New Mexico film industry hopes to steal the show

Times Staff Writer

The sign inside the airport terminal here proclaims a dusty mesa a few miles away to be “Hollywood’s Newest Home,” a reference to a plot of land where four vanilla-colored soundstages recently sprouted.

There, in the shadow of the snow-capped Sandia Mountains, the aircraft-hangar-like buildings at Albuquerque Studios house part of a budding film industry that one local newspaper dubbed Tamalewood. This year, four more soundstages will be added to anchor a bustling movie production center equal in size to 10 large supermarkets.

“This facility is second to none in the U.S.,” said Chief Operating Officer Nick Smerigan, speaking over drilling done by a worker installing a vent. “Eventually, we’ll be a first call for people who are leaving L.A.”


Thanks to generous financial sweeteners, a fairly mild climate and an aggressive state film office, New Mexico can back up that kind of swagger.

Unlike scores of states seeking film shoots that pack up and leave when they are finished, New Mexico is zeroing in on the nuts and bolts of Hollywood. By luring the support companies that form the bedrock of the Los Angeles entertainment economy, New Mexico aims to lay the foundation for a top-tier movie and TV production business.

Sony Pictures Imageworks plans to move a major chunk of its visual effects business -- and more than 100 jobs -- from Culver City to Albuquerque Studios.

Star Waggons, which leases the trailers that are a signature of film shoots around L.A., is opening an office in Albuquerque. So are equipment supplier Clairmont Camera and payroll servicer Axium International.

In nearby Rio Rancho, Lions Gate Entertainment is gearing up to build a $15-million production center on 20 acres provided by the city, and with the help of a pending $10-million loan from the state.

“That really hits at the heart of what we’re trying to keep” in Los Angeles, said Steve MacDonald, president of FilmL.A. Inc., a nonprofit group that coordinates film permitting.


A decade ago, New Mexico couldn’t rustle up a film crew. Now it has about 1,300 workers, enough for five feature films.

Since 2004, production has jumped nearly tenfold, generating a financial effect of $428 million last fiscal year, according to the New Mexico Film Office.

“We had a very simple strategy,” Gov. Bill Richardson said. “Get ahead of every other state in terms of incentives, throw the kitchen sink at accommodating film companies -- tax rebates, loans from the state, free state land, write-offs.... It’s created hundreds of jobs.”

As movies and TV productions have come to New Mexico, so have veteran workers. Camera grip Aubrey Husar and his wife, camera assistant Lisbeth Storandt, have worked continually since moving here three years ago from Los Angeles. They recently bought a four-bedroom house in Santa Fe for about $450,000.

“I made more money last year than any year I worked in L.A.,” said Husar, now working on a Sony TV pilot while his wife works on a Jessica Alba horror flick, “The Eye.”

New Mexico’s film and TV business remains a small fraction of California’s, which has an annual estimated value of more than $30 billion statewide.


Nonetheless, New Mexico’s aggressive courtship is worrisome to Hollywood, because it comes at a time when the industry is frustrated with Sacramento’s efforts to keep the state competitive in landing films and TV shows.

Studios, producers and unions have lobbied for years for incentives to keep productions from going elsewhere. Even having a former movie star in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn’t helped -- California officials have been unable to agree on how many, if any, sweeteners the entertainment industry deserves.

“When a well-established company like Sony considers relocating or expanding into another area, that’s very concerning,” said California Film Commission Director Amy Lemisch. “It’s a brick-and-mortar kind of business. The absence of financial incentives in California makes it easier for New Mexico and all other regions.”

It was Richardson, now a Democratic presidential candidate, who spearheaded New Mexico’s film industry surge after his election in 2002 by pushing through one of the most generous tax rebate programs in the country, bankrolled by oil and gas revenue.

The Legislature recently voted to make permanent the 25% rebate it offers on all production and post-production spending that is taxable in the state. For example, for every $1 that filmmakers spend in New Mexico on labor and other production costs, they get 25 cents back as a refund.

The state also offers an interest-free loan of as much as $15 million a project for productions that are shot primarily in New Mexico, and has launched or funded various training programs to cultivate local filmmakers and expand its crew base.


The program has more than paid its way.

Since 2003, the state has reaped $50 million in tax revenue from the film industry; it has paid out $33 million to finance the rebates and interest-free loans, state officials say. New Mexico ranks among the top five states in filming activity.

“You can’t underestimate the power of the incentives,” said producer Glenn Williamson, taking a break from shooting the dark comedy “Sunshine Cleaning” in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill area. “What you’re trying to do is put as much money as possible on the screen.”

The comedy hit “Wild Hogs,” about a group of middle-age bikers, saved several million dollars with New Mexico’s help, which gave the state a leg up on such states as California, Louisiana and Florida.

“It’s the best film incentive program in the country,” director Walt Becker said.

In four years, 60 feature films and TV projects have been shot in New Mexico, including “The Longest Yard,” the upcoming release “Transformers,” director Paul Haggis’ new “In the Valley of Elah,” and the CBS miniseries “Comanche Moon.”

New Mexico’s film lore dates to 1898, to Thomas Edison’s short film “Indian Day School.” Later, it was a popular setting for Westerns.

Today, the state’s film nerve center is a converted theater in Santa Fe. Inside, an area dubbed the War Room is where Lisa Strout, director of the state’s film office, keeps a chart listing about 40 potential projects highlighted with red and purple markers.


“We often say we feel like we’re air traffic controllers,” Strout said.

A veteran location manager who previously ran the New York offices for Merchant Ivory Productions, Strout oversees a staff of 11, some of whom scout for locations. The state taps a public relations agency in Los Angeles to get the word out about New Mexico, stressing that New Mexico is less than two hours by plane from Los Angeles.

“We used to get 10 scripts a year,” Strout said. “Last year we got 250 scripts.”

Beyond reading scripts, state and local officials go out of their way to court filmmakers.

Richardson took “Wild Hogs” director Becker to dinner. Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez handed the director a proclamation honoring the film. And Strout helped set up meetings with residents in Madrid, a dusty former coal mining town off the Turquoise Trail where much of the film was shot.

Last summer, 200 crew members and celebrities, including John Travolta and Tim Allen, descended on the quirky community of artists, writers and gift shop owners. Production workers spruced up lawns, painted storefronts and built a diner on a lot next to a jewelry shop owned by Hugh and Honore Hackett. In return, they left the Hacketts the empty diner, which they used for storage. It’s now a tourist attraction.

“We had 100 people here over the weekend wanting to take their pictures in front of the diner,” Hackett said. “It’s like we have a little piece of Hollywood right here in town.”

Despite its success at luring the movie business, New Mexico faces competition from more than 30 states that also offer incentives, including neighboring Arizona.

All of the frenetic activity has stretched local film crews. To help meet the demand, the leading union representing technical workers runs a state-funded program through community colleges to train more crew members.


Eric Witt, the governor’s director of legislative and political affairs, said New Mexico would have a competitive edge because it was building an entertainment infrastructure and not just trying to lure individual film shoots.

Said Mark Manuel, Lions Gate executive vice president: “It’s one of the few states that’s actually trying to build an industry and not just bring in projects on a one-time basis.”