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In New Mexico, moviemaking isn't always magical

Film incentives draw Hollywood to towns like Las Vegas, where not all the residents are star struck.

July 20, 2009|Kate Linthicum

LAS VEGAS, N.M. — This city in the foothills of the Rockies has scenery more diverse than most Hollywood back lots: A 19th century castle, a Spanish colonial plaza and miles of prairie and mountains.

That landscape -- along with New Mexico's generous film incentives -- has lured more than a dozen movie productions here in the last decade.

The filming has brought in a surge of money, but it has also brought tension. Store owners in Las Vegas, complaining that filming hurts their businesses, have clashed with film supporters, even calling for a moratorium on all productions.

As more and more movie production leaves California, sensible small towns across the country are getting a taste of Hollywood glitz -- and it isn't always sweet.

"They act like they own the town," said Bob Korte, the owner of Korte's Furniture and Bicycles, who helped lead the effort in Las Vegas.

Other towns in New Mexico have moved to control filming, including Village of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, which banned production after neighbors complained about disruption when several television shows filmed there.

Though filming has brought good money to the state, even some supporters, including Adelita Lujan, who runs Estella's Cafe in Las Vegas, acknowledge that getting used to the ways of Hollywood is not easy.

"It's better than a massive factory coming in and polluting our place," she said. But she added: "There's not a lot of lavish people here. . . . If you're not from here you stand out."

Television and film productions are migrating at a record pace to the 40 U.S. states that offer film incentives, typically in the form of tax rebates, according to Paul Audley of FilmL.A.

New Mexico, which has been particularly aggressive in courting Hollywood, has become one of the top filming destinations in the country by offering filmmakers a 25% refund on all in-state production costs and interest-free loans of up to $15 million.

More than 150 film and television projects have taken advantage of the incentives since they were introduced in 2002.

The state film commission estimates that the movie industry has generated $2.1 billion for New Mexico's economy.

No small city in the state has seen more film action than Las Vegas, which has hosted such movies as "No Country for Old Men," "North Country," "The Longest Yard" and "Wild Hogs."

Las Vegas' success is due to its chameleon nature: It can easily pass for a small town in the Midwest, the Mexican border or even Afghanistan.

The city's plaza dates to the days of the Santa Fe Trail, when Las Vegas was still a Spanish settlement and merchants from the East would ride into town in horse-drawn wagons to trade with the locals.

When the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad arrived in the late 1800s, it brought another wave of immigrants, who left their architectural mark with quaint Queen Anne and Italianate homes.

The 400-room castle that sits on the edge of town was built by the railroad as a luxury hotel.

Those were the glory days of Las Vegas, and that's when the city's film history truly begins.

In 1913, silent film director Romaine Fielding leased the entire Plaza Hotel, a large Victorian inn, to be used as studio headquarters for his Lubin Film Co. The western star Tom Mix filmed several movies in town.

But the boomtown went bust in the early 20th century when major rail traffic was diverted to the south and the Great Depression struck. Film disappeared, and so did most capital.

"Urban renewal didn't come because we didn't have the money to tear the city down," said Elmer Martinez, the city's community development director.

"In the end that ended up being kind of a blessing," he said.

Michael Dellheim, the location manager for 2007's "No Country for Old Men," said that when the film came to town, it doled out $3 million, much of it in restaurant and hotel bills and paychecks to extras.

But don't tell that to Korte. "I never saw a penny," he said.

Every time film crews arrive to shoot at the plaza, they block access to his shop and hurt his business, he said, adding that though some films have offered to reimburse him for lost profits, the offers are never enough.

"If I'm going to be inconvenienced, I'm going to need to be compensated," Korte said.

Others complain that filmmakers have brought a Hollywood attitude that just doesn't jibe in small-town Las Vegas.

"They think they're a big deal, most definitely," said Jason Cantrell, 27, who was hanging out with friends around the plaza on a recent afternoon.

He said residents had been buzzing with rumors about one young starlet who said she was too good for Las Vegas and vowed to never come back. And there's one about a leading man who demanded that a restaurant shut down its dining room so he wouldn't have to eat with locals.

In retribution, Cantrell said, some local youths sneaked around the plaza during a recent film shoot and stole hood ornaments off the fancy cars that the crew had parked there.

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