IT WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE TO look at Albuquerque Studios and imagine it’s a warehouse. In fact, on a frigid December day, the temperature is the only thing that indicates you’re not on a bustling Sony or Warner Bros. studio lot in Los Angeles. A phalanx of Star Waggons, the domicile of choice for working actors, clog the parking lot; groggy crew members form a line outside a Starbucks trailer; golf carts whiz by; and a flashing red light outside a soundstage alerts passersby that a shoot is in progress. In all, this sprawling complex has 168,000 square feet of soundstages, 95,000 square feet of production office space, another 100,000 square feet devoted to mill and production space for set building, as well as a full contingent of production-support partner companies that provide camera equipment, lighting and grip equipment, and heavy equipment. While this sort of grand scale allows Albuquerque Studios to accommodate numerous productions simultaneously, the sheer newness of the facility is also a draw. “In many respects, they are better than 75 percent or 80 percent of the studios in L.A. because they are brand-spanking-new,” Valdes says. “Some that are used in L.A. are 50, 75 years old.”
Of course, a big, modern, beautiful facility like this would be of little use if there were no skilled professionals around to staff it. For Witt, who worked for legendary Hollywood producer Dino De Laurentiis before returning home to New Mexico, creating a human infrastructure was an important way to differentiate the facility from its competition. Since 2003, the number of below-the-line crew in New Mexico — meaning the folks who work in set construction, electrical work, makeup, and costumes — has swelled from 60 to more than 2,000, making it the largest outside California and New York.
To accomplish this, the state has helped fund the Film Technicians’ Training Program, which provides hands-on training to students at six community colleges throughout the state. And “hands-on” is not a euphemism in these programs. Indeed, one of the first things the students do is work on an actual production, usually something short, like a public-service announcement or a commercial. Monique Anair, a film and media-arts instructor at Santa Fe Community College, says the 12-hour days and heavy lifting typical of any shoot are an immediate antidote to glamorous Hollywood dreams. “They come in with stars in their eyes,” she says. “They get kind of a real-life experience, and at that point many of them say, ‘I’ve got three or four kids; this is not going to work for me.’ ” Around 50 percent of students drop out after their film boot camp, but the rest usually go on to an internship program and eventually into film or TV work, where they know exactly what they’re getting into.
Other elements that make New Mexico so attractive to filmmakers simply can’t be created through funding or new programs. Proximity to Los Angeles certainly helps because it means crew, executives, and stars are just a two-hour flight from family. It’s also pretty hard to beat what New Mexico has to offer when it comes to cuisine, culture, and hotels — places like Santa Fe’s Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, a cozy, upscale boutique hotel in the heart of the city. Valdes says Denzel Washington and the international cast of Eli were more than content as temporary denizens of New Mexico. “I never got tired of the food, and I had cast members from all over the world — from England, from New York, from the West Coast — and everybody stayed in different places, and [they were] extremely happy,” he says.
Perhaps the only people happier are the New Mexicans who now find themselves employed by or doing business with Hollywood. According to Witt, that’s a lot of people. In 2002, he says, there was about $8 million in total economic impact resulting from film and TV production in the state. From 2003 until today, though, that number has ballooned to $3 billion. “That represents about a billion dollars in direct spend and then an additional $2 billion in economic impact and about 10,000 jobs that are attributable to the industry here,” he says. “So it’s been significant.”
FROM THE BACK OF VAL KILMER’S ranch in the high desert country north of Santa Fe, the view looks like it hasn’t changed in, well, forever. The rocky Pecos River, flanked by sheer cliffs and centuries-old ponderosa pines, bends in such a picture-perfect way that it seems almost staged, particularly after an overnight snow. The interior of the main lodge, a hybrid log cabin/Pueblo-style building, looks well lived in. The actor’s cowboy hats and baseball caps hang from pegs, and stacked on a table is an eclectic collection of books.
A longtime resident of New Mexico, Kilmer, who rose to fame in Top Gun and went on to play Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors, along with countless other roles, is a big booster of the film business in his state. Far from being overprotective of his little piece of paradise, Kilmer has let film crews descend on his home, including for the recent Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker movie, Did You Hear About the Morgans?
The kind of welcoming spirit that prompts a well-known actor like Kilmer to open his home to filmmakers may be the secret ingredient behind New Mexico’s ascent in the world of TV and film production. For instance, Witt says he gives his cell phone number to production managers in case they run into trouble. For all the modern facilities available at Albuquerque Studios, Nick Smerigan says his real emphasis is on service, making sure that the filmmakers have exactly what they need. For him, it means everything. “I use the analogy of going to a great party, and then you come out of the party and have to wait for your car from the valet for 50 minutes,” he says. “Your first call the next day is to your friend going, ‘Do you believe I had to wait 50 minutes for my car?’ You don’t talk about the great party and the great food.”
That attitude of wanting to help and wanting to make a contribution extends to Santa Fe Community College, says Anair, who has been able to draw dozens of working filmmakers to become adjunct faculty members. “A lot of these folks are working and they want to give back,” she says. “When I worked in L.A., even though I was in this great community in L.A., they’re just too busy to come in.”
For David Valdes, there’s also something ineffable about the lure of the state, something that keeps him coming back and gets stronger with every visit. “There’s a spiritual draw people have to New Mexico,” he says. “And if you don’t have it before you get there, you get infected with it once you’re there.”