The Smithville film tour takes maybe twenty, thirty minutes tops, depending on how badly you want to see the road on which Miranda Lambert wrecks her car in the “Vice” music video. Many major locations are right on top of one another: the house where Sandra Bullock’s character lives in Hope Floats sits just a couple blocks from Brad Pitt’s fictional home in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. On the official Smithville Film Map, every production is represented by a colored dot, and most of them are massed in a rainbow clot choking Main Street, where several projects including Bernie and, more recently, Max’s Love & Death were shot.

I’m driven along the route by Smithville Film Commission chairman Mike Shell, an amiable, if slightly taciturn, 76-year-old screenwriter whose credits include 2015’s Wild Horses, with Robert Duvall (Shell calls him Bobby), and Kelly Holt, who sells antiques in the Texas Trails store downtown and helps Shell liaise between the commission and local business owners. The two are used to giving this tour to location scouts, and they rattle off passing landmarks with ease. Holt shows me the corner on which Harry Connick Jr. hoists Bullock at the end of Hope Floats, near a warehouse that was used in the TV series Fear the Walking Dead. As we crawl past Dennis Quaid’s home in Beneath the Darkness, Shell points out a stop sign that Pierce Brosnan plowed into during a scene in the drama series The Son. (He was really nice about it, Shell says.)

Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr. in 1998’s Hope Floats, which filmed throughout Smithville.
Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr. in 1998’s Hope Floats, which filmed throughout Smithville.20th Century Fox/Album

It’s plain what filmmakers see in Smithville. Despite the changing times, Smithville looks every bit the small town that it often plays on-screen—still the sleepy idyll of nostalgic imagination, with a population hovering just around four thousand and nary a condo or big-box store in sight. Pick a decade and you can find a neighborhood here to match it. The buildings on Main Street all date back to the late 1800s. Cover the pavement with dirt, and the town even makes a convincing Wild West backdrop. Smithville is also a logistical dream, so small that a production team could push equipment from setup to setup by hand if needed. Texas Highway 71 is close enough that Austin-based crews can zip back to the city every night, saving thousands in lodging, yet distant enough that microphones won’t pick up traffic noise. When I visit, downtown is eerily quiet. It’s easy to imagine that I’m standing not in a real town at all but on a studio back lot.

Inside Smithville City Hall, the usual plaques and public notices vie for wall space with posters from the many projects that have filmed in town—107 movies, TV shows, music videos, and commercials in the past fifteen years alone, according to a spreadsheet maintained by city manager Robert Tamble. In 2017 Tamble applied for a Guinness World Record, one to accompany the town’s 2008 record for World’s Biggest Gingerbread Man, that would recognize Smithville as the smallest American city to host the largest number of film productions. His bid was rejected. That category doesn’t exist, Guinness said. Still, Tamble plans to try again. After all, the movies just keep coming.

In June the Texas Legislature boosted the state’s film-incentives budget from $45 million to $200 million over two years—making it the largest it’s ever been and putting it on par, for the time being, with Louisiana ($150 million a year) and New Mexico ($120 million a year). Texas is finally getting serious about its film industry. The revamped budget will provide media productions with more-competitive tax rebates. For places such as Smithville—which became the Texas Film Commission’s first officially designated “film friendly community” in 2008—this could mean a dramatic increase in movie productions passing through. The hope is that some of those crews might even stick around permanently, helping to transform Texas, at long last, into a major player in the entertainment business.

Still, not everyone in Smithville is in love with the limelight, and the Faustian bargain of fame applies to towns just as much as to any humble, homegrown talent who’s gone Hollywood: Can Smithville—or any other community in Texas—play the quintessential small town without losing the qualities that made it a star?

Smithville has a reputation as a place that gets filmmakers whatever they need—fast. Adena Lewis, director of tourism for Bastrop County and former president of Smithville’s chamber of commerce, likes to illustrate this with a story about the tree—the eponymous oak of The Tree of Life, which director Malick handpicked from a property several miles outside of town. It weighed an estimated 65,000 pounds, with a canopy that arced a majestic thirty-plus feet, and it had to be lifted via helicopter onto a trailer so it could be moved, very slowly, down Highway 71 to be replanted behind the house where Pitt’s character lived. But when Malick’s team got it on the truck, they realized it wouldn’t clear the utility lines. So the next morning, Smithville dispatched two crews to lift every cable along the tree’s path, over a two-day journey, while the volunteer fire department sprayed it with water to keep it alive. “That wouldn’t have happened that quickly anywhere else on the planet,” Lewis says.

