Hollywood heads east

Western states compete to get a piece of the action

  • On the set of Guns on the Table, a short that filmed near Albuquerque

    Jim Klukkert
 

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — With a trio of tattooed butterflies fluttering from her shoulder up the left side of her neck, and her long brown hair pulled back in a scarf, Mary Holyoke-Dail roams through the city’s antique shops, thrift stores and flea markets, a bundle of cash in hand. Her mission is not to accessorize her newly renovated Victorian-style home in one of Duke City’s up and coming neighborhoods, but rather to gather props to fill movie sets. Holyoke, who once scraped by as a restaurant owner, now makes a good living as a buyer for set-decoration departments. Five years ago, jobs like this hardly existed east of Los Angeles. Now, hundreds in the high desert are working as grips, costume designers, camera assistants and production accountants.

Production companies have always come to New Mexico for its scenery: John Ford filmed the Joads rolling along Route 66 in The Grapes of Wrath, and Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper rode motorcycles through here in Easy Rider. In fact, since 1898, more than 300 movies have been filmed in the Land of Enchantment.

But in 2002, New Mexico began actively courting Hollywood. Now, lured by state incentives, production companies are coming to the state for more than just its desert scenery and picturesque plazas. Incentives include no-interest loans, tax rebates and exemptions, state-funded workforce training, and a program that reimburses production companies for 50 percent of the wages for New Mexicans.

"The state always subsidizes industry," says Holyoke-Dail, who has worked on about a dozen feature films in the state since 2002. "What the state is doing is subsidizing something that provides work for creative people."

You’ll be a star, baby

Officials are quick to point out that these incentives are about more than seeing New Mexico’s name in lights. In April, Pahl Shipley, Gov. Bill Richardson’s director of communications, announced that since Richardson, D, took office in 2002, the film industry has added more than $650 million to the economy.

New Mexico dropped a chunk of change to reap that business, though: According to the State Investment Council, over the past four years the state has lent more than $142 million to production companies for 18 different projects. Those projects, says council spokesman Charles Wollman, have generated more than $90 million in payroll, hotel and car rentals, food services and lumber for set construction.

There’s no doubt that the state is going hog-wild for Hollywood: Gov. Richardson invited blonde bombshell Jessica Simpson to the governor’s mansion for dinner, met with top executives from Universal, MGM, Paramount and Dreamworks studios, and has even received campaign contributions from Hollywood heavyweights Rob Reiner and Michael Eisner.

The Albuquerque suburb of Rio Rancho is eagerly wooing Lions Gate, a major movie company, to build a new studio in the city center. City Manager Jim Palenick says the move will propel the city "into the future." The city council has voted to give the company 20 acres and would buy it an additional 32 acres if Lions Gate commits to the project, which it hasn’t done yet.

One former executive with the state film office explains that, today, moviemakers rarely come to the state because they have a particular location in mind — they come because of the incentives. And like any other industry, she says, the film industry is fickle: "Any state that can put together a better package will lure that business away."

"Follow the money"

Although New Mexico jumped on the Hollywood train early, other Western states are looking to get their names on the marquee, too.

Most states offer a rebate on hotel sales tax if production companies stay more than a month; Idaho and Utah offer sales tax exemptions or rebates. Production companies that spend more than $1 million in Oregon get a 10 percent cash rebate. Washington offers tax breaks, and also encourages independent filmmakers by offering them 30 to 70 percent discounts for certain services. A draft bill in the Wyoming Legislature would establish a $2 million film rebate for production companies filming in the state. And Montana offers an 8 percent rebate on certain expenses and will reimburse production companies for part of the wages of Montana residents, up to $50,000 per employee per project.

But even those incentives are not always enough: In the 1990s, Patrick Markey produced A River Runs Through It and The Horse Whisperer in Montana. But he’s taken his latest movie over the border to Canada. That’s also where Brokeback Mountain was filmed, despite its fictional Wyoming setting. Markey, who serves on the Montana Film Council at the request of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D, has defended the move as one of economic necessity.

In an April op-ed in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Markey laid out the reasons why he’s filming in Canada: "aggressive incentives" and "extremely professional film commissioners, who truly understand production." According to Markey, if he filmed his current $4 million project in Montana, it would qualify for about $150,000 in rebates; in Canada, he and his investors will receive $750,000 in rebates.

Meanwhile, in New Mexico, Mary Holyoke-Dail knows the blockbuster trend won’t last forever. But she’ll never have to return to the kitchen, she says: "We’re creating so much infrastructure," such as production studios, sound stages, and movie sets. She puts in one last plug for her state: "Besides, we have really good crew here; most other states don’t."

The author, Southwest correspondent for High Country News, is spending her summer watching movies in Albuquerque.

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation in Santa Fe.

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