When it comes to a homegrown base of film crew technicians, sound stages, a variety of locations, good weather, and proximity to Los Angeles, you just can’t beat New Mexico. The training and facilities are here, and the people who work in the industry are committed to seeing it succeed. And it seems to have done just that, despite continuing blowback in the state legislature from Republicans.
Back in March 2011, in her first year in office, Gov. Susana Martinez panicked the film industry when the state imposed a $50 million cap on the 25 percent refundable tax credit for movies made in New Mexico. A noticeable lapse in film production followed. Some film technicians and those who worked in other production positions the industry refers to as “below the line” — grips, editors, line producers, camera operators, and art directors — left the state to seek work in other locales that also have strong film programs, such as Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia.
The governor, who originally considered the industry a strain on New Mexico’s economy, has since changed her political tune on the matter. “New Mexico has so much to offer to those who are in the business of searching for the right place to shoot a movie or television program, and our communities clearly benefit from these opportunities,” she said in 2014, after a state-ordered study concluded the industry was good for New Mexico’s economy. According to the New Mexico Film Office, production in the state accounted for more than half a billion dollars in direct spending for the 2017 fiscal year, a record amount. The incentives remain in place and filmmaking in the state has blossomed. There were more than 60 in-state productions in 2017.
A current bill to remove the film tax credit annual cap, House Bill 113, was temporarily tabled on Jan. 29 once it reached the House Taxation and Revenue Committee. Whether it’s truly dead in the water remains to be seen. The reason for the blowback is primarily concern over budgeting. Without a cap, there is uncertainty as to how much the state can allocate for rebates. As it is, the cap has been reached for four years running, but productions have had to wait, in some cases more than a year, to receive their rebates. Critics of the cap argue that it’s a disincentive for future productions in an industry that’s been demonstrably successful. But if the cap can’t be removed entirely, perhaps it can be raised. “Realistically, we would take an increase in the cap,” said Jon Hendry, president of the New Mexico Federation of Labor and the business agent for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 480, a labor union that represents film workers. “It’s not a cap on our members,” he said. “It’s not a cap on the business. It’s a cap on the hopes and dreams of young people who want to get into the business, who want to stay here, who want to have careers in the business, because you’re saying to them, ‘We’re fine.’ ”
While the bill’s fate is uncertain, New Mexico is still making a name for itself as a sort of filmmaker’s paradise. In fact, New Mexico crews have developed a sterling reputation in the industry as a whole. This didn’t happen by magic (well, maybe it was “movie magic”). The current story of moviemaking in New Mexico is not just about an industry that benefited from outside investors, with big-budget Hollywood productions and series like The Night Shift and Breaking Bad coming to take advantage of our incentives. Film production in New Mexico also grew from within.
Film offices abound
More than 40 states now offer film incentives or some kind of film program, according to the Santa Fe Film Office, which makes film production a competitive endeavor. New Mexico alone boasts offices in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Taos County, and Otero County, to name a few. While Bill Richardson was governor, the number of states with film programs was far fewer than it is today. At the start of Richardson’s administration, outside of New York and Los Angeles, the states with the strongest programs were New Mexico and Louisiana.
It’s significant that, 15 years later, New Mexico is still in the top tier of states when it comes to incentives. “Some of those states, for all intents and purposes, they just have programs on the books and don’t do anything with them,” said Eric Witt of the Santa Fe Film Office. “Obviously, we’ve done a lot with it here. There are also a number of other countries that offer incentives,” he said. “Our two biggest competitors are the state of Georgia and the UK. A major film or television project is not made unless it’s done in a territory that has an incentive program. If you don’t have an incentive, you’re not even in the running. The business has completely changed. For better or for worse, New Mexico was at the forefront of making that change.”
Santa Fe, which opened its joint regional film office for production in the city and county in 2016, was developed for the purpose of recruiting new productions and servicing them. Witt, a former film and television executive who worked for Dino De Laurentiis Communications, was hired to run it. The Santa Fe Film Office is nominated for a Location Managers Guild International Award for work on the film Only the Brave, which was released in the fall of 2017.
“We recruit production that originates elsewhere, whether it’s LA, New York, or even out of the country,” he said. “We’ve hosted productions from Canada, from Germany, from India, Sweden. Production was picking up so much here in the region, and productions did not know where to go to get information about permitting, local vendors, accommodations, et cetera.” The Santa Fe Film Office was created to fill that need for incoming productions, because, after all, one can’t just set up shop wherever one likes and start making movies.
In addition to the tax rebates, other factors that are, in essence, de facto incentives, also lure filmmakers to New Mexico: close to 300 days of sunshine a year, a moderate climate, and beautiful locations, for instance. But there’s also the talent. “We have the largest crew base, obviously in conjunction with IATSE,” Witt said. “We spend a lot of time developing local businesses to be able to service productions here so they don’t have to outsource vendors,” he said. “A lot of other states allow you to bring everything in from outside, but we don’t do that. We make people use local crew, local vendors, locations, travel, insurance, et cetera, because that’s how the state makes its money back.”
