Las Cruces Film Scene | Filmmaking in the Mesilla Valley |

What do Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, Ryan Phillipe, and Netflix have in common? They all heralded the return of the film industry to Las Cruces in 2021. Just one year earlier, the global pandemic changed the landscape of our society in ways we have yet to completely understand. The film industry, hit hard by the closures and social distancing that went into effect in March 2020, was no exception. Some wondered if the pandemic might sound the death knell for filmmaking in New Mexico. Those naysayers were quickly proven wrong.
“Production was halted across the globe at the onset of the pandemic,” said New Mexico Film Office Director Amber Dodson. “In New Mexico, production was on pause from March through September 2020. Since pressing play on production, however, it’s business as usual.”

A promising start, but back in Las Cruces, where the fledgling film industry has been struggling to gain a foothold for more than a decade, a comeback was going to prove nothing short of miraculous. Admittedly, it didn’t start out that way.
“We were impacted pretty hard and didn’t really see activity pick up again until April of 2021,” said Las Cruces Film Liaison Jon Sepp. “For fiscal year ‘21 [July 2020 – June 2021] we had a total of nine productions and only one of those was a feature film. The total direct spend on productions in fiscal year ‘21 was about $473,000. Not as much as we would have liked, but pretty good considering we were in a pandemic for most of that fiscal year.”

And now for the good news. “Though I don’t have numbers for this fiscal year yet, I can tell you that from July to August there was a $500,000 direct spend,” Jon continued. “The first two months of fiscal year ‘22 were higher than the entire fiscal year ‘21. We are on track to have the best year in film and television production Las Cruces and Doña Ana County have ever seen. Before that, the best year we had seen was fiscal year ‘19, with about $2.6 million direct spend. We’re hoping for twice that in 2022.”

These numbers, though small compared to those of Northern New Mexico, are indicative of what’s taking place statewide. According to the New Mexico Film Office, fiscal year ‘21 saw an increase of more than $100 million in direct spending into the New Mexico economy, compared to fiscal year ‘19, which had been the biggest year for the film industry up to that point. By all accounts, fiscal year ‘22 was already shaping up to break that record even before 2021 was over.

It All Started with a Bill

Though much has been said of the production facilities built by Netflix and NBC Universal in early 2021 that have pumped millions into the economy, it doesn’t really explain the surge in production in Southern New Mexico. A large amount of this action can be attributed to the “uplift credit” to the already beefy 25 – 30 percent state tax incentive for film production that went into effect in April 2019.

The bill responsible (Senate Bill 2: Film Tax Credit Changes) more than doubles the cap on rebate payments to qualified film and television productions in New Mexico and provides an additional 5 percent credit for productions that film in Las Cruces or anywhere outside of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. At the time, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham heralded the signing of the bill as “historic.” Two-and-a-half years later, she’s been proven right.

It had long been a dream of State Senator Jeff Steinborn and the board of the city-funded and state-recognized Film Las Cruces that Southern New Mexico gets a piece of the lucrative movie-making pie that had turned Northern New Mexico into a film mecca. Spearheading the uplift credit and pushing it through legislation, Senator Steinborn was finally able to achieve what few believed was possible.

“With this expansion of New Mexico’s film incentive program,” Senator Steinborn said at the time, “Las Cruces and other emerging film production communities will become more competitive and attractive as filming destinations.”

Representative Antonio “Mo” Maestas, who carried the bill in the New Mexico House of Representatives, seconded that thought. The bill, he said, would “bring tens of millions of dollars into our economy that will multiply over and over again.”
The pandemic put a halt to that promise, but now, just months after the industry began creaking back to life, we are seeing the benefits of that legislation.

“That additional 5 percent credit for films shot outside of Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties has been a huge boon,” said Jon of Film Las Cruces. “I would say that is one of the main drivers behind all of the success we’re seeing right now.”

Which is why in fall 2021 Las Cruces saw large productions bring make-overs, explosions, and star power to the area, and industry giant Netflix converted the town of Mesilla into a 1990s Mexican town for the family-friendly feature film Chupa. But these high-profile projects weren’t the only productions taking place here.

According to Jon, there were a variety of features shooting in the area throughout much of 2021. “Mark Wahlberg’s company Unrealistic Ideas was here in July, shooting a series called Atomic Gold,” he said. “Another feature film, The Price You Pay (starring veteran actor Vernon Wells), shot here from July 26 to August 13. Then we had a $60,000 short film called Infraction that was filmed here in July. There was also another independent TV show called Surviving the Cartel that shot here for about a week in July, and a short film called Saving Faith that shot here in October.”

