New Mexico benefiting from Netflix presence

Army of the Dead and El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie are among productions to shoot in the US state

By Chris Evans 23 Oct 2019

New Mexico benefiting from Netflix presence
Shiprock, San Juan county

Netflix boost

When Netflix announced it was purchasing Albuquerque Studios at the end of last year to make it a hub for film production, there was a lot of buzz surrounding New Mexico. One year on and the state is booming.

Netflix purchased the ABQ Studios, which offer eight sound stages totalling 132,000 square feet of space, for just $30m. As part of the deal, the streaming giant is to spend $1bn over the course of a decade and add 1,000 jobs per year. These are ambitious targets. But with just two productions alone in 2019 - El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie and Army of the Dead - a whopping 722 New Mexico crew were hired, and local spend totalled $69.7m.

The state has already become Netflix’s “home away from home”, as Ty Warren, vice president, physical production for Netflix, put it. They have even established a seat on the board of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.

“The Netflix deal has changed the paradigm in many ways,” insists Todd Christensen, director of the New Mexico Film Office and a veteran line producer, to KFTV. “They’re fully committed to the state and will likely grow their presence here, creating more stages and backlots.”

Netflix is further boosted by the fact that it is not restricted by the $110m (£85m) cap on what can be paid to a film or TV production under the New Mexico film incentive. Film companies currently receive a 25% rebate on goods and services expenses, and some TV shows get up to a 30% rebate. “So, Netflix could get say $150m in rebates if they wanted,” adds Christensen.

But although the streaming giant is getting preferential treatment, it’s not the only big player riding into town...

Universal appeal

NBCUniversal has also committed to invest $500m in the state over the next 10 years by building a studio in Albuquerque, creating 330 jobs and generating an estimated $1bn in economic development.

They are turning an empty warehouse in the New Mexico area into a state-of-the-art studio with two sound stages and offices. In addition, NBCUniversal and Garcia Realty and Development will jointly locate lighting, grip and transportation operations at the facility on Commercial Street.

As part of the pact, New Mexico's economic development office is providing over $7m via the Local Economic Development Act, while the city of Albuquerque is giving another $3m from its LEDA fund to the redevelopment and production commitment.

Upon completion of the studio conversions, which are pegged at $4m, the new facility will be used by NBCUniversal to produce scripted productions for many platforms, including broadcast and cable channels. Currently, the USA network series Briarpatch, from Universal Content Productions, has committed to film in Albuquerque. 

“The producers of that show are really happy about filming here,” enthuses Christensen. “The funny thing is some producers have come here and been surprised by what you can get in New Mexico. They think of it as just a desert, but it’s got such an amazing variety of locations.”

 Location, location, location

The key areas are Santa Fe and Albuquerque because that’s where the crew are, but Christensen says there’s also the White Sands National Monument, where a lot of productions go. Plus, Las Cruces in the south of New Mexico offers a metropolitan city, but also craggy mountains, as well as a vast desert. While Shiprock in San Juan County is on a Navajo reservation and looks like Monument Valley. “We have everything, lakes, rivers, mountains, parts of Albuquerque that can fit any town in the US. Plus, we are close to Los Angeles, so producers and actors can get here and back easily,” says Christensen.

 Netflix’s El Camino not only shot at the ABQ Studios, but also all New Mexico, including along the Sandia Crest Scenic Highway in Cedar Crest, which doubled for Alaska, and at the Baca Ranch Scout Camporee in Algodones.

 Army of the Dead also shot all around Alberqueque. “They built some of the sets around the stages, but also shot in basements of buildings, doubling them for Las Vegas,” enthuses Christensen.

Indeed, the whole of New Mexico has become a major hub for productions; thanks in part to the appeal of an additional 5% tax credit incentive for companies that take productions to rural areas - 60 miles outside the Albuquerque/Santa Fe corridor.

In recent months, Liam Neeson’s The Minuteman spread across the state, shooting in To’Hajilee, Jemez Pueblo, Belen, Albuquerque and Rio Rancho. The film is about a rancher on the Arizona border who becomes the unlikely defender of a young Mexican boy desperately fleeing the cartel assassins who have pursued him into the United States.

“This is another example of how productions are going to all parts of the state to find locations that fit their story,” said Alicia J. Keyes, cabinet secretary of economic development at State of New Mexico. “We are pleased that Minuteman has discovered the tribal and rural communities that make New Mexico unique.”

Popular pueblos

As yet, productions can’t access the rebate from shooting in the pueblos, but the plan is to potentially change that. “We are already creating liaisons (film commissioners) for the pueblos, who can act as a conduit between the community and the film companies,” says Christensen. “The Isleta pueblo, for example, want to open up areas there for filming. They’ve got a big ranch we can use. I’ve also been talking to the Navajos who are interested in more filming in their unique environments.”

Christensen himself has experience of shooting in the pueblos, having worked as a location manager on Sicario, starring Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin, which shot partly in the Laguna pueblo. “it was the first time a film production had gone there in 42 years,” he explains. “I was nervous because when someone dies there, they usually close down the pueblo. I was concerned if that happened, whether I could still shoot. I had to speak to the mayor of the village. He looked at me, smiled, and said “You look like economic development, I’m sure we can sort it out”.

Indeed, Christensen would help bring the sequel, Sicario 2: Soldado, back to shoot in New Mexico a few years later, in his capacity as supervising location manager. “We have spent a lot of money in the pueblos, and hired a load of locals for productions,” says Christensen.

Expansion plans

The intention is to increase the number of local crew members and expand the studio and stage infrastructure to cater for the increasing number of productions shooting in the state.

There is a lot of on-the-job training going on through the Film Crew Advancement Program (FCAP) as well as at the 21 high schools, community colleges and universities that have media programs.

Keyes has also talked about industry partners like Netflix and NBCUniversal contributing to workforce training with apprentice work, mentorships and financial contributions to schools.

“We have a new governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is keen to promote the region, develop local talent, encourage spend from productions and make our state stronger,” concludes Christensen.

Main image: Army of the Dead. Credit: Zack Snyder, Netflix

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