At the end of the day, it isn’t all about bottom lines. As Witt said, “You don’t shoot an incentive. You shoot a movie.”
You ought to be in pictures: Professional in-state support
The New Mexico Film Office focuses on three areas to help grow the state’s film industry, including recruitment, industry outreach, and workforce development. A number of programs tied to the third objective exist, made possible by the Economic Development Department’s Job Training Incentives Program ( JTIP) for film and multimedia, which provides training opportunities to New Mexico below-the-line crew. One is the Film Crew Advancement Program (FCAP), which offers on-the-job training for New Mexicans in the tech areas of the industry. Another is the Pre-Employment Training Program (PETP), which offers reimbursement funds to contractors who offer workshops, courses, and lectures aimed at below-the-line crew.
Other film offices also provide opportunities to professionals and those who are looking to start in the business, as well as assist in funding specific projects. The New Mexico Film Foundation offers the Beau McNicholas Post Production Grant for in-state projects. “We had 30 people submit for that grant, so that means 30 projects that are going on, mostly in the Albuquerque and Santa Fe area,” said Dirk Norris, the Film Foundation’s executive director. “That’s local, New Mexico filmmakers. Even if a company shot their film somewhere else, they could still do their post in New Mexico and get the 25 percent back. A lot of people don’t realize that.”
The foundation sponsors an annual actor’s showcase, designed to bring attention to acting talent in the state. Selected applicants perform before a director and cameraman at Albuquerque’s South Broadway Cultural Center. “They do their monologue and the director gives them some adjustments,” Norris said. “In years past, we’ve had a few people who got signed up with talent agents who were in the audience.”
The foundation also hosts a New Mexico Student Filmmaker Showcase, open to students in regional college and university film programs, and screenwriting workshops through the foundation-sponsored website, talewriters.org. “We have eight workshops scheduled — two per month — covering a variety of topics: character development, plot development. They’re open to anyone. They’re held at the film school at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. They’re running until April, before the school closes. I’m going to see if we can’t continue even after the school closes, because it would be a shame to have those facilities and not use them.”
New Mexico Women in Film, the local chapter of Women in Film and Television International, also offers opportunities for the novice and professional. About 60 percent of the members of NMWIF are actors, according to the organization. Every fall, the organization sponsors Mentor Mania, which provides each actor with about five minutes of face time with casting directors to ask questions and learn what it takes to make it in the industry. “Getting five minutes of face time with a casting director is just unheard of,” said Christine McHugh, president of NMWIF and an independent filmmaker. NMWIF also offers a monthly support group for actors on surviving auditions and the nerve-wracking wait for callbacks.
In addition, NMWIF annually devotes a budget and a crew to produce a public service announcement for a nonprofit. “This year we’re working with Tewa Women United, and we’ve created a one-minute spot for them that talks about the connection between women and the Earth,” McHugh said. “We also have two screenwriters groups,” she said. “They give people the opportunity to table their scripts, create writers rooms where they collaborate with each other. It’s a super inclusive group open to all people, not just members of Women in Film. So we’re doing what we can to strengthen the women’s voice in the writing community.”
Several NMWIF programs for everyone, not just members, include the Athena Award, a screenwriting competition. “We also have the Sage Award, which honors a woman in the area for her contribution to the industry over a lifetime,” McHugh said. “We’ve had Shirley MacLaine, Ali MacGraw, Julia Cameron, Trish Lopez, Jo Edna Boldin. We’ve really been able to highlight the difference that women have made in our industry.”
Moviemaking from the ground up
If you’re working on a set in New Mexico, you’re probably engaging with a short-term project — unless you’ve landed a position on a recurring series. As exciting as the idea of working on a movie is, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be working again when the production wraps. A stable industry means better chances for employment. “We make enough money we can get by,” Hendry said. “Honestly, the film crews here have worked pretty consistently since the incentives kicked in. We have grown a reputation for having such great crews that if they’re not shooting here, they’re shooting somewhere,” he said.
According to the state’s film office, New Mexico has the largest base of movie crew technicians between the coasts. Productions that come from outside to shoot in New Mexico increasingly rely on local talent. “In the old days, when you walked on a movie set, half of the people would be from out of town,” Hendry said. “That’s long gone. On our TV series, as well, over 90 percent — movies, 80 percent — are from right here in New Mexico. There’s a lot of crew from Santa Fe. Above the line, people are making their own movies, too. We just finished this movie Santa Fake a couple of weeks ago, and that was a New Mexico writer-director, J.M. Burris, who wrote this great script. It was an all-New Mexico crew. Not one person came from outside of New Mexico. There’s not a period of time when we’re not shooting something, and there’s always crews working.”
