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From westerns to ‘strange things’, Hollywood is big business in New Mexico

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ALBUQUERQUE — When the makers of ‘Stranger Things’ were scouting locations this year, they focused on one of the United States’ most sought-after hubs for new film production: the high desert of New Mexico.

Never mind that much of the new season of the sci-fi thriller is set in a fictional town in Indiana and the former Soviet Union. The sizzling growth of the New Mexico movie industry made it a no-brainer for Netflix to move large swaths of production from Atlanta to the state.

“After the pandemic, studios want to recreate,” said Ivan Wiener, 51, a former assistant to actor Dennis Hopper who operates a concierge service at the Albuquerque airport for actors and executives from Netflix and other studios. “Albuquerque seems like the best place to do that right now.”

Alec Baldwin’s fatal shooting of a crew member on the set of a Santa Fe County movie on Thursday has drawn attention to New Mexico’s emergence as a production hub where streaming giants, including Netflix and NBCUniversal, are ramping up their investments.

The growth reflects decades of efforts to reduce New Mexico’s dependence, one of the poorest states with consistently high unemployment rates, on taxes and royalties from oil production, which make up about a third of its annual budget, even as state budget leaders try. nurturing cleaner sources of jobs.

About 20 years ago, New Mexico began aggressively using tax incentives to entice productions from California, Texas, and other states. While New Mexico’s filmmaking tradition dates back to the late 1800s, the 2006 decision by the producers of the crime drama “Breaking Bad” to move out of California’s Inland Empire sparked a revival of the industry in the state.

Since then, competition between streaming giants has fueled a production boom in Albuquerque and other New Mexico locations. Industry leaders cite New Mexico’s large pool of local union members and proximity to existing studios in California, along with generous and sometimes politically contentious incentives, as reasons for the growth.

Even after the coronavirus pandemic halted filming on sets across the country for months, New Mexico broke its own records for movie and TV production spending, reaching about $623 million in its fiscal year from July 2020 to July 2021, according to the report. the New Mexico Film Office. State officials say about 9,000 residents work in the industry, with an average annual wage of about $56,000.

The state’s dozens of new productions span a range of genres, from Clint Eastwood’s “Cry Macho” to “Surrounded,” about a female Buffalo Soldier disguised as a man, and “Better Call Saul,” the prequel to “Breaking Bad.” ”

While a slew of major studios and independent producers recently wrapped productions in New Mexico, Netflix is ​​responsible for much of the growth in the state. After Netflix bought the ABQ Studios production complex and committed to spend $1 billion in New Mexico in 2018, Netflix moved ahead in November 2020, announcing plans to expand operations and invest another $1 billion.

Similarly, in July, NBCUniversal opened an 80,000-square-foot production studio in what was previously a vacant beer and wine distribution center in the Martineztown neighborhood of Albuquerque. The studio, located near the center, is expected to employ approximately 330 people.

However, these ambitious projects come with their own costs. In 2019, New Mexico increased its incentives, with the state now offering a discount of 25 to 35 percent of film production costs in the state. Cities like Albuquerque and Santa Fe also offer their own incentives in the race to lure productions.

The New Mexico Legislature’s Budget and Accountability Office recently warned that new production commitments from Netflix alone could increase tax credit payouts by tens of millions of dollars a year as the streaming giant expands its operations.

In 2019, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, overcame criticism from budget hawks in both parties to enact legislation that expanded incentives while paying off a whopping $225 million already owed to the film industry.

Arguing over incentives has become a regular fixture in the legislature, with some Republicans comparing them to giveaways for Hollywood executives. But New Mexico’s politics — which lean much more to the left than neighboring Arizona or Texas — have also played a part in the industry’s growth.

For example, “Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar,” a comedy starring Kristen Wiig released this year, shifted production to Atlanta’s Albuquerque in response to a Georgia law trying to prevent doctors from performing abortions after six weeks.

The New Mexico governor, on the other hand, signed a bill this year strengthening abortion rights in the state out of concern that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade.

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