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State offices faced letter campaign over 'Machete' incentives

Charles Ealy

More than 500 people bombarded the Texas Film Commission and Gov. Rick Perry's office with e-mails, letters and faxes last year, urging the state to deny incentives for director Robert Rodriguez's "Machete," according to documents released to the American-Statesman last week under a Public Information Act request.

More than 140 of those communications were faxed form letters, saying that "Machete" was "nothing less than an attack on conservative Americans who oppose illegal immigration." The letters were sent in May after Austin-based conservative radio talk show host Alex Jones questioned the possible use of state funds for the film.

In early May, Jones expressed outrage over a trailer for the movie that Rodriguez released on the Internet. The trailer, which came out just after passage of a new immigration law in Arizona, featured one of the stars, Danny Trejo, saying that he had "a special Cinco de Mayo message to Arizona." He then proceeded to use a variety of weapons against Americans.

Dozens of other e-mails to the film commission and the governor referred directly to Jones' reports about "Machete."

Some of those letters cited a headline over a Jones article at Infowars.com, saying "Racist film 'Machete' produced with taxpayer funds." Other e-mails to Perry's office expressed opposition to incentives and jokingly congratulated Perry for having shot a coyote while jogging, a story that was first reported in late April.

Some of the e-mails were sent in early September, shortly after the movie's release and after an article detailing the movie's content was posted under Jones' name at Infowars.com and PrisonPlanet.com. The article, which was co-written by Aaron Dykes, had the headline "'Machete' producers lied about racist bloodbath."

Various websites that reprinted the articles included links for contacting the governor's office and the film commission. The Peter Morrison Report, which bills itself as a free newsletter for Texas conservatives, also launched a campaign against "Machete."

Katherine Cesinger, Perry's press secretary, did not respond to voice mails from the American-Statesman on Thursday, asking whether the letter and e-mail campaigns affected the eventual decision to deny incentives to "Machete." That decision was announced Dec. 8, in a letter that said incentives were denied under a state code that prevents such monies from being awarded to projects that portray Texas in a "negative fashion."

None of the documents released to the Statesman detailed the reasons for denying incentives to "Machete."

The e-mails, letters and faxes to state offices came primarily from Texas residents, but residents from across the country also expressed opposition. About a dozen of the e-mails expressed support for giving incentives to "Machete."

Ted Baehr, chairman of the California-based Christian Film & Television Commission, wrote to Perry in early September, saying that he was "concerned to discover that ("Machete") was funded in part by Texas taxpayers." Baehr attached a "Machete" review he wrote for Movieguide.org that attacked the movie as anti-American and "one of the worst movies ever." Baehr is the founder and publisher of Movieguide.org, which is dedicated to bringing "God's light to an industry with much darkness."

Baehr also sent the governor's office a digital image of his father, 1930s Hollywood cowboy star Bob "Tex" Allen, whose real name was Ted Baehr. In the letter, Baehr said that his family helped settle Texas.

Bob Hudgins, then director of the film commission, responded to Baehr on Sept. 22, saying "Machete" had received no funding from the state but that a preliminary application for incentives had been received.

In response to other e-mails and letters opposing incentives, Hudgins said "Machete" had received no funding and that a decision would be made after a final application was made. Some of those e-mails asked that "Machete" be banned from Texas screens. One e-mailer replied to Hudgins that he had not sent the original e-mail and that his account might have been hacked.

After the decision to deny incentives was announced in early December, documents reveal that film commission employees were told to forward all press calls to Cesinger, Perry's spokeswoman. Communications from the general public were to be directed to Greg Davidson, who works in Perry's Constituent Communication office.

The film commission, which is being overseen by interim director Evan Fitzmaurice , has not issued any statements about the incentives, other than to say that they were denied.

Rodriguez and producing partner Elizabeth Avellan at Troublemaker Studios have not issued any statements about the denial of incentives.

The documents released last week, however, indicate that Troublemaker was expecting the incentives to be approved.

On May 27, after a review of the movie's script, Hudgins certified in a letter that "Machete" "fulfills the initial content requirement under the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program." The letter goes on to say that the certification does not mean that incentives will be approved if "the final content is determined to be in violation of the rules and regulations of the incentive program."

An e-mail, sent to "Machete" producers July 17, reaffirmed that the film had been approved for acceptance into the incentive program.

As late as Sept. 9, long after the initial May uproar and after the movie's release Sept. 3, the film commission was still communicating with representatives of Troublemaker Studios and various associates about the expected allocation of incentive money, the documents show.

The American-Statesman requested the "Machete" documents Dec. 9, and the governor's office responded Dec. 23, on the last day possible under the Public Information Act, saying that the documents were available.

The office, however, closed its doors that afternoon for the holidays and did not reopen until Tuesday. The office then requested that the American-Statesman deliver payment for the copying costs of the documents before it would release them. Payment was made Tuesday, and the documents were released Wednesday.

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931