While some crew members are finding stable employment, however, the reality of working in film and television is still a matter of feast or famine. “It’s definitely a gig-based career,” said Jason Strykowski, an executive assistant who has worked on the Manhattan TV series, the comic drama Captain Fantastic, and the Western Jane Got a Gun. “From what I can tell, it works in the business at all levels like that. The vast majority of people I know here will work anywhere from three to nine months. It’s never a guarantee that you’ll be hired again after a few months’ time-off period.”
Strykowski provides high-level support for producers, cast members, writers, and directors. “It’s very particular to the business because some of the things I do perhaps don’t look like something a secretary might do in any other environment. You have to understand the way a production works and be able to deal with the flow of a shoot to do the job properly,” he said. On some productions, Strykowski is on the set daily. On others, he’ll spend most of his time in the production office, which he describes as “the nerve center of a production.” Most of his work in the industry has been inside the state.
Recently, Strykowski worked on the pilot for SyFy’s Tremors, which was shot outside Albuquerque. Strykowski attributes part of the interest in New Mexico as a filming location to the success of the television series Breaking Bad. “I think that helped put us on the map. There were some other big features shooting at the same time. That’s right around when they finished Albuquerque Studios. I think that helped. That’s a world-class production facility, where they shot The Avengers and Independence Day: Resurgence. They need big spaces that can accommodate not only the width of these massive sets that they build, but also the height so they can light it properly. If you’ve seen The Avengers, they built the bridge for their aerial ship and it was huge, an incredible set. It’s really a testament to local construction workers that they could build that thing.”
According to the New Mexico Film Office, New Mexico has four full-service film studios, as well as several working sets that are ideal for filming Westerns, such as Eaves Movie Ranch and Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch, both in Santa Fe. Albuquerque Studios has nine sound stages and a 3,000-square-foot Cycloramic green screen. I-25 Studios has six sound stages, a 145-foot green screen, and its own special effects shop. Santa Fe Studios has two stages and a 57-acre backlot. And Garson Studios, on the campus of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, has three stages. Garson Studios is where the television crime drama Longmire was shot. With the impending closing of the school this spring, the fate of Garson Studios has been a matter of speculation, but the studio will likely continue to operate after ownership passes from Laureate Education, Inc., to the city this summer. “Laureate got the Garson Studios as part of their master lease agreement for the whole campus,” Witt said. “Laureate’s out at the end of May.” Witt is working with Garson Studios manager Claudio Ruben to make sure any leases that get signed before the city assumes ownership have a transition clause. “Say production X is in there and they start in May and are going to be running through August, when the ownership reverts to the city, it doesn’t interrupt their ability to use the facility,” he said.
Witt anticipates a good spring and summer at Garson. “This time of year is always slow; it’s just the natural rhythm of the production cycles,” he said. “We’ll start picking up again, probably in mid to late February, and then we’re going to be off and running through the fall. It’s going to be another strong year, which is why I’ve been working so closely with Claudio to make sure there aren’t any hitches because we’re going to need that space.”
Santa Fe Studios remains active, too. “They’re hosting the HBO production Succession now,” Witt said. “I think it’s a six- or seven-part series that’s filming down there. They just started principal photography a couple of weeks ago, so they’re going to be rolling for another couple months, which is good for us.”
In addition to Albuquerque Studios, The Avengers also made use of the Albuquerque Rail Yards, where a large green screen transformed the American city into a thriving Indian metropolis. Angelique Paull, who worked as costume supervisor for The Avengers, recalls the experience working with over 650 extras. “I taught myself and the crew how to tie multiple styles of saris to make it look as realistic as possible, because saris are tied differently depending on what part of India you’re in,” said Paull. “It was a very metropolitan city scene and we wanted to show that variance. Where the farmers market is now was our entire extras changing area. I had to visualize that, speak with locations, set up the tents, and we had them all categorized by numbers.”
Paull, who was born and raised in Albuquerque, has been in the business for 15 years. She was a student at the University of New Mexico when she landed her first film job. “I was working at this restaurant on Central [Avenue]. They called on a Friday night and said, ‘Hey, show up tomorrow. Seven o’clock sharp. Don’t be late. Wear comfortable shoes. You’re going to be there for at least 12 hours.’ ” Film is a word-of-mouth industry, and in time Paull’s reputation grew. Now she’s an in-demand costume supervisor for productions in and out of state. She is currently working in Austen on the AMC series The Son. “I’m grateful that the industry just picked up more. The plan that I had — to move to LA with my best friend — just started disappearing. I was like, ‘I can do a career that I’ve always wanted to do, and I think I’ll love, here in New Mexico.’ ” In addition to The Avengers, Paull also worked on the series Manhattan and The Night Shift, and the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven.
Strykowski also has fond memories of working on The Avengers, his first film job, as a production assistant. “I was a huge Marvel fan at the time and really never thought I’d be able to participate in something like that,” he said. “I got ground-level access and got to meet the director and the writer and much of the cast and all the producers. That was a thrill. You don’t get the opportunity very often to get your nose in there without a heck of a lot of experience. It never would have happened in any other place.”