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Could Farmington be the next Hollywood?

‘We have a good 10-year window to position ourselves to create a new industry’
Farmington and San Juan County can offer stunning natural landscapes to shoot in, according to supporters of a plan to increase the film industry in northern New Mexico.

FARMINGTON – The trailer flashes between wisecracks from stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jack Black and Kevin Hart amidst jungle and desert settings. But Four Corners residents might notice something familiar between shots of dunes and The Rock’s biceps.

Shiprock peak, or Tsé Bit’ a’í, south of Farmington on the Navajo Nation, has a cameo appearance in “Jumanji: The Next Level.”

And if a plan to promote Farmington’s film industry is successful, spotting TV and movie stars around town could become a regular occurrence.

“We have a good 10-year window to positions ourselves to create a new industry here,” said Brent Garcia, an area producer and organizer of the Four Corners Film Festival.

The film industry is one of New Mexico’s fastest growing industries, but it wasn’t on anyone’s radar in the region when Garcia began advocating to develop the movie industry four years ago.

“Nobody up here knew that or nobody cared. It wasn’t something anyone was talking about,” he said.

Now, the timing is perfect for the region to develop a larger presence in the film industry, according to Garcia.

An economic need

Northwestern New Mexico faces the prospect of the 2022 closure of the San Juan Generating Station – and the job and economic loss it would entail – and the region is searching for strategies to diversify and grow its economy. The city of Farmington and San Juan County hope a production industry can be part of the potential growth.

“To say that San Juan County is concerned with our economic status is an understatement,” said Jack Fortner, the county commission chairman. “With the stacks closing and the power plant closing, as elected officials, it’s part of our duty to develop economic opportunities for San Juan County.”

To jump-start the area’s production possibilities, the county secured a $1 million grant from the state this year to build a studio and a possible backlot, and is currently searching for a site, according to County Manager Mike Stark.

The city government also has begun promoting the film industry. The promotional effort began by hosting the inaugural Four Corners Film Festival in September, according to Mayor Nate Duckett. “The five-day event showcased a diverse range of filmmaking talents and hosted nationally renowned actors, designers and musicians,” Duckett said in a written statement.

San Juan County received a $1 million grant from New Mexico to build a studio and further entice Hollywood productions to film in the area.

The festival, the first of its kind in Farmington and San Juan County, was spearheaded by Garcia and the nonprofit Film Four Corners in part to promote what Farmington and San Juan County can offer production companies and filmmakers.

However, Garcia said one of the biggest challenges is spreading the word locally that the film industry is a viable economic strategy. To involve the community, Garcia encourages residents to list possible film locations on the New Mexico Film Office’s website, a tool production companies use for scouting.

Garcia and Film Four Corners also plan to continue hosting film industry education and training workshops next year, partnering with San Juan College to create certificate training programs and developing plans for the second annual film festival.

The nonprofit Film Four Corners plans to offer film industry training workshops to expand the workforce available to production crews looking to film in the area.

Both Garcia and local government officials said the success of expanding the film industry relies on regional cooperation. Although the “Jumanji: The Next Level” crew of about 200 people stayed in Farmington, it filmed in the Navajo Nation. And while the city of Farmington is in talks to get commercial direct flights to and from Los Angeles by next summer, a production company currently would fly through the Durango-La Plata County Airport, Garcia said.

“If they’re here for a couple weeks, we expect them to go up to Durango for a few days,” Fortner said. While it’s too early in the county’s plan for official partner agreements, Fortner said it’s important to think of Durango and the Navajo Nation as partners throughout the process.

New Mexico as a Hollywood haven

Starting in 2008, Albuquerque and New Mexico were synonymous with the hit television series “Breaking Bad.” But in the past few years, the state has expanded that identity beyond one television series. From July 2018 to June 2019, New Mexico’s film and television sector generated roughly $525.5 million in direct spending, according to the New Mexico Film Office.

In March, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a law that raised the film tax credit cap from $50 million annually to $110 million. Currently, film companies receive 25% rebate on goods and services for most projects in the state, and television shows are eligible for up to 30%. Additional tax credits are designed to benefit communities such as Farmington, with an added incentive of 5% for productions based 60 miles outside Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Hollywood is already making moves to expand its presence in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, in part because of tax incentives. Earlier this year, Netflix announced it purchased a production studio complex in Albuquerque, bringing an estimated 1,000 jobs to New Mexico. About the same time, NBCUniversal announced it was building a studio in Albuquerque. Part of NBCUniversal’s $1.1 billion deal with the state included a goal of spending $500 million on productions in New Mexico during the next 10 years.

Production companies filming at least 60 miles outside of Albuquerque and Santa Fe are eligible for an additional 5% tax credit.

Supporters of Garcia’s vision say this creates a perfect opportunity for areas like Farmington to see a similar growth in the film industry.

“Not everything can be shot in Albuquerque and Santa Fe,” Stark said. “We’ve had success before, and now we have all of these things lined up to continue growing.”

Ideally, Garcia and others would like to attract a long-running series to shoot in the area. While big Hollywood productions like “Jumanji” elevate the name recognition of a place, a television show brings opportunities for sustained economic growth and opportunities to train a larger workforce to continue drawing productions to the region, Garcia said.

Albuquerque had its defining role with “Breaking Bad.” Farmington – with its Four Corners location, access to stunning natural scenery, a studio in the works and lucrative tax incentives – has the potential to create a thriving film industry, supporters argue.

Hollywood, take notice, Farmington is getting ready for the big screen.

lweber@durangoherald.com

Jul 1, 2022
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