Why is Houston Film Commission paying employee $174K to live in LA?

Numbers help tell the story of Houston's film industry

HOUSTON – Lights. Camera. Action: L.A. style. This has been the script of the Houston Film Commission for the past few years.

Since late 2015, the film commission has stationed Sharon Adams, the former chief communications officer for Houston First, in Los Angeles as the commission’s representative.

It's a blockbuster gig focused on luring big-budget Hollywood film and television productions to Houston.

The job pays Adams $174,983.12 annually, according to records that the Houston First Corp., provided to Channel 2 Investigates.

Houston First funds the Houston Film Commission, using money collected from the city’s hotel tax.

According to the organization’s own numbers, its annual budget has risen by nearly $400,000 since 2016, with a significant jump of more than $326,000 in 2017.

This comes at a time when calendar-year film production expenditures in Houston, according to the film commission, have fallen to $15,718,750. That total is the lowest for the Houston Film Commission since 2012.

The film commission does tout an increase in production for 2016, but the numbers were down in 2017.

So, what is missing in this big picture? Just this: a big picture. 

Since Adams has lived in Los Angeles, the commission has failed to land a major, big-budget Hollywood film or TV series for Houston.

The Texas Film Commission highlights select film and TV production in the state. In 2017, "Fear the Walking Dead" and "The Son" helped Austin dominate production with 16 projects. Dallas had 10 and San Antonio made a cameo at two.

However, on the state’s list of select film and TV projects, Houston ends up on the cutting room floor without a single major on-location film or TV production.

The Houston Film Commission provided its own list, which features a handful of 2017 productions including TLC’s "My 600-lb. Life" and Animal Planet’s "The Vet Life."

There is one show the commission likes to tout, Tilman Fertitta's "Billion Dollar Buyer." The CNBC show was developed well before Adams arrived out west.

Channel 2 Investigates also discovered that in its production reports, the film commission counts news and sporting events such as a post-Harvey network TV interview with JJ Watt, CBS's Final Four coverage in 2016 and TV productions related to the 2017 Super Bowl.

"I wouldn't put it in the quarterly reports of the film commission,” said Councilmember Dave Martin, who represents the city on the group's board of directors. That's what Martin said when he was shown the specific Super Bowl mention in the report, but he also added, "Right, but if I'm going to try and perfume a pig, of course I'm going to put that in there."

Martin was in chambers in February when Brenda Bazan took over as president and CEO. She told Mayor Sylvester Turner and the council, "One of the cornerstones of my leadership as we go forward, will be -- and I think you all saw an example of it last night -- will be transparency."

Channel 2 Investigates sent Bazan's team multiple requests for an interview about Adams and the commission's work. Bazan had nothing to say. However, her team -- in an 11th hour email -- said she will sit down with us at the end of May.

The film commission does not list an office number or business address for Adams in Los Angeles. Channel 2 Investigates did eventually find her, but she would not talk on the record.

Finally, we tracked down Film Commission Executive Director Rick Ferguson at a public meeting at Houston First.

Minutes after Channel 2 Investigates arrived, the previously scheduled meeting broke up because there was no quorum. Since Ferguson’s schedule was suddenly open, we figured he would make time; however, Ferguson said, “I actually don't have that amount of time.” 

While Ferguson had about as much to say as a silent film, Robert Jackson, Houston First's senior vice president of public affairs, did respond. 

When asked if he could point to any major Hollywood film or TV show that has been filmed in Houston in the past two years, Jackson said, “Billion Dollar Buyer, Little People, My 600-lb. Life."

The film and TV production site IMDB did not list a “Little People” for Houston, but it should be noted that “Little Couple” was filmed in Houston.

Jackson failed to name a major Hollywood blockbuster film or TV production. The shows he did reference were in production before Adams landed in Los Angeles.

Channel 2 Investigates reached out to a number of major cities and state film commissions. In almost every case, we found Adams and Ferguson making more than their counterparts in those organizations.

Houston First Corporation released the following statement:

"Houston First Corporation is disappointed that KPRC-TV elected to run a story on the Houston Film Commission without including a comment from us.

"Houston First has spent a significant number of staff hours working to provide more than 4,000 pages of documents requested by KPRC-TV regarding the Houston Film Commission.

"Houston First Corporation President and CEO, Brenda Bazan, offered to sit down and discuss efforts the Film Commission is making on behalf of the city as it relates to the film production industry. We advised you prior to your stated deadline of Friday, May 11 at 11 a.m. that unfortunately, due to Brenda’s business and travel schedule, her earliest availability for an on-camera interview is May 25, 2018.

"Proceeding with a story without our input does not reflect the standards or journalistic values we have come to know and expect from KPRC-TV. Certainly, Houston First is not obligated to grant an interview on an arbitrary timeframe set by KPRC, solely to meet a deadline for "sweeps."

"The Houston Film Commission, a division of Houston First is committed to continuing its efforts to attract all types of commercial productions to the city."