Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Reel state

Inside Room 101 of Ted Chavez Hall on the main TVI campus in Albuquerque, students are studying magic.

Eager learners zip, zoom, hustle and bustle around the room, weaving among cameras, tables, cords, microphones, chairs, tripods, lights and each other. Instructors bark out strange incantations, phrases such as, “I want power to all my taps!” and “Video village is up and hot!”

It’s a controlled chaos, an orchestrated explosion. No subdued pontificating in front of a chalkboard; no quiet students locked behind a desk. No, this is magic – the moviemaking kind – and for all intents and purposes, Room 101 is not a community college classroom but a movie set where about 60 New Mexicans are preparing themselves for jobs in the state’s rapidly growing film industry.

“I love it,” says Rebecca Stover, a 45-year-old student who entered the training program in hopes of finding better-paying work to lead her into retirement. “You can only do theory for so long. It’s good to get practical experience.”

Since 2002, a slew of financial incentives has helped draw in enough media makers to create a $246.3 million economic effect on New Mexico’s economy, according to the New Mexico Economic Development Department.

That translates to 50 films, documentaries and TV films since 2002, with five being worked on or completed this year.

But industry professionals say there could be even more media productions in the state, and students like Stover in the 39-week film technician training program – begun at Santa Fe Community College in September 2004 and under way at TVI since January – might help make it happen.

Seducing the silver screen

The state’s current package of financial temptations for film productions includes a 15 percent rebatable tax credit and a 5 percent to 7 percent gross receipts tax deduction. On top of that, more than 800 state-owned buildings are available for film shoots at no charge.

Moviemakers can also use the state’s mentorship program. It allows them to get a 50 percent reimbursement from the state on the wages – up to 1,040 hours – of New Mexicans they hire and train in new positions.

But there’s more: In 2000, the Legislature set aside money from the state’s Severance Tax Permanent Fund to finance up to $7.5 million of a film production.

However, the program struggled, and the state tweaked it in 2002 into a no-interest loan to make it more attractive, says Lisa Strout, director of the New Mexico Film Office.

But it’s not free money. The state won’t give the loan unless its principal is fully guaranteed. Companies accepting it must have at least 60 percent of their crew’s payroll made up of New Mexicans when shooting in New Mexico. And the kicker? The state will share in a small percentage – anywhere from 2.5 percent to 6 percent – of any profits the film might generate.

Bingo.

By 2003, after the loan program and 2002’s 15 percent tax credit had time to percolate through the industry, the number of film productions soared.

In fiscal year 2003, the financial effect of film productions on the state – $79.1 million – grew almost 800 percent from the $8.8 million of fiscal year 2002, according to the New Mexico Film Office. And though the effect dipped in 2004, fiscal year 2005 to date has brought in $97.7 million.

The combination of the tax breaks and the no-interest loan is “beautiful,” says Jon Hendry, business agent with International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Studio Mechanics Local 480, the local branch of the union for film industry workers.

The sudden influx of productions also brought a rocketing demand for skilled film crews. “Too many movies, not enough people,” in Hendry’s words.

Strout estimates there were about 70 crew members available to work toward the beginning of fiscal year 2002. About 600 crew members are in the state today, she says. About 150 people make up a crew, although some crews can bulge to 200 people or more.

The mentorship program has answered some of the calls for crew members, but Strout says more are needed. The film technician training program – a joint project between the New Mexico Film Office and Local 480 – is making them.

The magician’s rabbit

The first semester of the three-semester program at TVI gives students a basic knowledge of film terminology and most of the “below the line” areas of a film production.

A below-the-line worker is generally concerned with handling the nuts and bolts of executing a director’s dream. They are, so to speak, the people who catch, feed, groom and place the rabbit inside the magician’s hat. Need a ditch dug? Below the line. A power cord wrapped up? Below the line. A light checked? Below the line.

By the second semester, students choose a specialization, which can include handling sound, running a set’s electricity, building props and preparing meals. In the third semester, they develop even more expertise in their chosen area. Throughout both semesters, and for some of the first, students work on real productions to hone their skills.

The classes are taught by certified members of Local 480, the film workers’ union. Working so closely with union members gives students a big advantage, says Hendry, business agent with the film workers’ union. He explains: Union membership is essential for acquiring work on film productions, and relationships developed in the class will help launch careers.

“We’re not only teaching people how to work; we’re getting them hired,” he says. “There’s a career path now in New Mexico.”

A tough job

Grubb Graebner, a film industry veteran who is coordinating the curriculum for the training program at TVI, says working in the movie business can be like going to war.

“It’s different from an 8-to-5 job,” he says. “They (film workers) have to be able to work long hours for intense periods of time and be able to take off time and adjust to whatever the industry brings through.”

It can mean days that start 2 a.m. in the middle of nowhere with rain pouring down, one instructor warns. It can mean months away from family and friends. It can mean months without work.

But Stover, the middle-aged student who brings distinctive talents to the class, isn’t scared.

“I’m a blacksmith,” she says. “I can hammer for six hours straight.”

