Scout & About: New Mexico 2012

A 90-minute flight from Los Angeles. An average of 300 days a year of sunshine. A 25% tax rebate.

For 10 years, that combination — along with a responsive film office headed up by a longtime locations expert — helped transform New Mexico into one of the country’s hot spots for filmmaking. What could go wrong?

A lot, as it turns out. The state remains sunny and easily accessed, but when Republican Susana Martinez succeded Democrat Bill Richardson as governor in January 2011, the state’s position on facilitating film production changed significantly. The film office’s budget was slashed, director Lisa Strout fired and her position left vacant for six months. Then the legislature opted to tweak the no-cap rebate, making it tiered and, to Hollywood’s eyes, complicated. Suddenly, New Mexico was a virtual desert.

“This is so much a word-of-mouth business,” says Eric Witt, Richardson’s former deputy chief of staff. “There’s absolutely no doubt that the state has a hole to dig itself out of in terms of reputation.”

Since 18 months is about the length of a film’s gestation period, the real effects of production leaving the state are only just now being felt, and films that might have come to New Mexico have gone elsewhere. Not having a film office head for six months meant producers had no one to reach out to with questions, or to get assurance that things were still up and running. The state that hosted “The Avengers” and took in an aggregate direct spend of almost $2 billion in eight years (with a $5 billion economic impact) can claim just one tentpole this year — “The Lone Ranger.” It will lose “Breaking Bad” later in 2012 because of the series’ ending, and was unable to keep the new CBS series “Vegas” in-state after the pilot was shot in New Mexico.

“You can’t shut down your film office for six months, and then 18 months later wonder why you don’t have any pictures,” says Jon Hendry, business agent for IATSE 480, the New Mexico technicians union, which has lost about 20% of its membership since the slowdown began.

But now there are some gradual, steady signs of a revival. Nick Maniatis, the director of the film commission, has put the word out with repeated pilgrimages to Hollywood studios that New Mexico is open for business. He confirms there are up to three projects that will start shooting in New Mexico in September, though he declined to give titles.

“It’s been an interesting ride,” says Maniatis, who walked into his job six months after the rebate program was changed into a rolling cap, and says he’s spent a lot of time reassuring skittish productions. “The money is there,” he says. “The tax credit is there. You’ll get your money.”

The main change in the rebate is more about when productions get paid. With the $50 million annual rolling cap, some films will get their payouts split over a two-year period, says Maniatis.

The system tends to weight more toward big-budget productions than indies, according to veteran line producer Brent Morris. “It means there’s not as much money for lower-budget features,” he says. “People can’t make a living just making small films anymore,” adding that indie films, which often use rebate money to self-finance, can’t afford to wait to get paid.

New Mexico still has a solid crew base and infrastructure, largely fronted by Albuquerque Studios’ eight stages and Santa Fe Studios’ two stages, which have seen varying degrees of business and are eager to ramp things up again. This year has been “slim pickins,” says Pacifica Ventures CEO Dana Arnold, whose company built Albuquerque Studios.

Adds Pacifica senior veep Matt Rauchberg, “The problem (Maniatis) has is that you’re in a horse race — other states are competing for the best opportunities. If you get behind in that horse race, you have to run twice as fast to catch up.”

Santa Fe Studios, the new kid on the block, has been open less than a year. President Jason Hool says they are at near capacity, but notes that plans to eventually expand to nine stages are on hold until production picks up again. “The good news,” says Hool, “is that the new administration now recognizes that the film industry is a shining star for economic development in the state.”

But changes may still be slow in coming. That realization is spurring private interests to take their own action. Notes Diane Schneier Perrin, director of the Santa Fe Film Festival, “Rather than argue with the governor, we’re just going out and making sure Hollywood knows we’re open for business.”

Self-preservation through self-promotion makes sense, says Hendry. “There’s no reason why we can’t set up a fund that would advance people their money once they have promises from the government that they will be paid,” he says. “There are things we can do to alleviate the situation.”

However fast or furiously production returns to New Mexico, all sides have learned valuable lessons. The state discovered that Hollywood goes where the money is, period. And Hollywood discovered that New Mexico’s film production industry can be subject to the whims of elected officials who may not be fully informed. It’s a precarious truce, and trust may take years to rebuild.

“We’re eternally optimistic,” says Maniatis. “We’ll see how it plays out — there’s a lot of movement these days. I hope people can be patient, but I don’t want them to be too patient. We’re doing a lot better (than we were a year ago). A year from now, come back and judge me on that.”

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