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NEW MEXICO’S ASCENT AS A PRIME DESTINATION FOR FILM AND TV PRODUCTIONS HAS HOLLYWOOD TAKING NOTE.

IT’S THE TYPE OF SCENARIO any Hollywood studio chief would crave. At one point last year, Nick Smerigan could walk around a succession of soundstages and see an almost incomparable array of acting talent at work. On one set was two-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston, the lead in the AMC series Breaking Bad. Not far away, Smerigan could pop his head in and watch two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington as he filmed scenes for his movie about post-apocalypse America, The Book of Eli. As if that weren’t enough, Smerigan could then take a spin on a golf cart (the preferred mode of transport on studio lots) and catch two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank working on the thriller The Resident.

For anyone involved in the entertainment industry, this type of A-list activity is about more than simple bragging rights, although that’s a nice perk, too; drawing big-name stars like Washington, Cranston, and Swank is an indication that a studio is not just legitimate but also an established player in the business. But besides its ability to attract top-notch film and TV productions, what’s remarkable about Smerigan’s studio is its location: on a pancake-flat patch of former cattle-grazing land located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, far, far, far from Hollywood’s epicenter. And for Smerigan, the chief operating officer and founder of Albuquerque Studios — which in its brief, nearly three-year existence has hosted the filming of the action thriller Terminator Salvation, Gerard Butler’s Gamer, and The Hangover director Todd Phillips’s newest comedy, Due Date — it was a time of simultaneous validation and disbelief. “You are kind of going, ‘Oh, my God, this actually worked,’ ” he says.

In fact, when it comes to hosting film and TV shoots, New Mexico has emerged as one of the most sought-after locations in the world. Indeed, a survey published last fall in the Hollywood trade publication Variety ranked New Mexico third, behind longtime stalwarts California and New York, as the best place for film production in North America. The ranking has real credibility, too, because it’s based on the input of hundreds of location managers, cinematographers, directors, and assistant directors. And it’s not just a function of the presence of Albuquerque Studios and its eight state-of-the-art soundstages, either; films and TV episodes are shot on location all around the state, and 2010 will see the start of construction of Santa Fe Studios, a facility designed to draw filmmakers to the state’s bustling capital. In addition, last May actor Robert Redford and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced a collaboration called Sundance in New Mexico, to provide training and support specifically geared to Native American and Hispanic filmmakers.

Add to all this the fact that actors and actresses such as Julia Roberts, Val Kilmer, Shirley MacLaine, and Jane Fonda all call New Mexico home, and it becomes more than a little tempting to call the state Hollywood Southwest or maybe Tinseltown in the Desert. David Valdes, who produced The Book of Eli and whose credits include The Green Mile, In the Line of Fire, and Unforgiven, spent seven months working in New Mexico in 2009 and goes even further in his assessment of the health of the film business in the state. “It’s booming. It’s much healthier in New Mexico than it is in Hollywood right now,” he says.