Film Las Cruces looks to the future
By Mike Cook
Las Cruces Bulletin
We don’t have the lights or the cameras yet, but there’s definitely action when it comes to bringing movies and television series to Las Cruces.
Film Las Cruces (FLC), a newly minted nonprofit, held its first meeting Dec. 3 and elected an 18-member board of directors, choosing State. Rep. Jeff Steinborn as its president and long-time arts advocate Irene Oliver- Lewis as vice president. Other board members include local filmmakers, entrepreneurs, business owners and media educators from New Mexico State University and Doña Ana Community College.
A three-year memorandum of understanding with the City of Las Cruces provides FLC with nearly $300,000 in funding during the next three years, and it has already secured office space in the WIC building near Pioneer Park in downtown Las Cruces. FLC board members are also drafting a job description for a full-time Las Cruces film liaison and are working with the city on finding a site and funding for the construction of a soundstage.
The FLC board (LCSP) also will: develop a website that includes a database of local film locations and film-friendly vendors; step up national promotion of Las Cruces as a film and television location; begin educating the business community and local residents about what to expect when filmmakers come to town; and work with NMSU, DACC and Las Cruces Public Schools to develop a film-knowledgeable workforce.
‘Foundation for excellence’
“The right people did the right research to get the city to spend money in this direction,” said NMSU Creative Media Institute (CMI) Director Amy Lanasa, who is FLC board secretary. “It was a big payoff for a lot of really, really hard work. It’s happening in just the right way at just the right time.”
“This is the culmination of years of a lot of people working on it,” said DACC Digital Imaging and Design Technology Department Chair Matt Byrnes, another FLC board member. “Everybody’s pushing in the same direction. All of us are really excited about it.”
“We are setting the foundation for excellence,” said Oliver-Lewis, who joined Steinborn, Lanasa and Byrnes as FLC incorporating directors. “We did a lot of research in and out of state. We know that we’re making a buzz in the film industry, everybody is talking about it; now we’re on the map.
“We want to start out right and make sure it grows and make sure it flourishes and adds to our community.”
Steinborn, a Las Cruces Democrat who represented New Mexico House District 37 from 2007-10 and has represented District 35 since 2013, does not have a media background. A land conservationist for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, he got interested in the film industry as a member of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee.
“I just saw an opportunity,” Steinborn said. “I felt the presence of this very vibrant industry” in New Mexico.
Las Cruces and southern New Mexico, “had all the DNA to be successful (in film and television production), but we hadn’t put the pieces together,” Steinborn said. That’s when he helped start the Regional Film Development Advisory Committee, which evolved into Film Las Cruces earlier this year.
“The film community here has come together for this effort,” Steinborn said. Creating FLC “was huge. We have taken on the responsibility of developing and running a vibrant, new organization.”
“Jeff deserves so much of the credit for all of this,” Lanasa said. He is “the glue that holds it together, the spark that keeps it going. No one has worked harder to get the film industry here than Jeff Steinborn,” she said. “He’s very good at bringing people together, getting people to talk to each other,” Byrnes said.
North supports South
Steinborn said Las Cruces already has strong support from Albuquerque and Santa Fe, where filmmaking and television production have been booming for more than a decade. Movies and TV generated $288 million statewide in fiscal year 2015, excluding performers’ salaries; along with 280,000 worker hours on 25 major productions, including “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “The Magnificent Seven” remake, “The Ridiculous 6,” and TV series “Longmire” and “Better Call Saul,” he said.
“Las Cruces can be a big part of that,” Steinborn said. “The sky is the limit for us.”
“The mayor invited me down last year to speak to the council,” said Ann Lerner, who is the City of Albuquerque’s long-time, award-winning film liaison. “I’ve made very clear to all of them, I’m very willing to offer advice on how to make a successful film city.”
STEINBORN Lerner has been “exceptionally generous with her experience and counsel with Las Cruces,” Steinborn said. “We’ve found nothing but generous support from the industry up north.”
Filmmakers and TV producers in northern New Mexico want Las Cruces to succeed as a film and TV mecca because additional facilities and crews are needed to support the increasing demand from Hollywood, he said. And, southern New Mexico’s mild winter weather would allow for more days of filming than up north. Las Cruces also would provide “a whole other venue of filming locations,” Steinborn said, including White Sands Missile Range, Holloman Air Force Base, the Chihuahuan Desert and “other unique assets.”
Albuquerque and Santa Fe are “excited for us,” Lanasa said. “They really want to see us grow. They have more than they can handle.”
“They are maxed out up north,” Byrnes said.
