Back in the aughts, those little yellow signs with their abbreviations were popping up everywhere, telling anyone able to decipher their meaning where to find the film shoots that were happening all over Santa Fe. At the Academy Awards in February 2008, No Country for Old Men, Transformers, In the Valley of Elah, and 3:10 to Yuma all received Oscar wins or nominations. The common thread between those films is that they were each, in part, filmed in New Mexico. The big studios like Dreamworks, Lions Gate, and Paramount, as well as the independents, were taking advantage of tax incentives for filmmakers in New Mexico, which has always been a movie state. It seemed we were on the verge of developing an in-state industry, already strong on the production front, even further. Then, during the 2011 legislative session, Gov. Susana Martinez threatened to cut the film incentives that brought in productions from out of state by as much as 40 percent — and many of those yellow signs vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared. The news spurred fears that filmmakers would take their projects elsewhere, leaving New Mexico’s film industry with one foot in the grave — at a time when the state seemed on the verge of developing the infrastructure to do post-production, too. “When Martinez came in, she was anti a lot of the things Gov. Richardson had done,” Santa Fe-based filmmaker Peter Kershaw, who runs Duchy Parade Films, told Pasatiempo. “Initially she released some statements that panicked the industry and created a dip. People in L.A. were uncertain whether the incentives would stay or go or change. A lot of technicians did leave. Places like Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia, to an extent, took a lot of the productions from here, initially.”
Fortunately, the 25 percent Refundable Film Production Tax Credit is still available to filmmakers, and film production is once again on an upswing, despite the House passing a $50 million cap on incentives in March 2011. Moviemaking in New Mexico shows no signs of slowing down, and the state already occupies a place on the cinematic landscape as a top spot for making movies outside of New York and L.A. According to Kershaw, though, “Post-production is key to there being an infrastructure here,” and that seems to be the direction the New Mexico film industry is now headed. The New Mexico Film Office lists about two dozen films and TV series with budgets over one million dollars that filmed here in the 2015 fiscal year. The list includes the TV series Better Call Saul and The Night Shift, as well as the features Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Independence Day: Resurgence, and The Ridiculous Six. Most of these projects have taken advantage of the state’s Film Crew Advancement Program, an on-the-job training program that employs New Mexico-based film and television crew professionals. Last year saw 77 projects in development around the state, including 14 major studio pictures, 10 television shows, and numerous other film projects, including shorts and documentaries. The direct spend into the New Mexico economy was $288.6 million for the fiscal year. Feature films made up about 35 percent of 2015 projects, while television had the next highest at 21 percent, followed by shorts and documentaries (13 percent each), and the rest were commercials and other projects.
You can’t have so many film projects happening without facilities for post-production, and while the big studios typically head back to Tinseltown to do post, New Mexico is developing the resources to ensure that it happens here as well. The New Mexico Post Alliance works with the state film office and other film organizations to provide resources to filmmakers, including where to find colorists, editors, sound techs, and marketing and PR firms. New Mexico also has several working studios available, including Albuquerque Studios, Nob Hill Studios, and I-25 Studios in Albuquerque, and Garson Studios in Santa Fe. However, Santa Fe Studios, off NM 14 south of town, has just been granted a forbearance on $2.3 million in property taxes, fees, and penalties owed to Santa Fe County. Its future is uncertain.
A thriving industry needs an infrastructure to maintain and support it, which includes the education and training of an industry-based local workforce at our colleges and universities. Two bills recently introduced during the January legislative session relate directly to the industry. Senate Bill 238, which passed in the Senate on Wednesday, Feb. 17, only to die in the House Ways and Means Committee, was introduced by Sen. Lisa Torraco and sought to expand incentives to include in-state distribution services, in addition to the existing credit for production. The hope was that a 25 percent tax credit on distribution costs would encourage full-service production companies to relocate to New Mexico. The other bill, House Bill 118, introduced by Rep. Jim Trujillo, sought an appropriation of $250,000 for a publicly funded New Mexico film academy, but as of Feb. 18, it was dead in the House. The academy is a joint project between the Santa Fe Community College and the Institute of American Indian Arts that would make use of existing campus facilities. “The academy is really addressing a gap that we’re seeing,” Monique Anair, an assistant professor in the Santa Fe Community College’s film program, told Pasatiempo. “We don’t have a production master’s program in the state. Where you really start to see directors and producers emerge is in the MFA world. There are great support systems once you get into that world, but nothing like what we’re proposing.” Anair, an advocate of the project, gave presentations at the legislative session. The academy would be an accredited institution for underrepresented and underserved students with a goal of developing producers and directors and increasing the visibility of women and minorities in the industry as a whole. To that end, the academy aims to develop programs to mentor students, maintain New Mexico’s more than a century-old cultural film legacy, and provide money for productions through seed funds for capstone and senior thesis students who are producing documentary films about New Mexico. “The Northern Río Grande Heritage Area is a nonprofit organization that looks at Río Arriba, Taos County, and Santa Fe County along the Río Grande, and they preserve cultural heritage and receive federal funds,” Anair said. “They want to set aside $25,000 in seed funding for students who are doing films that meet their criteria.” Students would also work with direct-sales agents to learn about distributing their movies. “The people who are based here need to make their films and generate productions,” said Kershaw, who teaches courses in filmmaking at IAIA, SFCC, and the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. “They have the ideas and the stories. They just need the support system.”