She’s also working two jobs and going to school, and she doubts working a movie could be any harder. When she’s done, she’s hoping to end up in the art department of film productions.

“I have a real good sense for architectural style and different design styles,” she says. “It’d be nice to be able to use that.”

When and if she gets her first job, she’ll be paid handsomely. Hendry of the film workers’ union says union technicians make between $20 and $27 an hour. But he says overtime – 12-hour and longer days are standard – can crank a year’s wages into the $60,000 to $100,000 range, depending on how many projects someone chooses to work on.

Blockbuster numbers

When Stover joins the industry, she’ll be far from alone.

In 2003, film productions by companies that were part of the Motion Picture Association of America employed about 183,500 people, according to the latest data available from the association.

In the same year, the average cost of making a major studio film was $63.8 million, and 593 of them were produced. Box office gross receipts for the association’s members’ films hit $9.5 billion.

Jean Prewitt, president and CEO of the Independent Film & Television Alliance, a nonprofit trade association for the independent film and TV industry, says independent filmmaking is thriving too.

“We’re on an upswing,” she says. “Whenever there are substantial incentives, you see more films get made.”

In New Mexico, film productions generated 58,567 worker days – a single day worked by a single crew member – in fiscal year 2003, according to the New Mexico Film Office. In fiscal year 2004, there were 40,087 worker days and 38,355 in fiscal year 2005 to date. In fiscal years 2000, 2001 and 2002, there was a total of 37,612 worker days.

“Everybody knows about New Mexico,” Prewitt says. “It really is one of the easiest to deal with and one of the most attractive for filmmaking.”

Star power

As with anyone else, the people working on a movie need to eat, sleep, get around and have fun. That can mean a big boost in revenues for New Mexico businesses ready to serve them.

“It’s been pretty good for us,” says Sydney Kennedy, the local market area manager for Advantage Rent-a-Car in New Mexico who works primarily in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. “I think it’s going to be a steady business down the road.”

He says an average month at the rental agency will see about $70,000 in revenue, and film productions, depending on their size, can add from $10,000 to $25,000 a month to that number.

However, there are standouts. “The Longest Yard,” a big-budget movie shot in 2004 that starred Adam Sandler, Burt Reynolds and Chris Rock, brought in about $100,000 a month for the agency, he said.

One of Kennedy’s strategies to capture film business is to lend cars free of charge to producers scouting New Mexico.

Area hotels, such as the Sheraton Old Town, have a similar technique; they comp rooms to visiting producers in the hopes of picking up the $10,000 to $150,000 in revenue their movies might bring, says Ed Pulsifer, vice president of sales and marketing for Heritage Hotels and Resorts, which includes the Sheraton Old Town.

He says film productions’ steady business – they typically stay every night for anywhere from one month to three – helps alleviate an average hotel cycle that sees periods of high room occupancy followed by periods of heavy vacancies.

“I’ve already hosted just this year probably two or three (film productions),” Pulsifer says. “I’ve never seen in 20 years anything like the last 12 to 24 months, especially the last 12.”

Strout of the film office points out “The Missing,” a 2003 Western directed by Ron Howard, as an example of what movie productions bring to the state. It spent $1 million on hotels, $1 million on lumber and $1 million on food, she says.

Coming attractions

If $7.5 million seems like a big loan, how does $15 million sound?

Should Senate Bill 916 pass, that’s how much money the state would dangle before filmmakers. It would also double the total amount of money – currently at $95.5 million – available to loan from the state’s Severance Tax Permanent Fund.

“It would help attract TV series, which is definitely the goal behind the program,” says Charles Wollmann, spokesman for the State Investment Council, which handles the funds flowing to film productions.

“If we do that, then all of a sudden it’s a different ballgame. You have training going on constantly . . . a more consistent type of work being done. You get into a much bigger deal than even a very big movie if you have a series shot here.”

Other bills circulating this legislative session, which ends this week, might sweeten the state’s film production incentives even more.

Strout says the 15 percent tax credit might be expanded to include post-production work, which happens after a film has been shot and the raw materials get assembled into the final version moviegoers see in theaters.

The state is also looking for a way to lend a production company 80 percent of its expected tax rebate up front – essentially a way to get incentive money to a production sooner rather than later, Wollmann says.

And outside the Roundhouse, a $50 million digital media production facility is to begin construction late this year on Albuquerque’s old Santa Fe Railway yards. It would provide a controlled shooting location and post-production options for a number of media projects.

A big concern for Strout is competition from nearby states – Texas, Utah and Arizona – for film dollars. She says they are considering financial incentives like New Mexico’s, and with their geographic similarity to the state, could snatch film dollars.

But in the meantime, the film office is busy looking at 150 potential projects.

“That’s healthy,” Strout says. “In the old days, we’d be happy when we got a script in. Sometimes now we look at eight in a day.”

If 15 of those projects were made, the state would be doing great, she says, but there is still a need for more skilled film workers.

With the film technician training program spreading to other community colleges throughout the state, producing that labor force should get easier; Strout estimates 300 crew members will be joining the fray by next year.

“The work force part of this is crucial,” she says. “That’s the biggest thing at the moment.”

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