The advantages that Las Cruces offers to filmmakers in addition to its climate and unique locations are its proximity to Los Angeles and “the desire of the mayor and city to bring it there,” Lerner said. “Being film-friendly is key.”
The Albuquerque film office “offers a one-stop film permitting process,” Lerner said. “We don’t charge for film permits. It’s about customer service. (Albuquerque) Mayor Richard Berry sets the example of welcoming firms here. All departments of the city come together to work on this.” Albuquerque generated $150 million in direct spending from film and television production in fiscal year 2015, Lerner said.
“What’s important is that the city respects the needs of the film production and that the film production respects the city, the community and the neighborhoods where they’re filming. That’s the job of the film liaison,” she said.
A good example is a movie shoot that took place in Albuquerque last summer, Lerner said. Filmmakers wanted to blow up a car in the middle of the city’s country club area.
“We know how to make that happen,” she said.
Lerner helped the film’s producers get the appropriate signoffs for the night-time shoot and hotel rooms for the residents of 11 homes in the neighborhood. “The number of complaints I got from the car being blown up: zero,” Lerner said.
“New Mexico has a very good reputation in the film industry,” she said. “Every major studio in Hollywood is aware of the film incentives that the state offers. They are aware of the strong crew base that we have,” said Lerner, who won the Outstanding Film Commission award for her work on “Lone Survivor” and “Breaking Bad” at the first Location Managers Guild of America Awards in 2014.
“Building up the infrastructure is important to grow the film industry in the southern part of the state,” she said. “I think it’s very important for the entire state to benefit from the economic impact that the film industry brings to a city.”
Steinborn said film incentives approved by the New Mexico Legislature in 2002 during the final years of Gov. Gary Johnson’s administration elevated filmmaking in New Mexico to another level. Johnson’s successor, Bill Richardson, helped push film and TV tax breaks “into overdrive,” he said. Current Governor Susana Martinez and legislators of both parties continue to support film and television production in the state, Steinborn said.
In addition to tax breaks for movie makers, he said, the Legislature added an extra incentive for television shows produced in New Mexico, called the “Breaking Bad” bill because it helped bring that AMC series to Albuquerque, where it stayed throughout its five-year run.
“The film industry in New Mexico is such a powerful economic development driver; it’s imperative that Las Cruces join the movement to engage filmmakers and help them see the opportunity for year-round filming capability in southern New Mexico,” City Manager Robert Garza said. “The MOU we have crafted with Film Las Cruces is just what was needed to fuel and apply concerted efforts so we can be more relevant in the dialog when film opportunities are presented. Film Las Cruces will be uniquely situated to respond to interested parties and our MOU makes it possible for City Administration to lend support and resources to further that targeted work. I am optimistic we will see a great return on these efforts.”
“Filmmaking is a big business and Las Cruces can be a leader in the Southwest,” Mayor Ken Miyagishima said. “I believe the closest film lot may be in Phoenix; there’s not even one in El Paso.”
Job one for FLC is hiring a full-time film liaison as soon as possible. Steinborn said the goal will be to find “an experienced film professional to recruit film and TV” to Las Cruces and to grow Las Cruces’ film and television assets, which includes talented and experienced local filmmakers. He said FLC also will host seminars in Las Cruces to teach business owners and residents “how to turn a location into a film location.”
The challenge for FLC and the community is to “develop the systems and government relations so we can meet the needs of major productions,” Steinborn said. Success will require high-level communications and strong working relationships among local government, FLC and the private sector, he said.
The potential payoff for local business is enormous, because film and television producers need materials to build sets, make props and create costumes – they also need hotels and restaurants to house and feed actors and crew. The upcoming film “Captain Fantastic” did 10 days of filming in Las Cruces last summer, Steinborn said, generating 900 room nights in local hotels.
“You never know what a film is going to need when they come into your community,” Lanasa said. “Inevitably, it will be something that makes money for the person providing the service. That could mean anything from getting a set of temporary braces made by the local dentist to having a suit of armor repaired at three in the morning by the guy who sell knives.”
“Any number of industries are going to be impacted, small and large,” Byrnes said.
“So many professions come into play to create a film,” Oliver-Lewis said. “When they scroll all of those names that are at the end of a movie – that’s a job. I believe in the business of art. We have to create opportunities for people to be employed in the arts. We have to build it. We have to create the infrastructure. Film companies like to come to a community that’s welcoming.”
“Almost every industry is affected by the film industry in a positive way,” Lerner said. “On Central (Avenue in Albuquerque), we have antique stores. People go in and buy props or rent props.”