Film production facility could boost local economy, officials say

The Legislature has approved funding for a film studio in San Juan County, but the governor has not signed the measure.

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FARMINGTON — When location scouts for the 2014 action thriller "Beyond the Reach" were considering where their project might be shot, their search led them to Don Gray, the longtime locations coordinator for the New Mexico Film Office.

"That movie really centered around a very specific location — an expanse of desert that led into a mountain area," Gray said during a phone interview Thursday from his office in Santa Fe. "The director (Jean-Baptiste Leonetti) had a very specific idea in his head about what he wanted."

Gray, whose job is to sell the state to producers as an attractive place to shoot film and video projects, listened to what Leonetti had in mind and shared with him a variety of images of the Four Corners. The response he got back from the filmmaker was everything he could have hoped for.

"(Leonetti) absolutely, completely fell down when he saw the photos of the Four Corners region," Gray recalled. "That, to him, was 'the Reach.' As soon as I showed him the pictures, we had him. … After that, there was no question he wasn't going to go anywhere else but the Farmington area."

Gray tells that story to illustrate the importance of physical setting to filmmakers, especially those working on outdoors-oriented projects. An ideal landscape or cityscape can be the deciding factor for a producer or director when it comes to deciding where to shoot a project, and Gray said San Juan County's distinctive terrain gives it a leg up for filmmakers pursuing a one-of-a-kind setting.

"That whole northwest corner of the state has a particular look about it," he said. "There's uniqueness about that particular area that makes it attractive to storytellers."

But the look of a place is far from being the only consideration for filmmakers when it comes to picking a location. A variety of other factors — the availability of production facilities, transportation, lodging, dining, nightlife, support services and well-trained behind-the-camera personnel — also play a prominent role in that decision making.

And that is where many observers say San Juan County has some work to do in terms of building its presence in a state where the film industry is wielding a larger and larger economic impact these days.

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Local officials are hoping to address a significant item on that list soon with the possible opening of a film production facility here. State lawmakers granted the county's request for $1 million in capital outlay funds for construction of such a facility last month, but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has yet to sign the bill.

If she does so, the county will be able to offer filmmakers an expansive facility that could serve a variety of purposes — providing everything from a soundstage for shooting interior scenes and set-building shops to meeting rooms, storage areas and training spaces.

"First and foremost, it's economic development. We're really focused on us having a facility that makes us more attractive to film projects," San Juan County Manager Mike Stark said of the potential facility.

Looking for answers

For the past few years, local officials have been engaged in attempts to identify economic development opportunities as they grapple with the potential closure of the San Juan Generating Station in 2022, a move they fear would devastate the local economy.

When the county staff began compiling a list of projects for the county's capital outlay funding requests that the County Commission would present to the Legislature in January, Stark said it was focused on finding projects associated with industries in which the county already had experienced some success.

"As our commission was evaluating the landscape of different economic development opportunities, this one really rose to the top," he said.

County Commissioner Jack Fortner was perhaps the idea's biggest champion.

"When it comes to economic development, you look for something that already works — you don't reinvent the wheel — and expand it," he said. "That's what we've done with the film industry."

Commissioners voted to make the request for $1 million for the film production facility their top capital outlay priority. That move appeared to pay off when the Legislature included the request in the $933 million bill they approved late in the recently ended session, a measure that features more than $30 million for projects in San Juan County.

The bill continues to await the signature of the governor, who has line-item veto power, meaning she can eliminate funding for any of the projects included in the bill.

Local government officials and film industry supporters certainly are hoping she doesn't veto the film studio funding. They believe the project would make the county a more attractive destination for filmmakers and help diversify the local economy.

"One of the best ways to develop your local economy is to start with the businesses that already exist," Stark said. "We want to identify the businesses that are having success in San Juan County and encourage them and enhance the things that address their needs."

More: San Juan County seeks capital outlay money for film studio

The county hasn't attracted a large amount of filmmaking activity in recent years, but the shooting of "Beyond the Reach" here in 2014 is far from being its only success story. The county also has been the site of film for such film projects as "The Lone Ranger" and "Transformers," and the television series "Stargate Universe."

"A soundstage is a great starting point," said local filmmaker Brent Garcia, who is organizing a weeklong film festival in Farmington in September and who serves as one of the industry's more vocal proponents here.

He said San Juan County is experiencing an uptick in film and video activity, and the opening of a new facility could be just the boost the area needs to keep the ball rolling.

"If a couple of big productions are in here every year, that's the difference between doing nothing and doing $20 million to $30 million (in spending) a year. I'm extremely excited about it."

Fortner credited Garcia with doing much of the legwork that led to San Juan County putting the studio proposal together. He said a film production facility would offer the county the most bang for its buck in terms of making an investment.

"Look, there aren't many things you can do with only a million dollars in economic development," he pointed out.

But a studio would begin to pay almost immediate dividends, he believes. He said there is a film project coming to Shiprock in the next couple of months that is expected to spend two weeks shooting and inject $3 million to $5 million in the local economy.

"One film would make it more than worthwhile," he said.