Reaping the Rewards

All this action has led to Las Cruces becoming what the Albuquerque Journal refers to as “a filmmaking hot spot.” But this interest is about more than just star sightings. According to the New Mexico Film Office, the Gibson film Hot Seat, the Willis film Knight, and the Phillipe film Locksmith each employed approximately 50 New Mexico crew members, 10 New Mexico principal actors, and 200 New Mexico background talent. This is very good news, not just for the industry, but for the economy as well.

Still, it might be a little early to declare Las Cruces the new Hollywood. The effects of the pandemic are still being felt and changes are still taking place within the film industry at large. Even so, the future looks promising to those on the front lines.
“I would love to say that this is what the Las Cruces film industry is going to look like from here on out,” Jon said. “But we can’t allow ourselves to become complacent and stop marketing the area. There are no guarantees in this industry. I believe we really need to keep our efforts at an all-time high.”

As for Amber Dodson, she optimistically believes that, despite the pandemic, New Mexico is on a roll. “We have a strong pipeline of projects well into 2022,” she said. “The New Mexico Film Office continues to see increased growth, not only because of our world-class crew and talent, locations, competitive film incentive, and all of the additional assets that the state offers, but also Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s leadership and response to the COVID-19 pandemic keeps New Mexico at the top of industry decision-makers’ lists for where to bring a production.”

Heading Back to the Theatre

Written by Jackye Meinecke

Carol McCall, president of the nonprofit Mesilla Valley Film Society, is anxious for film enthusiasts to return to the historic Fountain Theatre in Mesilla, even as it tackles challenges like those of other art house theaters across the nation.
Carol acknowledges the impact of streaming technology, difficulties caused by the pandemic in finding both volunteers and audiences, and changes in community expectations about programming.

“Since the pandemic, movie theaters nationwide are not doing well,” Carol said. She explains people have become comfortable with streaming, and patrons are reluctant to return to theaters.

“There are lots of options besides going to the theater,” Carol observes with regard to the impact of technology. Many people now view movies on computers, phones, and even watches. “Those of us who grew up with the cinematic experience” have a different expectation of viewing films, she notes.

“Coming to the Fountain Theatre is an experience,” Carol enthused. She points out the quirky nature of the renovated early-1900s theater, from its murals of local scenes to “hole-in-the-wall” bathrooms. The theater has character and history quite different from the usual multiplex experience.

The theater is itself a community and it is a part of the wider community as well, she expanded. “People who watch movies at home don’t get the community experience,” Carol said. “It’s really important.”

At the theater, many patrons and volunteers know each other, and there is time before the film as well as space in the theater for socializing. In this casual atmosphere, viewers can slip out to the car for a sweater or go to La Posta’s bar next door to bring back a glass of beer, wine, or a cocktail. Even the snack bar offerings are an experience, including fresh popcorn with real butter.

“We have a conversation with patrons,” Carol said. For example, each film is introduced with a “curtain talk,” which welcomes viewers, thanks volunteers, and answers questions viewers have.

As a community within the community, the film society responds to requests in many areas, including programming, Carol said.
“Content and people’s preferences change,” she points out. So, the first hurdle is programming content for all ages and interests and then getting them to the theater to see it.

People see reviews of films in a major paper or online and make requests. When scheduling films, the programming committee also follows trade publication recommendations in addition to public requests. The film society presents alternative, foreign, and independent films, including films made in New Mexico.

The film society board and volunteers manage the historic theater. There are no paid employees and it is funded by ticket sales and memberships.

As with many nonprofits, the film society faces challenges in competing with other organizations for volunteers. “Lots of volunteers didn’t come back [after the pandemic],” Carol said.

The film society relies on volunteers invested in the community and who intend to stick around for a while, Carol said.
“It’s an investment in the individual’s time. This is a sustained effort,” Carol said. “We want people to love the theater; we want them to stay; we want them to make it better.”

As a volunteer, Carol learned to book and schedule films. Even making popcorn is not as simple as it appears, Carol said with the voice of experience. “This task can take a while for training.”

Carol sets an example of a film society volunteer, starting as a volunteer in the late 1990s then serving on the board. After a hiatus, she returned about seven years ago as a volunteer, stepped up to serve on the board, and was elected president.

Despite contemporary challenges, the film society looks to the future. “We are going to try to move into the 21st century and get people to come into the theater,” Carol said.


Written by David Salcido
Courtesy photos
Originally published in Neighbors magazine.

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