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New Mexico’s film program has brought the state Hollywood glitter—but not much local gold.  

June 10, 2009, 12:00 am

New Mexico’s film incentives began under Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, but it was Gov. Bill Richardson who put them on the map.

Today, the film incentive program has two chief parts.

Most important are the rebates. These are what producer Ethan Coen was talking about when he told in 2007 that “we shot [No Country For Old Men], as everybody is in New Mexico now really for economic reasons.”

The rebates include a 25 percent refund on state taxes, such as personal income and gross receipts taxes, for qualified film productions. As a further enticement to producers, the state pays 50 percent of the hourly wages for New Mexico “trainees” in certain crew positions. That means labor here comes cheap for employers, even if the film crews make respectable union wages.

“This is a way for guys with high school educations to put a pair of boots on and go make 400 bucks in a day,” Hendry says. “That’s why [conservative critics] don’t like it.”

Like it or not, incentives did bring business to New Mexico. Though the state has not cracked the top 10 production states outside California and New York, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, New Mexico ranks third in terms of the film industry’s relative importance to the state's economy.

Back in 2001, Dekom says, “We had one full crew in New Mexico, and I think there’s one word to describe what it was like: unemployed.” As of 2007, nearly 1,700 people worked in film crews around the state.

Even those competing with New Mexico for movie business tip their hats to this state’s film program.

“Top notch,” Chris Stelly, Louisiana’s film and television director, calls his New Mexico counterparts. “We kinda got our scars together,” he says.

Times have changed since New Mexico and Louisiana’s programs got rolling. At the turn of the millennium, those two states, plus Oklahoma—and, of course, Canada—were the only states offering incentives.

Today, more than 40 other states offer deals to production companies. “Incentives are huge. They drive the business now,” Louisiana Office of Entertainment Industry Development spokeswoman Amber Havens says.

And as incentive programs have spread, there is a growing awareness that states have begun to undercut one another in the race for production business.

“The industry has been able to play off North Carolina against South Carolina against Louisiana against Georgia. Louisiana raises its incentives, and it puts pressure on South Carolina, North Carolina and other states to do likewise,” incentive critic and former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr told the Associated Press last week.

Michigan now offers tax rebates higher than New Mexico’s. Even California is getting in on the game, trying to reclaim some so-called runaway productions.

Is this a threat? New Mexico film industry figures put a brave face forward, citing the “stability” of the film program here and the strength of the talent pool.

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Jon Hendry is the business agent for the local filmworkers’ union.

“You want to shoot your picture in Iowa or Michigan? Go ahead; knock yourself out. I don’t care if they’re giving 50 percent back; there’s no crew there,” Hendry says. “We’re in the investment stage of a major business. Now we’re really starting to see the rewards. Other states have gone to 35 percent [rebates] to attract movies. We’re still attracting movies at 25 percent.”

Perhaps no one sells New Mexico’s production advantages—even against worldwide competition—better than state Film Office Director Lisa Strout.

“We’re doing better than LA this last year. They didn’t have any movies in LA—it was so dead—at a time when we had 10,” Strout says. “They passed an incentive, which is really funny: ‘Come home, little Sheba.’”

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