Looking at a map of winding paths cutting through the area north of Gallup, you’ll see the byways and highways named as one might expect: Hard Ground Canyon Road, White Cliffs Road, South White Smoke Wash Road, Becenti Trail.
But keep on looking and you’ll come across a name that stands out like, well, a man in a red cape who has a knack for flying: Superman Canyon Road.
“I still take groups up there every once in a while,” says Martin Link, a 71-year-old Gallup resident of 47 years who was there when the cast and crew of “Superman: The Movie” (1978) shot a scene that forever changed New Mexico maps.
Just a year ago, Link showed a travel group the Gallup location where the Man of Steel executes some extremely fancy flying to turn back time and retrieve Lois Lane from the clutches of an earthquake-induced death.
“Everybody,” Link says, “remembers the earthquake scene . . . and it all happened in Gallup.”
Captured on celluloid, the tiny slice of Gallup transformed into something bigger than a bit of New Mexican road rigged for special effects. For some, it represented the real-world connection to an unreal man who can do the impossible, change the world as easily as most of us change clothes. For a few, it went from location to destination.
For John Hendry, it is something else.
“Low-hanging fruit,” explains the film industry veteran and marketing director of the New Mexico Tourism Department. “It’s just another tool to sell the state.”
With film productions steadily drawn to New Mexico by a number of incentives, the Land of Enchantment’s appearances on the big screen are growing in number – and that’s a kind of advertising that money can’t buy, Hendry says.
While some business leaders agree, others say the effect just isn’t there. Still others say opening up one’s shop to a large crew of people wielding space-hungry equipment can prove more inconvenient than empowering.
But to see examples of tourism surges after a film, Hendry says look no further than good, evil, hobbits and Mohicans.
According to research cited in a report by Hendry, New Zealand’s tourism industry grew by 3 percent in 2003 because of the “Lord of the Rings” films, which told the tale of a hobbit – a short, furry-footed creature – saving his world from a doom that, in one manner or another, so often threatens the denizens of drama.
Closer to home, there’s Savannah, Ga. After serving as the setting for the 1997 film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” tourism zoomed 60 percent, according to Hendry’s report.
And Chimney Rock Park, N.C. , got a 20 percent tourism increase after parts of “The Last of the Mohicans” were shot there.
Results for New Mexico are less clear.
Hendry says it’s too early to see the tourism effects from the 70 or so released films and media projects listed on the New Mexico Film Commission’s Web site as having being made since 2002. That was the year when New Mexico started a no-interest loan program used heavily by filmmakers.
Though formal studies of movies’ effect on New Mexico tourism have yet to be done, anecdotal evidence bespeaks a bond between the big screen and explorers of the state.
“We do get people that call and mention they saw it (Albuquerque’s Old Town) on TV or they saw it in a movie,” says Stella Naranjo, president of Old Town Merchants Association, a collection of business owners working in the Albuquerque tourist destination. “The calls are increasing in number.”
She said media projects shot partially in Old Town include a film based upon a book by Tony Hillerman and a TV series about a troubled teen seeking emotional healing on a ranch.
“It’s a good thing for Old Town,” she says. “Having more exposure is going to help us . . . especially in these days and everybody vying for the tourist dollars.”
Sometimes a film doesn’t even need to be shot in New Mexico to rouse tourists and their wallets.
Take “Sideways,” a 2004 award-winning film about two men who adventure and drink their way through California wine country.
“Within a couple of months after that movie came out, people came in and said, `Did you see Sideways?’ ” says John Calvin, owner of and winemaker at Casa Ronde?a in Albuquerque’s North Valley. “What that did was further cement what has already been a well-established trend.”
New Mexico ranches, specifically dude ranches, had their time in the limelight as well.
“You can thank Billy Crystal and Jack Palance,” says Debbie Eggleston, owner of the Double EE Ranch in Gila. “We still get people who come . . . because they saw the movie `City Slickers’ five years ago, 10 years ago.”
