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.