Film Society seeks to lure productions

By STEVE CLARK Staff Writer

Brownsville Film Society co-founders Hilda Ledezma and Rene Rhi stand in downtown Brownsville. Alongside fellow co-founder Michele Wolding, the trio founded the society to provide resources for film projects and local industry professionals working in Brownsville. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

BROWNSVILLE — The easier it is to make movies in and around Brownsville, the more movies will be made in and around Brownsville.

That’s the thinking behind the creation of the Brownsville Film Society, a one-stop shop for logistics and equipment, crews and actors, and nearly everything else needed to shoot a movie.

BFS is the brainchild of Brownsville producer/actor/director Rene Rhi, Hilda Ledezma, director of Revival of Cultural Arts (ROCA) at the Carlotta K. Petrina Cultural Center, and Michele Wolding, actress and director of theater arts at Pace Early College High School.

Rhi said the idea is to create a filmmaking infrastructure to lure more projects like “A Night in Old Mexico,” filmed here in 2012 and starring four-time Academy Award winner Robert Duval.

“When ‘A Night in Old Mexico’ was shot here they spent over $1 million in hotels and food and created jobs,” Rhi said. “We want to attract those type of projects. … If you’re a producer or director from out of town, and you’re looking into a city, you want to see what the resources are.”

Ledezma said BFS is a way to support the community by leveraging talent that’s already here. Brownsville has a number of assets for filmmaking — natural resources, history and culture, connection to Mexico, etc. — but hasn’t had a central point of contact for highlighting those things, she said

“That’s where Rene and I started the conversation: Why don’t we establish something, at least … some presence that we can build on,” Ledezma said

In March, ROCA partnered with EPF Media of Los Angeles to bring actors Joaquin Cocio and Renee Victor to Brownsville as part of the CreARTe Expo festival at the Petrina Cultural Center.

Everything pertinent to the BFS infrastructure will be accessible through a website, under construction, that will include photos of potential shooting locations and video clips of local actors among its features.

BFS has already landed its first movie person: Yelyna de Leon, a Los Angeles-based actor and filmmaker who was in Brownsville for a week recently scouting locations for a new feature film, the fifth she will have written and produced. Her last movie was “Murder in the Woods,” an all-Latino horror film starring Danny Trejo of “Machete” fame.

“I teamed him up with a couple of up-and-coming actors, but I also gave two opportunities to actors that had never been in a feature film,” she said. “They were not even in the (actors’) union.”

De Leon said she plans to do the same thing in Brownsville if she winds up shooting a movie here.

“That’s really one of my main goals, to make sure that I can give opportunities to talent that otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity,” she said. “I absolutely love Brownsville. It’s a very beautiful city. The pace is completely different than L.A. I could definitely see myself shooting a movie here.”

De Leon wouldn’t reveal specifics about the new project, which she’s still writing, other than to say it takes place in a border town.

BFS will also offer workshops in acting and other aspects of filmmaking in order to help local residents land gigs with productions done here.

“We want people to get involved in whatever capacity they want,” Rhi said. “It’s unbelievable what a little training can do. … The idea is, of course, the leads would go to more experienced actors, but the secondary roles could be given to people from here.”

Making BFS’s mission easier is the Legislature’s recent allocation of $50 million to Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program for the next biennium, up from $32 million two years ago.

Through the program, film and television projects are eligible for cash grants of between 5 and 20 percent of eligible in-state expenditures, with an additional 2.5 percent for productions in underutilized and/or economically distressed parts of the state, which includes Brownsville.

“It’s a big deal, because for many years they were thinking of just getting completely rid of all the tax incentives, so a lot of our productions were leaving,” Rhi said. “They were going to New Mexico, Georgia — places where the incentives were better.”

Also, with the U.S.-Mexico border the object of so much international attention these days, there’s a high likelihood more filmmakers will be flocking to the border, said de Leon, who appeared in a 2018 “Will & Grace” episode as “Blanca,” a Salvadoran woman caught illegally crossing the border into Texas.

“When ‘Will & Grace’ is doing that story you know it’s a big story,” she said. “There’s definitely a lot more interest right now, also just with people wanting more inclusion and diversity. They want to know what that experience is like. It’s happening as we speak.”

Meanwhile, demand for Spanish-language content in film and television is only growing, said de Leon, who attended the Cannes Film Festival in May to help promote a new comedy in which she appears, “Bride +1.”

“I got to pitch to every single company that was there,” de Leon said. “I got to talk to them and see what it is that they’re looking for, and the main thing that people are looking for is Spanish content. There are more Spanish-speaking countries, believe it or not, than there are English-speaking countries that they can sell to territory-wise.”

For that reason, BFS’s goal of training local residents to act makes a lot of sense, she said.

“We need to be able to train more people that are bilingual, that do speak Spanish, because the work is coming,” de Leon said.