Gray pointed to the experience Las Cruces had when director, producer and star Clint Eastwood brought his project "The Mule" there in 2018 for a shoot that lasted just six to 10 days. In that short amount of time, Gray said, the production spent $1.3 million in the community.

"Is Las Cruces the hub of filmmaking in New Mexico? No. But did it have an impact? How could it not? It had to have," he said.

Renner pointed out there is an extended filmmaking history in the Farmington area.

"I guess what people don't realize is we've been making films here for a very long time," he said, explaining that his students put on a presentation last year that highlighted that history, including the film "For the Love of a Navajo" that was shot here in 1908.

He said when a large-scale Hollywood production comes to a community, it often results a flood of spending and media attention. But he said Farmington might be better served by focusing its efforts on attracting lower-profile, smaller-budget projects, and having a studio available would aid that effort.

"The blockbusters are great, and they bring a huge influx of money," he said. "But if San Juan County can service some episodic (television) series, that's something that could run for a number of years."

What happens next?

If the governor approves the capital outlay funds for the studio, Stark said the earliest San Juan County would receive the money from the state would be August or September. He said the process of building the studio would start then, but county officials would have a lot to consider in the meantime.

For instance, would the county be better served by building a new facility or renovating an existing structure? Because there is no comparable facility nearby, county officials don't have a good idea of how much their $1 million will get them in terms of building size and features. The county also would need to invest in equipment to outfit the facility.

"More than likely, $1 million is not going to be enough to build and outfit a new facility," Stark said.

He said there is also the issue of location to consider — the building would need to have convenient access to all sorts of local goods and services, so that rules out a remote site where property might be less expensive — and whether the county would want to hire a provider to manage the facility on its behalf.

Fortner said the county likely will use a consultant to examine those issues on its behalf before it starts making decisions. But he said he is inclined to believe the retrofitting of an existing structure is the wisest course of action.

Gray and Garcia said film production facilities typically begin as large, empty shells that are modified to meet the specific needs of film and video productions. Gray said a building with a footprint of 7,000 square feet is a reasonable place to start, since there is a provision in New Mexico's film tax incentives law that requires productions to operate out of a facility at least that big to qualify for a rebate.

The most prominent feature of such a facility is likely to be a large soundstage with a high ceiling and soundproofing. There also would need to be room for such features as a set-construction shop, an art studio, a costume area, equipment storage, office space, meeting space, ample parking and perhaps even editing bays.

Stark cited the need for classrooms where behind-the-camera crew workers could attend training sessions during times when the facility was not being used for a production.

"When there are down times, that would allow the facility to be used for other purposes," Stark said. "It's an asset that's not used just for the industry."

Fortner said that would be an important component of the facility, ensuring it isn't idle. He expects the facility would be used for a film project for two to four weeks at a time every three months or so.

"It won't sit empty waiting for the next film to be shot there," he said.

Stark estimated that once work on a facility began, it would take nine to 12 months to build a new studio and six months to renovate one. He said the county would be fortunate to have a facility open before the first quarter of 2020.

Building momentum

The creation of a film production facility would go hand in hand with the recent approval of an increase in state film tax credits that are designed to draw more projects to the state — especially to those outside the Albuquerque-Santa Fe corridor that has attracted the most activity so far.

New Mexico's film incentives package — already considered one of more industry friendly in the country — got even better on Friday when Lujan Grisham signed Senate Bill 2, which more than doubles the annual cap on rebate payments to qualified film and television productions. The measure also authorizes an additional tax incentive for productions in rural areas of the state, a feature that should directly benefit San Juan County's efforts.

Gray described the film industry as a portable one that will go where it needs to in order to take advantage of the settings and the bottom line.

"If the look is right, the production will come to you," he said, explaining that if San Juan County builds a film production facility, it can check another box on the list of things it needs to do to attract the industry.

Having an experienced local film liaison also is important for a community, Gray said, crediting the professionalism of Tonya Stinson, the executive director of the Farmington Convention and Tourism Bureau in that regard. He said in his experience, Farmington always has been very welcoming of film projects.

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"A lot of communities don't necessarily get that," he said. "That makes it harder for them to attract the industry."

If there is any local pushback to the idea of spending $1 million state funds for a film production facility, Stark and Fortner said they haven't heard it.

"The folks I talk to, everybody understands" the idea behind the studio," Stark said. "And some are absolutely blown away that the industry is here because they don't see it. … That's the missing link for most folks who think it can't happen for San Juan County or northwest New Mexico. They wonder, 'Why would anyone want to come here?' Well, a lot of reasons."

Garcia said he is aware of four to six significant film projects that could be coming to San Juan County in the next 18 to 24 months. If each of those projects dumps $8 million to $12 million into the local economy, no one would be questioning the wisdom of building a $1 million film production facility.

The benefits of such a windfall would far reaching for a region that has struggled economically for many years, he said.

"It will allow us to put many more people to work," he said. "With a soundstage, we need contractors to help build sets, electricians, caterers – there are many jobs outside the existing production scope. It's not just about operating a camera or writing a script."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.

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