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Film consultant says decision expected in 30 to 60 days

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FARMINGTON — San Juan County officials are close to narrowing down the location and specifications for a planned film production facility they hope will make the area more attractive to filmmakers.

Brent Garcia, the county's film consultant, said there has been considerable progress on opening such a facility since the Legislature approved the county's request for $1 million in capital outlay funding for the project in March.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the measure into law April 5, and on May 21, state officials traveled to Aztec to sign an agreement with county commissioners on the grant that will help the county acquire property for, design, equip and construct a film studio.

Garcia, an independent filmmaker and owner of the Garcia Brothers Marketing Co. who has been hired by the county as a contractor to help complete the project, said the county is doing its due diligence on three potential sites for the facility and is likely to make a decision within the next 30 to 60 days.

"This has happened considerably quicker than we anticipated," he said, explaining that county officials originally thought the grant agreement with the state would not be signed before September. "The state's really on board, and they're really pushing for this economic diversification with film."

Garcia said he was impressed that state officials traveled to San Juan County to sign the agreement, taking it as a sign of how serious they are about seeing the state's budding film industry expand beyond its Albuquerque-Santa Fe base.

"Absolutely," he said. "It shows they really want to see it support and benefit the entire state, not just that central corridor."

Garcia said the county is focused on purchasing and repurposing an existing structure rather than building a new one. With the surplus of empty warehouse-like buildings in the area, that makes good financial sense, he said.

The facility could fill a variety of purposes for film production companies, Garcia has said in the past, most notably serving as a soundstage where interior scenes could be filmed. The building essentially could be rented to film productions and serve as their home base, with cameras, lights, costumes, vehicles and other equipment being stored there, while also providing office, meeting and work space.

But county officials are considering a second option, one that includes the purchase of additional land to serve as a backlot where outdoor sets could be built — perhaps a replica of a town or some specialty setting. That property would need to include plenty of room for expansion, he said.

"If a studio comes in and says, 'We need (the set) to be bigger, we could lease it to them for free with the understanding that whatever they build stays when they leave," Garcia said.

One of the advantages of having a soundstage and a backlot is that they would provide San Juan County with two so-called qualifying facilities for state tax incentives. New Mexico offers filmmakers a tax rebate program for shooting projects in the state and recently enhanced that package to include an additional financial incentive for projects outside the Santa Fe-Albuquerque corridor. Leasing a soundstage or a backlot would help film producers qualify for those tax breaks, Garcia said.

More: A new act: San Juan County signs grant agreement for future film studio

"We want to be smart about how this million dollars is spent," Garcia said, explaining that the county needs to maximize its opportunities to lure filmmakers here. He expects the county to be ready to discuss its progress on additional film-related projects and infrastructure within 90 to 120 days.

But there is no way of knowing when the grant money from the state will arrive, he cautioned, and any further action on opening new facilities will be dependent on that. Garcia is pleased with the plans the county has in the works, but he acknowledged feeling a degree of impatience, as well.

"To me, nothing moves fast enough. I've been kind of chipping away at this whole project for three years. I feel like we're behind a little bit of our competition," he said, noting that other smaller communities around the state, including Roswell and Las Cruces, already have opened small film productions facilities of their own that they have used to attract filmmakers.

The flip side of joining the game at this point, he said, is that San Juan County can identify elements those facilities and communities are not providing and work to incorporate them into its package of offerings.

"In a way, I'm glad it's taking longer, because it's given us the opportunity to be intentional about how we're planning it," he said. "We're focused on some innovation."

Garcia senses a growing excitement about the potential economic impact of the film industry in San Juan County, citing the social media chatter and media reports that arose after two recent high-profile projects — a "Jumanji" sequel starring Jack Black, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Karen Gillan; and "Bios," a sci-fi film starring Tom Hanks — were shot near Shiprock and in other New Mexico locations.

"Certainly, the bigger productions coming in helped validate that feeling," he said.

More: Four Corners Film Festival designed to help jump start industry in San Juan County

Garcia said his rough estimate is that producers of the two productions spent millions of dollars in the county during their short time here, noting that each production featured a crew of close to 200 people. Those workers included a fair number of local residents who were employed as production assistants and security guards, but the rest of the crew members were staying in hotels and eating in restaurants, he said, providing a good boost to the county's hospitality industry.

More: Film production facility could boost local economy, officials say

He noted one of the productions required the rental of 12 trailers, which he assumes was done locally. The equipment rental market may not be glamorous, Garcia said, but it is a very real part of most film projects and can total a significant amount of money. Other ancillary services such as cleaning services, road signage and catering also provide sizable economic opportunities, he said.

"There's a lot that goes into it," he said.

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

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