At the Texas Film Awards, Yes to Jonathan Majors and No to Politics

On the scene at the Texas Film Awards, where Red State vs. Blue State politics were almost entirely absent even as filmmaking in the state remains under threat.
Jonathan Majors and Scott Cooper at the Texas Film Awards
Jonathan Majors and Scott Cooper at the Texas Film Awards March 3.
David Brendan Hall

A tent full of celebrities and movie executives in a beautiful setting gave hope for filmmaking this weekend. No, not the Indie Spirits — this was another tent, 1,300 miles away.

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

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

“We’re actually all paying attention to what breaks through at these [regional] festivals,” De Luca said. “It’s imperative to refresh the industry. Otherwise, you’re going to be seeing a billion reboots of Iron Man or Batman… Batman is ours, so I’ll take that 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 realize it because you’re just constantly navigating your reality [there].”

At the ranch that night, Majors spoke about growing up in Georgetown, north of Austin. (He told me at Sundance he remains a huge Dallas Cowboys fan.) The actor left the state when he was 18 and said it was important that he not return until he’d “made something of myself” — only coming back three years ago, when he was 30.

Martindale’s own remarks about the state defied some Texas stereotypes. The 71-year-old Jacksonville, Texas native grew up with a profound case of scoliosis that required she wear a full-torso brace that reached her chin. Unable to take it off even for sleep, she wore it from the age of 13 to 18 — but her classmates were so supportive they elected her to the cheerleading squad, and she still visits her hometown every year.

Texas Film Awards attendees going into the saloon at Willie Nelson's Luck, Texas ranch.
Texas Film Awards attendees going into the saloon at Willie Nelson’s Luck, Texas ranch.David Brendan Hall

The Texas Film Awards also let the well-heeled of Austin and film leaders from across the state raise their paddles to make donations. Prizes included attending a baseball game with 50 friends, Richard Linklater, and others from the cast and crew of “Dazed and Confused.” The evening raised $200,000 for the Austin Film Society, its supremely well-curated cinema (now showing the restoration of “The Rules of the Game” and Icelandic film “Godland”), its 20 acres of studio space at the former Austin Municipal airport (home to CW show “Walker” and production company Rooster Teeth), and grants for rising filmmakers.

“The culture is not just the art and the artist, but the industry side,” Holly Herrick, head of film and media at the Austin Film Society, said. “Rising filmmakers will live in Austin if they can find jobs here. That’s why New York and LA remain places that people live, even though they’re incredibly expensive, because you can get a job.”

Whatever the politics of the honorees or guests, everyone kept it to themselves. “We feel that there is room for everybody in every part of the political spectrum in film, and we see that playing out in Texas,” said Herrick. “We see that there are legislators on both sides of the aisle that are in support of this industry, because they know that it doesn’t benefit people only on one side of the aisle.”

Linklater, whose career is intrinsically linked to Austin, described the unique challenge of working in a state that has a solid incentives program for film productions — but it’s sorely underfunded by a legislature that wants to score points in the culture wars.

“There was a smooth continuity between Ann Richards, George Bush Jr., and Rick Perry,” Linklater told me shortly before the ceremony began. “They all liked importing jobs, they cared about how culture can fuel the economy. And of all mediums, film is the most populist. Everybody loves movies. I hate to see my art form end up in the crosshairs of a political debate. Very few of the films made here are that political, especially in regional filmmaking environments. These are not Hollywood polemical efforts.”

Texas Film Awards Honoree Brunch on March 3, 2023 at AFS Cinema in Austin, Texas. / Photo by
John Pierson, Janet Pierson, Mike Jackson, Margo Martindale, Mike De Luca, and Christian Blauvelt at the press conference on March 3.Heather Leah Kennedy

Linklater’s next film, “Hitman” was originally set in Houston; he rewrote it for New Orleans to take advantage of the incentives available in Louisiana. “We’re exporting a lot of our culture currently because the state isn’t backing our industry,” he said. “There’s no conflict here, there’s just neglect. They like to punish perceived enemies, and arts are the enemy. Arts are seen as progressive, since we’re new ideas and certain attitudes, and the first thing super-conservative people do is they shut down debate, they shut down dialogue, they shut down opposing opinions.”

At the panel earlier that day, Jackson concurred. “Stop politicizing it,” he said. “The arts isn’t about politics. The art is about artistry. We are in a Red State and arts aren’t a priority and I think that’s happening all over this country. So I think we need to just enjoy the art. Red, Blue, we all like to go to cinema. We all like to see theater. We all like to listen to music. That’s not a Red or Blue thing.”

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