Wildland firefighters battle a terrifying blaze. An Army captain shepherds a Cheyenne chief and his family through dangerous territory. A mining accident wipes out half the population of a small town. Parenting takes a gay couple by surprise. And Sheriff Longmire returns.
Some of these stories will be broadcast, some binge-watched. A few might win awards or dazzle at exclusive festivals. But all will have Santa Fe in common, having been filmed in the city and county this summer.
Last week, Gov. Susana Martinez announced a record fiscal year for film industry spending. Productions pumped $387 million into New Mexico’s economy — the second year of growth after 2014 saw film industry spending drop below $200 million for the first time since 2007. The statewide boom in the fiscal year that ended June 30 includes good news for Santa Fe — the city is getting a larger share of the pie.
The Santa Fe area usually draws about a third of the filming across the state, said Eric Witt, a key architect of the state’s film incentives under Gov. Bill Richardson; so far this summer, he said, “We’re getting about 70 percent.”
It is a flurry of film and television activity that the city hopes to sustain. The city and Santa Fe County launched a joint film office earlier this month to help recruit and connect visiting productions with set locations, crews and small businesses, and to acquaint them with state laws and local regulations. And the city’s advisory Film and Digital Media Commission has started identifying what the area has to offer the film business, what it needs and how it can help create a year-round industry that provides career and business opportunities to Santa Feans.
In short, Santa Fe — already viewed as film-friendly and a serviceable filming location — is anticipating a bigger picture.
According to records from the New Mexico Film Office, filming began in the state with the 1897 release of the 38-second Indian Day School, which features Isleta Pueblo children smiling and waving at the camera. Romaine Fielding and Tom Mix — pioneers of the Western genre — ushered in a brief black-and-white boom period; the state lists 20 pictures in 1913 and 27 in 1915. That level of production wasn’t matched until 2003, the year then-Gov. Richardson made film tax credits a cornerstone of his economic development plan. The industry grew; the state saw its highest level of productions in 2011, with 38 film and TV pictures. Santa Fe drew 13 of them.
According to state film office records, of the 761 productions listed since 1897, 302 filmed at least partly in the city of Santa Fe or Santa Fe County — 39.7 percent. Since the film incentives made hay in 2003, the city and county have hosted 158 productions, or 43.5 percent of the state’s total.
Twelve major productions filmed at least partly in Santa Fe last year, more than half of the state’s major productions — defined by the state film office as having a budget of $1 million or more. Jon Hendry, business agent for the local film technicians union, said he expects 15 in 2016. That would be the most since 2012, when 21 productions filmed in the city and county, film office records show.
Hendry said the level of production is no accident. Shoot Santa Fe, a marketing coalition between Santa Fe and neighboring cities and counties that began under former Mayor David Coss, has been “reaching out to where filmmakers are” — film conferences and festivals like Sundance and South by Southwest — “and having a conversation about New Mexico.”
“To maintain and build on this level of production, we’re gonna have to continue to market,” he said.
Many in the industry have said the size of productions filming in Santa Fe, not the number, is the most promising sign.
“Obviously, we want to encourage local film productions,” said Witt, who heads the new Santa Fe Film Office. “But the fact is, these big feature productions drive the industry, drive tourism.”
The productions to call action in the city of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County so far this year include Granite Mountain, the true story of the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, one of the deadliest wildfires in American history; Hostiles, starring Christian Bale as a 19th-century military legend; Godless, a Netflix series set in the fictional New Mexico mining town of Le Belle; and Ideal Home, an independent comedy starring Paul Rudd and Steve Coogan as an extravagant gay couple who create an idyll for themselves in Santa Fe. The fan-favorite Longmire, resurrected by Netflix, filmed its fifth season, and the Epix series Graves, starring Nick Nolte as a regretful former U.S. president, wrapped its first.
It helps that Westerns are en vogue, Witt said. Hostiles and Godless are both set in the 19th century and fit the classic Western mold; Granite Mountain, set in Arizona in 2013, isn’t a “Western per se, but we can double for that” too, he said.
Although he could not provide specific numbers, Witt said he thinks Granite Mountain is one of the biggest — if not the biggest — film ever to be primarily based in Santa Fe County.
The economic impact of a tent-pole picture was demonstrated by the recently released Independence Day: Resurgence, which filmed in Albuquerque. Resurgence generated upwards of $44 million in local economic activity, according to numbers released by the Motion Picture Association of America — more than the heavily marketed sequel made in its opening weekend at the domestic box office.
Over 158 days of shooting in 2015, the MPAA said, Resurgence hired almost 6,000 New Mexico workers, paid them more than $19.4 million in wages, and spent millions on hardware, food and other in-state products.
