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New Mexico film industry hopes to steal the show

The Nation

April 02, 2007|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

ALBUQUERQUE — 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.

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