An oak tree handpicked by director Terrence Malick for his 2011 film The Tree of Life had to be moved into Smithville, prompting municipal crews to lift utility lines along the way.
An oak tree handpicked by director Terrence Malick for his 2011 film The Tree of Life had to be moved into Smithville, prompting municipal crews to lift utility lines along the way.Courtesy of Smithville Times

That eagerness has helped make Smithville so sought-after, and it’s one of the main reasons that Bastrop County is the sixth-most-filmed region in Texas, a cultural imprint that stands wildly disproportionate to Smithville’s four-square-mile size. On the whole, the movies have been good for Smithville. Filmmaking is still only a minor revenue source for the city government, with shooting permits starting at just $150. But the work has been steady, and productions tend to linger. Casts and crews are taken in by the community’s hospitality; Tamble, who reads the script for every production looking to shoot here, like he’s Smithville’s own studio boss, is known for throwing wrap parties at his home, smoking stacks of ribs while celebrities play with his dog. They often repay that generosity in kind. When Quaid shot Beneath the Darkness here, in 2010, his band threw a benefit concert for the police department’s Blue Santa program. In 2020 the Amazon series Panic dropped nearly $1 million here, Tamble estimates, including paying $35,000 to repave Main Street.

“You may not get a paycheck, but the money flows all over town,” says Sallie Blalock, who from 1994 to 2014 managed the Katy House Bed & Breakfast. Blalock was initially unimpressed with Hope Floats, cringing at the scene in which Bullock’s daughter (Mae Whitman) recoils at Smithville’s “funny” odor. “I was like, ‘People are going to think our town smells like cow poop!’ ” she says. But she definitely enjoyed having its crew members rent out rooms at the Katy for several months, then recommend it to others back in Los Angeles. 

Troy Streuer, the owner of Pocket’s Grille, puts it even more bluntly. “I don’t think I would be here without Hope Floats,” he says. Streuer opened the original, downtown location of Pocket’s in September 1996, and he would have closed by spring were it not for the extra business Hope Floats brought in. And when Streuer moved Pocket’s to its current spot, off Loop 230, The Tree of Life kept it afloat through months of renovations. He paid tribute by turning the restaurant into Smithville’s unofficial film museum, where signs from the storefronts in Hope Floats adorn the ceiling and a “DDT” placard from The Tree of Life’s mosquito-fogging truck hangs by the soda machine.

The novelty of living in the film-friendliest little town in Texas has worn off for other Smithville residents. Since taking the job in 2014, Tamble says, he has turned down just two filming permits: one was for a stoner comedy that wanted to film inside Smithville High School; the other involved aliens and the porn star Ron Jeremy. And of the 65 productions Tamble has approved, he says he’s had real problems on maybe 5 of them—such as the slasher movie that left behind pools of blood and some razor blades a woman found while walking her dog. Or when a resident got so fed up with the filming of the Betty Buckley coming-of-age drama 5 Time Champion that he started shooting off a mortar in the woods, until Tamble had to ask him to stop. Mostly Tamble hears gripes about parking and street closures, but as productions have gotten bigger and more frequent, so have the complaints.

“Every time a movie comes to town, I lose money,” Holt tells me. Holt—who says she’s “39 again”—has a slightly mischievous sense of humor and an ingratiating candor (about most things). Like others in Smithville, she has her own history with film, in her case having worked in live TV and earned a degree in Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. Holt moved to Smithville in 2011, slightly aware that it was a major town for movie productions, and joined the film commission in hopes of staying involved in the industry. As a local vendor, Holt noticed conflicts between business owners and the film productions and brainstormed with Shell different ways to ease them. 

At Texas Trails, one of several antiques stores on Main Street, Holt’s clientele skews older, she says. If they must walk more than the length of a parking space, they simply won’t come. Although productions shooting on Main Street will usually pay the affected stores an inconvenience fee—somewhere around $150 a day—it doesn’t make up for all the lost business. Filming also can drag on for longer than expected. In 2022, after weather delays on Love & Death (Texas Monthly was an executive producer on the series) forced one of the Main Street boutiques to cancel its long-planned galentine’s event—twice—Holt says some of the downtown merchants were ready to revolt, herself included. (The production compensated the affected merchants.) 