Tent-pole pictures are well and good, Hendry said, but he also warned, “Every so often, the glitter of Hollywood becomes too much. Let’s not get carried away on it.”
A film-friendly reputation
After years of enjoying film incentives supported by Richardson, moviemakers were given pause in 2011 when newly elected Gov. Martinez signaled she might alter the state’s tax incentive program. Many say the program’s uncertainty is partly to blame for a drop in productions in New Mexico the following years.
But Joe Chianese, an executive vice president at Entertainment Partners Financial Solutions and a close observer of the industry, said the state has since “gone out of its way to continue to modify its program to bring more certainty to it.” Producers, he said, “want certainty in legislation, they want certainty in funding.”
Witt agreed. “You need an incentive just to get a seat at the table now,” he said. More than 30 other states and many foreign countries have film production tax incentives.
Chianese and others said a renewed sense of film-friendliness in New Mexico — signaled most notably by the so-called Breaking Bad bill that expanded rebates for qualifying TV series in 2013 — has been a catalyst for the recent film activity in the state. Entertainment Partners has about 20 projects in New Mexico right now, Chianese said, “and I think 15 of them are TV.”
Chasing the peach
New Mexico’s haul is modest when compared with somewhere like Georgia — considered at the moment the premier filming destination outside of Los Angeles and New York.
Georgia implemented its film incentive program in 2008 and has not looked back. In fiscal year 2015, the most recent year for which the Georgia Department of Economic Development has data, 248 feature film and television productions spent $1.7 billion in Georgia.
New Mexico, which has a fifth of the Peach State’s population, hosted 30 major productions among 63 total productions in fiscal year 2016 — including minor features, shorts and commercials — that spent $387 million.
On a somewhat more comparable scale, the quaint coastal city of Savannah, Ga., hosted a dozen feature films and more than 20 TV productions in 2015, an official in the City of Savannah Film Office said. Savannah is about twice the size of Santa Fe.
For a city of its size, local film professionals insist, Santa Fe is busier than any filming location in North America.
“You’re looking at a town of 70,000 people with six projects — it’s impossible,” Hendry said of the city’s June production level.
“This summer has been a tremendous sign,” Witt said, “but the question is, are we going to be able to continue it?”
Building a local industry
A steady film industry might be described as a cycle: The more seamless a production experience in the city, the more likely the city will attract additional productions; the more varied productions come here, the more opportunities will be created for local workers and businesses.
That cycle will depend, though, on a steady stream of film and television projects.
How the city can leverage its beauty and existing film infrastructure into a year-round industry is what Mayor Javier Gonzales expects the Santa Fe Film and Digital Media Commission to find out. The commission’s goal, with a $50,000 budget, is to identify how Santa Fe can enhance and sustain production, post-production and digital media industries that will retain local talent.
“What we need to do is make sure Santa Feans are working, make sure money is spent in Santa Fe through local vendors, make it clear that we can not only do physical productions but post-production as well,” Hendry said.
Some see the production of Ideal Home, the Santa Fe-centric indie comedy starring Rudd and Coogan, as a case study in the kind of experience the city wants to provide for filmmakers. In more than a dozen interviews, production members, business owners and local film officials said the movie, shot throughout the City Different over a month this summer, moved through downtown like a well-oiled machine.
“It’s all gone very, very smoothly,” writer and director Andrew Fleming said on set in June. “From my perspective, there have been no issues. And it’s been more than that: People are enthusiastic about the movie being here — everybody we’ve had to interact with.”
He dismissed a production manager’s earlier criticisms of filming in the city as out of place, saying her complaints centered on discussions with a homeowner over the cost of shooting at the site. “Every location is a negotiation,” he said. “… It was resolved.”
Fleming can remember shooting in Times Square on Halloween, on the White House lawn; Santa Fe, he said, offered more of a welcome than he’s ever received anywhere. And that response is something Gonzales, who will make a cameo in the film, has said he’s heard time and again from film industry visitors.
“That kind of spirit, that kind of attitude is what differentiates us from other cities in the country,” Gonzales said.
During a break on set, Ideal Home star Rudd said one key reason Fleming wanted to shoot in Santa Fe was “the skies and the light. The light in Santa Fe, he said, there’s no place like it, and he hasn’t seen that on film.”
Coogan added that there are certain places in America — “San Francisco, Philadelphia, Santa Fe” — that have a distinctive enough look to firmly locate a visual story. And “in any film, the location, if it’s a strong location, becomes another character in the film,” he added.
“One thing that [Fleming] wants to break,” Coogan said, “is the idea that comedies should just be wherever they are, whatever serves the joke. Wherever you shoot it, you shoot it. He wanted a comedy to look beautiful. … And that’s part of the reason we’re here, and we’re not in a soundstage anywhere, or in nowheresville.”