Native Americans have long been Hollywood outsiders. That’s changing in New Mexico
Looking out of his office window out to the big sky and Sangre de Cristo mountains that surround New Mexico’s Tesuque Pueblo, Timothy J. Brown recalled movies that used the arresting landscape as a backdrop, from James Stewart’s 1955 western “The Man from Laramie,” to this year’s “News of the World.”
The 75,000-square-foot facility north of Santa Fe was used as a location for the Universal Pictures movie featuring Tom Hanks. After it wrapped last year, Brown, who heads economic development for the Tesuque Tribe, moved to repurpose a casino building the tribe had built on the pueblo’s 17,500 acres and make it a permanent production facility, with an initial investment of $50 million. Billed as the first studio owned by a Native American tribe, Camel Rock Studios officially opens Friday.
“They’ve been in the movie business since 1955 and about 20 movies and TV shows have been filmed on the pueblo,” said Brown. “The tribe is committed to expanding their business and to create jobs for the tribe and to create more self-sufficiency.”
Named after the nearby 40-foot pink sandstone Camel Rock, the studio gives the community a stake in a production boom taking place locally and nationally. Studios including Comcast’s NBCUniversal and Netflix are investing billions of dollars in New Mexico, lured by lucrative state tax incentives.
Although New Mexico’s native people have been captured on film since the 19th century, tribal leaders felt that native people haven’t always benefited from Hollywood. The new studio is intended to address that by creating more jobs and training for the community as the industry pushes to diversify its ranks.
Native American viewers of PBS’ landmark children’s program “Molly of Denali” describe the series, set in an Alaska Native village, as meaningful beyond words.
“The more facilities we have the better it is for our region,” said Jennifer LaBar-Tapia, film liaison officer for the Santa Fe film office. Two local studios, Santa Fe and Garson Studios, are already full up, she said. Tribal leaders opening up their lands to filming is a boost to the region as it tries to accommodate demand. “The fact that we are going to use this as a resource is invaluable to us,” she said.
Since the early 2000s, the state has been working to reboot its film industry. Sony Pictures Imageworks was one of the early adopters, shifting more than 100 jobs from Culver City to Albuquerque Studios. Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico from 2003-11, decided to “throw the kitchen sink at accommodating” film and get ahead of other states after his election in 2002, with one of the nation’s most generous tax rebate programs.
Under the incentive plan, for every dollar that filmmakers spend in New Mexico on labor and other production costs, they get back 25 cents to offset their tax liabilities. More recently, New Mexico has expanded its film incentive program further by removing any funding cap to the amount a long-term partner in the state can claim.
The AMC show and Netflix hit “Breaking Bad” was a poster child for filming in New Mexico, attracting tourists who wanted to visit its iconic locations. Another popular Netflix show, “Stranger Things,” shifted its fourth season to New Mexico after filming three seasons in Georgia. Netflix purchased Albuquerque Studios, its first studio complex acquisition in 2018 to add to its Los Angeles studio hub. It committed to bring $1 billion in production to New Mexico over the next 10 years and create as many as 1,000 production jobs a year. In exchange, it would receive local funding of as much as $10 million from New Mexico and up to $4.5 million from the city of Albuquerque.
Other Hollywood players have also invested in the state. In 2019, NBCUniversal said it would build a state of the art television and film studio north of Albuquerque in a 10-year venture. It would create 330 jobs, fund workforce initiatives and generate a projected $1.1 billion in direct economic impact over a decade, according to a statement from New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The studio had been set to open this week, but the ribbon-cutting has been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The film activity has been a boon to the state’s economy. Over the past decade, employment in the film industry has grown by 13% to 3,426 jobs; average wages rose 58% to $53,014, according to data from Bruce Krasnow, public information officer at the New Mexico Economic Development Department.
The direct spend by film productions has grown 82% to $525.5 million from fiscal years 2015 to 2019. The state is expected to pay out $79 million in film tax credits this year, with that number growing to $155 million by 2024.
Much of the increased production has taken place on native lands. Over the past decade, about 10 productions a year have filmed on tribal lands. The state, which has a native filmmakers scholarship fund, is developing a network of tribal film liaisons to create more economic opportunities for the community, Krasnow said.
An hour outside Albuquerque, New Mexico’s Tesuque Pueblo is one of the state’s smallest, with about 525 members. The name Tesuque comes from a Spanish variation of the Tewa name, Te Tesugeh Oweengeh, meaning the “village of the narrow place of the cottonwood trees.”
The pueblo, ten miles north of Santa Fe and one of 19 in New Mexico, is home to many artists making pottery, paintings, silverwork and traditional clothing. The tribe recently built a new casino, leaving them to find a use for its old one. This new production facility will add to a travel center and 130-unit mobile park on the land.
For its filming needs Universal had already built a 130,000-gallon-water tank on the pueblo, which the new studio gets to keep, said Brown. Much of the indoor stage area is housed in the former casino building, which includes a 13000-square-foot casino floor and 10,000-square-foot event center. Next to it is a 12,000-square-foot warehouse.
Over time, the tribe may invest millions to further upgrade its tens of thousands of square feet of indoor filming space, according to Brown. By investing more to develop the stages into qualified sound stages, productions at Camel Rock would add another 5% to the tax credits on offer.
The studio is aiming to attract Native American productions to the facility. Peabody award-winning Native American film and television producer Chris Eyre, an advisor to the studio, said Native Americans in the past have been “misrepresented and marginalized both in front and behind the camera.”
Studies of film representation by USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative have found an absence in particular of female Native American characters in top U.S. films. Less than 1% of a total of 3,895 speaking or named characters across the 100 top films of 2018 were American Indian or Alaska Native people.
The aim with this new studio will be to help change that. Eyre will be vetting projects that might have a Native American point of view and ensure productions at the facility depict native people respectfully.
“We are traditional story tellers and we are stewards of the land, so it’s very natural what Tesuque is doing,” Eyre said. “We want to build out in terms of training native and non-native New Mexicans and to source work for New Mexicans in film.”
“We are really anticipating something good here,” said Gov. Robert Mora of the Tesuque Pueblo. “We hope the other tribes will take an interest in getting into the industry also.”
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