OHKAY OWINGEH, N.M. -- Aspiring screenwriters David and Kevin Linke don't have to go to Hollywood to try to break into the business. It came to them.
"Here, if you want to get on a movie set, you can," said David, 20, fresh off four days' work as an extra on "Love Ranch," with Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci.
The Los Alamos twins -- who have written 11 screenplays -- are working on every set that will have them. One of these days, they figure, a producer might just head home with one of their scripts tucked under his arm.
New Mexico, whose screen fortunes once rose and fell with the popularity of westerns, has become a film mecca.
"Tamalewood," it has been dubbed.
Over the last five years, 90 major feature film and TV projects have been made here.
Best-picture Oscar winner "No Country for Old Men" -- based on the novel by Santa Fe, N.M., resident Cormac McCarthy -- was shot almost entirely in New Mexico. Three other films made here -- "3:10 to Yuma," "In the Valley of Elah" and "Transformers" -- also nabbed Academy Award nominations.
"Now people know that you can make whatever kind of film you want here," said Eric Witt, Gov. Bill Richardson's film and entertainment advisor.
New Mexico has maneuvered itself from what the industry refers to as a "distant location" to a soup-to-nuts production center, says Lisa Strout, director of the state film office.
It offers not just the wide, azure skies and clear air that make cinematographers giddy, but also a wide variety of locations -- from alpine to desert -- as well as a ready technical workforce and mushrooming production facilities, she said.
Oh, yes, and incentives.
Make your movie here and New Mexico will refund 25% of your direct, state-taxable production expenditures, including the wages paid to state residents. You may also qualify for a no-interest loan of up to $15 million per project. And there's a 50% reimbursement of wages for on-the-job training of New Mexicans for some key crew positions.
And if there's trouble brewing on the set or high-paid hands to be held, studio executives can arrive quickly. Los Angeles is a two-hour plane flight away.
The Linke brothers were part of a steady trickle of eager extras who showed up recently at an Indian casino north of Santa Fe to sign up for "The Year One," a Judd Apatow-produced comedy set in biblical times.
With pay of about $100 for a 12-hour day, working as an extra seems more like a labor of love than a career move.
"It's never too late to pursue your dreams," said Deborah Arraj, a yoga teacher and psychotherapist whose to-do list when she turned 55 included being in the movies. "I might get seen."
"The Year One" has been shot largely in Louisiana, but publicist Kym Langlie said New Mexico was chosen for some scenes because of its "unspoiled landscapes and vistas" that evoke ancient times. No pesky power lines, in other words.
Also currently in production is "Legion," a supernatural action-thriller starring Paul Bettany. And filming starts soon for the largest production to date: the latest installment of the "Terminator" film franchise, with Christian Bale. Production will be based at Albuquerque Studios.
Jon Hendry, business agent for Local 480 of the film technicians union, estimates that 2,800 New Mexicans are working at least some of the time in the industry, largely in technical positions.
"We're the only state . . . that has a really aggressive training program for their own people," Hendry said.
There are film technician classes at five New Mexico colleges that Hendry said provide an introduction to the business -- and a reality check for the starry-eyed.
"People think you're going to show up and sit in a director's chair and watch a monitor," Hendry said. Instead, "you're planting plants, digging ditches for a propane line. They're stunned at what it takes to make a movie."
The governor is a big promoter of the industry and says it has pumped $1.5 billion into the state's economy over the last five years, about $500 million in direct spending and twice that indirectly.
No detailed economic impact analysis has been done, however. And some lawmakers worry that the rebate program -- projected to pay out more than $50 million this year -- will prove to be a runaway cost. They proposed capping it at $30 million annually but shelved the idea after hundreds of film industry protesters showed up at a legislative hearing.
Hendry says the technicians he represents make $22 to $27 an hour, and with overtime can earn as much as $70,000 a year if they work steadily.
The low-end, nonunion jobs are much less lucrative.
"So much work for so little pay," sighed Teri Browning, a singer-songwriter who has worked twice as a lowly production assistant -- running errands, answering phones, driving, keeping track of paperwork -- for $9.50 an hour. "But my friends remind me it's sort of like going to school and getting paid for it. You're learning a lot of aspects of the industry, and you're networking."
Some residents worry they'll never have access to the film industry's really high-paying jobs.
"It used to be pretty much a given that the only jobs New Mexicans could get were non-speaking roles. It's been very slow to evolve, but it is evolving," said local lawyer and guitarist George Adelo, who had a speaking part in "No Country for Old Men."
With most states offering some kind of incentives for filmmakers, New Mexico may find itself struggling to stay out front. The Michigan Legislature, for example, has been working on a 40% rebate for production costs.
Witt says that while moviemakers may chase the best deal, New Mexico's total package -- including location inventory, scouting services, proximity, infrastructure and crew base -- should keep it in the forefront.
And he says there's one other lure Michigan can't match: "300 days a year of sunshine."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times