As it stands, students in the existing film program at SFCC can only transfer to four-year institutions such as IAIA, which runs a successful cinematic arts and technology program, as well as the Sundance Institute Native American and Indigenous Film Program. In addition, SFUAD has a flourishing film school of its own. “The backbone of the success of the film school is really the state incentives that drive production,” said SFUAD’s film school chair Chris Eyre. “If we were in another location, we wouldn’t have that foundation. We are blessed to have a thriving film economy as a basis for our internships and for job creation.” Gone are the days when film school students had to focus on academic studies before they ever got a chance to shoot any footage. At SFUAD’s film school, arriving students each get a camera that’s theirs to keep as soon as they start the program. They are good cameras, too: professional grade Canon DSLRs with 18 to 135mm zoom lenses. “They’re in the hallways shooting movies on the day of orientation,” Eyre said. “It’s like Christmas.” According to Eyre, about 80 percent of the school’s student body are involved in production work. The grip house, nicknamed “the kitchen” by Eyre, loans out as much as 1400 pieces of equipment per semester for a film school student body that he says is around 300 strong.
Students at SFUAD also have opportunities to learn on a real soundstage. Garson Studios, located on campus, has the state’s largest permanent green screen, as well as three soundstages, two of which are being used by Longmire, a serial crime drama that premiered on A&E in 2012 and was picked up by Netflix in 2014. Manhattan, a TV series about the development of the first atomic bomb, also filmed at Garson Studios, and part of the set was donated to the campus for student use. “We cover everything from basic introductory courses on how to use particular equipment to production and cinematography,” said film school associate chair Liam Lockhart. “I have the pleasure and distinct honor of teaching the critical studies courses to make sure students are well-versed in the history of cinema.”
One of the school’s most successful programs is Shoot the Stars! Produced at Garson Studios, Shoot the Stars! allows students to fully engage in pre-production, production, and post-production on a series of short films starring Hollywood actors. The talent pool includes Laura Harring (Mulholland Drive), Michael Welch (The Twilight Saga), Wes Studi (Avatar), and Travis Hammer (Manhattan, The Lone Ranger). “One thing that I’ve noticed in the past few years, from the students that have graduated from this department, is that more and more of them seem to be remaining in Santa Fe when they’re done with their studies,” Lockhart said. “I find that to be encouraging. Building that infrastructure is what we’re all shooting for.”
Seth Thomas, a recent graduate of SFUAD’s film school, took advantage of the available internships. “I was working on-set for Longmire and after I graduated I stayed on with them until their season was over,” Thomas, a production assistant, said. “I was offered another job immediately after that: a pilot Western for Amazon called Edge. It was shot out at Ford Ranch. February is kind of a dry month, but I’m currently working on a couple of commercials and smaller indie productions. All the practical classes I had at the university and at a couple of schools I attended before I went to the university really helped me get where I am now.”
In Santa Fe, Mayor Javier Gonzales is seeking to develop a film commission to increase the city’s profile in the industry and attract more film projects, including post-production projects. The goal is to attract more revenue to the city. “That’s a positive,” Kershaw said. “To be sustainable, there has to be encouragement of producers, directors, and writers that stay here and create work here. They don’t come in, shoot a project, and then leave, because this is where they’re based and they’re keeping income in the state. There has to be more indie stuff.”
Duchy Parade has an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in development with Kershaw as director. “It’s based on the Dracula story but set in New Mexico. It’s designed as a feature. I’m working on the script through the MFA program at IAIA. The idea is to take the proper story, which is rarely done in film — Bram Stoker’s Dracula  isn’t really the novel — and give it a New Mexico twist.” Kershaw came to Santa Fe from England in 2009, when his wife, Mary Kershaw, accepted the director position at the New Mexico Museum of Art. He has directed several films in the intervening years, including the award-winning animated short The Astronomer’s Sun, documentaries, and other short films. “You can get a really good crew, people who have worked on Breaking Bad and stuff like that, to come work on your productions,” he said. “There’s great training going on for technicians. We have a history and we have great stories to tell that we haven’t told. This is where the next generation of storytellers — the filmmakers and job creators — are going to come from. This is happening now.” ◀