Eventually, Holt says, she got so tired of losing money that she started to push the film commission toward resolving some of these issues. She began working with Shell and Tamble on how to better advocate for residents, beginning with enforcing the requirement that each film production get signed permission from every business that would be affected by street closures or loss of pedestrian traffic. Holt also has started hanging around sets and intervening when necessary. When members of one crew wanted to shoot outside the popular Olde World Bakery, it was Holt who asked them to wait until the afternoon, when the bakery would be closed. It was a simple request, and they complied. 

Things can get even more complicated in the residential neighborhoods, Holt says. Homeowners often don’t know what to expect when they agree to allow filming or what’s in the contracts they’re signing. When the Trousdales surrendered their house to Hope Floats, in 1997, the filming displaced them for nearly four months, they say. In lieu of payment, they asked that the production crew renovate the house afterward, a process that dragged on for several more weeks. Tylene Trousdale tells me they would be open to having their home used as a filming location again, but they’d be more mindful about the terms. “There was so much that we didn’t know about the process, because who do you ask?” Trousdale says. 

Holt acknowledges that some Smithville homeowners have been taken advantage of because they don’t know any better. They don’t realize that most location agreements carry an “in perpetuity” clause, for example, allowing productions to come back for reshoots months, even years later. Most of the homeowners don’t even know their legal rights when it comes to film contracts. On one recent shoot, she says, a production assistant trespassed on a neighboring property to shut off a noisy air conditioner, jumping a locked fence and breaking it in the process. The homeowners weren’t aware they could file a claim on the production’s insurance, so they didn’t.

For now, Holt says she’s happy to be the point person—the one locals know they can grab out on Main Street whenever they need help or just want to complain. Still, she worries about how residents might greet her and Shell when another major production ties up the streets for weeks on end. “We may get run out of town,” she laughs.

Holt and Shell say they’d like to see more locals get involved with the productions here—to see Smithville become not just a place where movies get made but a place that actively helps make them. Lately Holt has been assembling a list of skilled workers—technicians, painters, lighting designers—who could be included in the packet Tamble hands to filmmakers, with the suggestion that they hire at least part of their workforce locally. That alone could help to ease any lingering frictions and ensure that even more of a production’s budget is being funneled directly into Smithville’s economy.

Unfortunately, she knows that most productions arrive with their budgets and crews locked. Austin puts Smithville at a further disadvantage. The lodging in Smithville is comparatively scant; none of the restaurants have the capacity to handle catering. Smithville just isn’t big enough to become the kind of film hub Holt and Shell envision. But then, getting bigger means putting at risk the small-town feel that makes it so desirable to live here—and to film here. “It’s a tightrope,” Holt admits. 

Nevertheless, some urbanization seems inevitable. In 2016 Austin restaurateurs Amy and Steve Simmons purchased the vacant building that the Hope Floats crew turned into Honey’s Diner, keeping the movie’s faux-vintage signage and reopening it as Honey’s Pizza. Other prospectors quickly followed: a gin tasting room, a couple of boho boutiques, a craft-barbecue joint. By 2017 Texas Highways magazine was declaring Smithville “the next Marfa,” a sobriquet that makes the West Texas native Holt roll her eyes. “This will never be that,” she says, before quietly adding, “I hope.” 

But if Smithville isn’t yet the new Marfa, it’s not quite the old Smithville either. Though several of those artisanal interlopers were felled by the pandemic, Honey’s Pizza remains, as does its fellow Austin transplant Your Mom’s, which recently launched a neighboring ice cream shop named, appropriately, Hope Floats. Undoubtedly, some starry-eyed entrepreneur is bound to try again—particularly if film production picks up and the crews and celebrity-stalkers that follow inevitably attract more businesses that are looking to cater to them. Smithville seems to be entering Act II, that pivotal moment in the plot in which the town faces rising action and higher stakes, and its true character is tested. And all of Texas is watching.

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Best Little Film Town in Texas.” Subscribe today.