the shows fell into a schedule to which viewers had to adapt. People planned their week around the TV and when their favorite shows aired. Now we have internet-based on-demand viewing and people can watch whenever and wherever they want. The problem is that this convenience comes with a hefty price tag. Content is not free and it is paid for by airing commercials. Networks quickly realized that the more commercials they could air, the more revenue they could generate. The networks program TV shows for the sole purpose of bringing more viewers to see the commercials. Linear shows have to fit into an hour-long programming block along with commercials.

Typically, the average “hour-long” show is actually only 42 minutes of content with 18 minutes of advertising broken up into 5 or 6 commercial breaks. That means, on average, a commercial break should be no more than 3-4 minutes long. This barrier is being pushed on linear TV. For example, on TNT, the network averages more than 6 minutes of commercials per break on TV and more than that during online streaming. In order to cram more commercials into the TV lineup, the network makes certain edits to the programming for length. Instead of getting 42 minutes of a show, you might get only 39 or 40, and forget about watching a themed intro to your favorite show. They chop those right off or run commercials over them. Once that content is taken online, TNT forces online streaming viewers to watch almost twice as many commercials per break than traditional linear television because there are no time constraints limiting how minutes are devoted to ad content.

Linear television has been surrendering to the onslaught of commercials since the first broadcast, but now there are whole schools dedicated to nothing more than planning and designing ways to get more advertising in front of as many eyeballs as can be. The push away from linear tv such as is provided by cable is not to give viewers more choices, but rather to remove an impediment to running more commercials.

Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) have given viewers control to skip those intrusive commercials. With the click of a button, the viewer can fast forward over anything on the recording, effectively bypassing that ad for Viagra, or the rerun of the Hershey’s kiss bell Christmas tree. With online streaming, you can also fast forward through the show, but not through the commercials. For those breaks you have to watch EVERY single commercial. In fact, some content providers are considering disabling the DVR ability to fast forward through commercials on certain channels.

One industry journal reports that most cable operators are suffering net losses on video customers year to year. Not huge numbers, mind you—there are plenty of people still enjoying linear television—but any gains in customers come from new internet subscriptions. If the internet kills linear TV, count on paying for the ability to watch commercials as becoming the norm. In the movie “Demolition Man,” Sylvester Stallone wakes up after 2 centuries in cryogenic sleep and finds that people are listening to old commercial jingles as the sole source of entertainment.

The thought terrifies me because it’s not too far off.

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Prostituting Our Culture

Is it any wonder that television is often compared to prostitution? Celebrities who lend their voices or faces to advertisers are accused of “whoring” themselves. This metaphor is not underserved, since at the root of both industries is currency. In order for studios to produce the shows we as a viewing audience like to watch, they have to sell commercial time during the broadcast. In order to get us to watch these commercials, advertisers pay the celebrities we love to watch to perform in them and those actors who do may be compared to a prostitute. The comparison becomes more clear and more apt when the ads appear in the television shows themselves instead of during ad breaks.

Product placement is not new. Any time you see a brand-name cereal box or soda can in a show or movie, the manufacturer paid the producers to put it there. But now, they are actually writing the ad copy into the script of the show. I was watching Ghost Whisperer this weekend when I noticed one of the more egregious examples. The Melinda character had her car destroyed and her husband buys her a new one. He has it delivered to her store with a big red bow on top (the big red bow—in case you didn’t know—is a tried and true car commercial icon) and the characters talk about and demonstrate the features of the car from the remote ignition to the third-row seating. This activity did nothing to advance the plot or subplots of the episode or aid in character development. It was just to sell the car.

Imagine if this goes on. New movies and TV shows will be peppered with pitches that we don’t see coming. These ads will be fully integrated with tomorrow’s classics. Our culture is full of timeless stories that most of us know well enough to recognize from limited exposure. Suppose they rework these classics the way they are infiltrating our new shows.

Darth Vader faces Luke Skywalker on the forest moon of Endor. “I see you’ve constructed a new light saber…and you’re using the improved Energizer Lithium Ion technology for more power and longer life. Your skills are now complete.”

Scarlet O’Hara clings to Rhett Butler as Tara burns around them. “Oh, Rhett! Where will I go? What will I do?

“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn, but if you book 30 days out with Expedia, you can get significant savings on all your travel plans.”

The slaves are facing the Romans and being threatened with mass execution if someone does not point out Spartacus: All of the slaves stand one at a time and say “I am Spartacus!” Then an aid leans into the general and says, “Search Overload? Try Bing. It’s not just a search engine, it’s the first-ever decision engine. From Microsoft.”

Once was a time when ads were pitched during variety shows and game shows, but those were clearly advertising. There has historically been a demarcation between content and commercial. You knew what you were seeing and you had an expectation of hearing the sales pitch. It kept the content pure, so you could allow yourself to become immersed in the story without worry about being sold a bill of goods. What marketing companies are doing now is more subliminal and more devious. Now, they are not just using our favorite celebrities to sell, they are using our favorite characters and stories. I find that a line they should not cross.

 

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