ALBUQUERQUE – When the creators of “Stranger Things” searched for locations this year, they focused on one of the most sought-after centers in the United States for the production of new films: the high desert of New Mexico.
Never mind that much of the new season of the sci-fi thriller takes place in a fictional city in Indiana and the former Soviet Union. The meteoric growth of New Mexico’s film industry made it obvious for Netflix to shift a significant portion of production from Atlanta to the state.
“Coming out of the pandemic, the studios are looking to create again,” said Ivan Wiener, 51, former assistant to actor Dennis Hopper who operates a concierge service at Albuquerque Airport for actors and executives from Netflix and other studios. “Albuquerque seems like the best place to do it right now. “
Alec Baldwin’s fatal shooting of a crew member on the set of a movie in Santa Fe County on Thursday drew attention to the emergence of New Mexico as a production hub where streaming giants, including Netflix and NBCUniversal, are stepping up their investments.
The growth reflects decades of efforts to reduce the dependence of New Mexico, which is one of the poorest states and has consistently high unemployment figures, on taxes and royalties from oil production, which account for about a third of its annual budget even as state rulers try to feed sources of cleaner jobs.
About 20 years ago, New Mexico began aggressively using tax incentives to attract productions from California, Texas, and other states. While New Mexico’s cinematic tradition dates back to the end of the 19th century, the 2006 decision by the producers of crime drama “Breaking Bad” to relocate from the Inland Empire to California helped spark a resurgence of the industry in the state.
Since then, competition between the streaming giants has fueled a production boom in Albuquerque and other places in New Mexico. Industry executives cite the large pool of local New Mexico union team members and proximity to existing studios in California, along with generous and sometimes politically controversial incentives, as reasons for the growth.
Even after the coronavirus pandemic halted filming for months on film sets across the country, New Mexico broke its own records for film and television production spending, reaching about $ 623 million over the course of fiscal year from July 2020 to July 2021, according to the New Mexico Film Bureau. State officials say about 9,000 residents work in the industry, with an average annual salary of about $ 56,000.
The dozens of new productions in the state include a range of genres, from Clint Eastwood’s “Cry Macho” to “Surrounded,” about a female Buffalo Soldier disguised as a man, and “Better Call Saul,” the prequel to “Breaking Bad. “. “
While an array of major studios and independent producers recently wrapped up productions in New Mexico, Netflix is responsible for much of the state’s growth. After buying out the ABQ Studios production complex and pledging in 2018 to spend $ 1 billion in New Mexico, Netflix went further in November 2020, announcing plans to expand operations and invest $ 1 billion. additional dollars.
Likewise, NBCUniversal opened an 80,000 square foot production studio in July in what was previously a vacant beer and wine distribution warehouse in the Martineztown area of Albuquerque. Located near the city center, the studio is expected to employ around 330 people.
Yet these ambitious projects have their own costs. In 2019, New Mexico increased incentives, with the state now offering a rebate ranging from 25% to 35% on film production costs in the state. Cities like Albuquerque and Santa Fe also offer their own incentives in the race to attract productions.
The New Mexico Legislature’s Budget and Accountability Office recently warned that Netflix’s new production commitments alone could increase tax credit payments by tens of millions of dollars a year as the giant streaming expands its activities.
As recently as 2019, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, overcame criticism from budget hawks from both parties to enact legislation expanding incentives while repaying up to $ 225 million already owed to the industry. cinematographic.
Quarrels over incentives have become a regular feature of the legislature, with some Republicans likening them to giveaways to Hollywood executives. But the politics of New Mexico – which leans much more to the left than that of neighboring Arizona or Texas – has also played a role in the industry’s growth.
For example, “Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar,” a comedy starring Kristen Wiig that was released this year, moved production to Albuquerque from Atlanta in response to a Georgian law that sought to prevent doctors from practicing. abortions after six weeks.
The governor of New Mexico, on the other hand, this year signed a law that strengthens abortion rights in the state, fearing the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade.