Sony Pictures Imageworks, one of Hollywood’s leading visual effects companies, plans to move more than 100 jobs from Culver City to New Mexico if state lawmakers give their expected blessing next week to film industry financial sweeteners.
Although Imageworks would remain in Culver City, along with a majority of its employees, the decision to shift a major chunk of its operation elsewhere marks a symbolic blow to Southern California as it struggles to keep its signature business from being poached by other states and countries.
Most of the battles to date have involved trying to keep specific films or TV shows from shooting elsewhere. In this case, the move involves the kind of nuts-and-bolts operation that makes up the film and TV industry’s backbone.
“It’s an indication that the bricks-and-mortar infrastructure that we have long enjoyed is not completely rooted here,” said Kathleen Milnes, president of the Entertainment Economy Institute, a nonprofit research group based in Pacific Palisades. “That should serve as a wake-up call.”
Imageworks executives and city and state film officials in New Mexico declined to comment.
The proposed facility would eventually employ about 300 visual effects technicians and computer animators -- about a third of Imageworks’ current workforce -- within the Albuquerque Studios, a newly opened film and TV production studio near the city’s airport, according to three people familiar with the plans.
The project, however, hinges on approval of a state bill that would make permanent an existing program providing a combined 25% rebate on taxable production expenses. Sony had been seeking reassurances from state officials that the company would fully qualify for the rebate.
Los Angeles has lost thousands of jobs because of runaway production in the last decade, as producers flocked to lower-cost areas offering incentives. Increasingly, other states are trying to establish permanent film economies by building soundstages and luring post-production firms such as Imageworks.
A unit of Sony Pictures Entertainment, Imageworks was launched 15 years ago to create visual effects and character animation.
The company’s projects have included the “Spider-Man” films, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” “Stuart Little” and the motion-capture film “Monster House.”
Its credits also include the 1993 film “Last Action Hero” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, who as governor has vowed to fight to keep entertainment jobs from leaving the state.
New Mexico’s incentives would allow Sony to produce visual effects at less cost, putting it on a more-competitive footing with rivals in Canada, England and other countries that benefit from tax breaks California doesn’t offer. With digital connections today, a filmmaker can go online and work with visual effects houses anywhere in the world, reviewing work in real time.
Underscoring the global nature of the business, Sony recently acquired a majority stake in FrameFlow, an Indian visual effects and animation company that has been renamed Imageworks India.
The new facility in New Mexico also could help Sony reduce the cost of making animated feature films, allowing it to better compete in the crowded genre. Sony launched its venture into the burgeoning business last year with “Open Season” and has several other features in production. Although the animation unit would remain in Los Angeles, some of the computer rendering could be done in New Mexico.
The proposed facility would be housed in a 112,000-square-foot building, about half the size of the Culver City operation, which now operates at full capacity.
Located within a planned 9,000-acre development called Mesa del Sol, the Albuquerque facility is owned by Pacifica Ventures, a Santa Monica real estate developer.