New Mexico production is often synonymous with big-name network and studio tentpoles, but the same incentives that lure Hollywood’s biggest players to the state foster more modest filmmaking.
Take local producer Marshall Bear. The local film and TV tax credits, first enacted in 2002, have brought production into his back yard — literally. Bear is producing the indie feature “Burning Bodhi,” most of which is shooting on the 4-acre grounds of his Albuquerque home, with cameo appearances by his pet donkeys, Trudy, Sina and Violet.
Its two-legged cast, toplined by Kaley Cuoco of “The Big Bang Theory” (pictured above, left, in photo by Kat Hess), is largely from Hollywood, but the film is packed with homegrown talent behind the camera, from its writer-director Matthew McDuffie, to the bulk of its below-the-line crew, which includes 15 interns, many of whom come from the screenwriting classes McDuffie teaches at the U. of New Mexico.
It’s a microcosm of the production culture that has emerged in the Land of Enchantment over the past two decades.
Of course “Burning Bodhi” is a minor blip on the New Mexico production landscape. Over the past few years, the state’s incentive has attracted such major Hollywood movies as “The Avengers,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Transcendence” and “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” It’s also the reason the state had five seasons of “Breaking Bad,” which creator Vince Gilligan had set in Riverside, Calif., in the original pilot script.
But Bear believes “Bodhi” could have an impact out of proportion to its modest budget.
“If it becomes commercially successful, the politics around incentives might be altered somewhat, because it’s not just Hollywood renting locations,” says Bear, whose day job is as an economist helping set up small business programs in developing countries. “The actual engine for investment is in New Mexico.”
Political support for the incentive appears to be solid in the wake of last month’s release of a study by Canadian firm MNP, which showed that between mid-2009 through early 2014 the program generated $1.5 billion in economic output and created nearly 15,900 full-time jobs for New Mexico residents.
That wasn’t always the case. When Gov. Susana Martinez came into office in January 2011 she vowed to drastically scale back the incentive and production dropped off precipitously.
“The studio facilities went from overbooked to some of them standing idle,” says industry consultant Eric Witt, who served as deputy chief of staff under Martinez’s predecessor, Gov. Bill Richardson, who championed the incentive. “Not to mention the fact that we had over 300 (production-related) businesses that started in the state see half their gross income disappear overnight.”
In the end, the only significant change made to the incentive itself was the $50 million annual cap placed on the previously unlimited program.
“Even in their busiest year, New Mexico might have been giving away $70 million a year,” says Joseph Chianese, exec veep of financial solutions at Entertainment Partners. “But when you hear a governor or a top government official making noise that they’ll change the program, producers get nervous.”
A key driver of the renewed political support for the incentive has been the success of “Breaking Bad.”
New Mexico Film Office director Nick Maniatis says he sees anecdotal evidence of its economic impact all around him, from the companies offering “Breaking Bad” bus and bike tours to the blue meth candy in the stores.
“My drugstore is right across the street from the Octopus Car Wash (owned by Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, on the show),” Maniatis says. “I asked the clerk if he sees a lot of people taking pictures. He said ‘Every single day.’”
Even Gov. Martinez seems to have been swayed. In April 2013, she signed what is known as the “Breaking Bad” bill, sweetening the state’s 25% refundable tax credit, adding an extra 5% for TV series of six episodes or more and films that shoot 10 to 15 days (depending on budget size) in a qualified production facility.
The revised incentive has a “rolling cap,” allowing up to $10 million in unused funds from the program’s $50 million annual budget to be carried over into the next fiscal year. If the budget is used up for the year a project shoots, the state allows producers to get their tax credit payout from subsequent years’ allotments.
“It’s sort of a way to get around their annual cap,” says Adrian McDonald, a research analyst with Los Angeles permitting org Film L.A. “The problem is the payout won’t come until much further down the road.”
Hollywood seems to like what it sees. For now. But, these days, if New Mexico or any region wants to hold on to production, they have to keep paying.
“As a New Mexican, I want to contribute to creating jobs in New Mexico,” Bear says. “But other producers will just go where they can make the deal work.”