The 1991 comedy, with scenes filmed in New Mexico, is about a couple of urban dwellers – one played by Crystal – who head out to a ranch for two weeks of cowboying.
The resulting hit created a tourist influx referred to as the “City Slicker effect,” Hendry says.
He estimates that if movies pushed New Mexico tourism up by 2.5 percent, the state would get 300,000 new visitors and $120 million of their money if each of them spent $400.
“There’s a definite correlation,” he says, “between tourism and film.”
But just what is the attraction that movies alight a location with?
Whenever Robert Garcia visits the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, it’s a magical moment for the 27-year-old Albuquerque resident.
It was there, high above New Mexico’s best-known river, that two mass murderers vowed their love to one another.
The wedding was a scene in “Natural Born Killers,” a 1994 film starring Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as death dealers in love.
“Every time I go out on that bridge, it’s different because I picture Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis; I picture their little wedding there,” he says. “Every time a place is captured on film, it changes it.”
Changes it, he says, in such a way that a location soars beyond its mundane, everyday existence and becomes a connection to something normally inaccessible: the moviemaking world.
“Being where famous people have been, where even some famous scenes were actually filmed. . . It’s not every day or even in a lifetime you get to meet celebrities, and to have a small connection with them is just kind of neat,” says Garcia, who works for Brink’s Inc. and is a part-time student who hopes to teach history.
Being at a film location “is just a little personal connection . . . with Hollywood. That’s really quite fascinating.”
Tony Reeves found movie locations fascinating enough to write them up in a book, “The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations.”
Reeves has visited movie locations all over the world, and there are a couple of things that make a place stand out, he wrote in an e-mail.
First is the place’s physical features. Second are the moments in a movie occurring at it. He pointed to “Field of Dreams” as an example.
When the film finished production, the baseball diamond was removed, Reeves wrote. But an influx of fans to the state compelled the diamond’s rebuilding and transformation into a tourist attraction.
“Fathers wanted to swing a bat with their sons at the magical location,” he wrote. “It is this combination of drama and the sense of place which becomes potent.”
What about parking?
Potent locations or not, some business owners who have been part of film and TV productions say such appearances come with sacrifices.
“Business literally stops when they’re filming,” says Carla Estevane, director of the Patio Gallery in Old Town.
After agreeing to let her gallery be used in a recently produced film, Estevane said it’s unlikely she’d let a crew in again. One problem: Film crew vehicles took up customers’ parking spaces.
“It had, in my opinion, a negative effect on my business,” she says. “Of course I want to support anything that helps New Mexico and Albuquerque and the economy here, but . . . we need to support our businesses here in Old Town.”
Estevane was doubtful the appearance will bring in additional business, a point of view that Margaret Holmes, owner of the Old Town clothing and accessory store Desert Design, shares.
But Holmes says she wasn’t concerned about bringing in additional business. It was more about seeing a film made.
“It was great fun to do that movie, and I would do it again in a flash,” she says. “The customers that were around, they saw the excitement, and we told everybody. . . . No complaints, just excitement.”
SIDEBAR: MOVIE TOURS
Appearing in films has meant big boosts in tourism for many cities, states and countries.
Although no studies quantify the effects of New Mexico’s appearances in film, New Mexico Tourism Department Director John Hendry points to studies of other locales as examples of what could happen in the Land of Enchantment.
According to research cited by Hendry:
Tourism in New Zealand increased 3 percent because of “Lord of the Rings.”
Tourism in London increased 2 percent after “Harry Potter.”
Tourism in Scotland increased 2.5 percent after “Braveheart.”
Tourism in Savannah, Ga., increased 60 percent after “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
Tourism in Sydney National Park, Australia, increased 200 percent after “Mission Impossible 2.”
Tourism in Natchitoches Parish, La., increased 41 percent after “Steel Magnolias.”
Tourism in Chimney Rock Park, N.C., increased 20 percent after “The Last of the Mohicans.”
Source: John Hendry, marketing director, New Mexico Tourism Department