New Mexico Art Tells its History

History: The Movies

Filmmakers come to New Mexico for the same reason painters and photographers come here: the light. It was the need for exotic locations that brought the inventors of cinematography (literally “writing with motion”) to the state when their technology was sufficiently developed to take it on the road. Because of New Mexico’s authentic old west locations and dramatic landscapes, the state has a rich history in Western cinema.

The Early Years

In the 1890s New Mexico Territory was still “the Wild West.” Eastern authors continued to depict it as the untamed backyard of the American republic where the law of the six-shooter reigned, and the dregs of society created constant turmoil among serious settlers trying to tame the land. Photography, born half a century earlier, promoted the landscape and cultures of the West even further as Matthew Brady’s ethnographic pictures of Native Americans were circulated widely.

Nonetheless, the American West was remote from the experience of most people. In 1898 Thomas A. Edison visited New Mexico territory, arriving by rail in Albuquerque. Indian Day School (1898), made by the Edison Company, shows a small group of Native American children and their teacher filing out of a Pueblo-style one-room schoolhouse, and then back in again. The film was only fifty seconds in length. The Edison primitive – a documentary, or “actuality,” as it would have been called at the time – was the first film shot in New Mexico Territory and one of the first ever in the American West.

By 1912, California had become “winter camp” for several fledgling film companies – not only independents, but also Edison’s company, Motion Picture Patents signatories, like Biograph. David Wark (D. W.) Griffith had been working at Biograph in New York, rising quickly through the ranks from writer of photoplays, to director, to master of the medium. With the Birth of a Nation (1915), he became known as the “father of the narrative film.” Griffith and the Biograph troupe had spent the winter months of 1911 – 1912 in Los Angeles churning out featurettes. At the end of May, they boarded the train to return to New York and stopped in Albuquerque to take in the local scene – and make a picture. As it turned out, they completed two films during their weeklong stay in New Mexico. One was a full-length dramatic love story, the other a short comedy.

Like the Edison Company filmmaker before him, D. W. Griffith went directly to the Isleta Pueblo to make a Romeo-and-Juliet tale about a Hopi maiden and her Pueblo boyfriend. A Pueblo Legend (1912), 20 minutes in length, is typical of Griffith’s work at that time. The star of the movie was Mary Pickford who in a few years became “America’s Sweetheart,” and the world’s highest-paid film artist. The other star of the film was the locale, with Griffith quoted as saying that “the Isleta Pueblo offered some of the finest scenic opportunities ever put into a picture.”

After Griffith came Romaine Fielding, creative director of the Lubin Company, a Motion Picture Patents signatory. Fielding filled a variety of roles for the film company, including lead actor, character actor, set designer, cinematographer, screenwriter and director. He was wildly eccentric and just as wildly imaginative. Fielding relocated his company to Las Vegas, N.M., where he made upward of a dozen featurettes over the next two years. In Las Vegas, he practically took over the town, at one point buying the landmark Plaza Hotel, renaming it the “Hotel Romaine,” and installing his production company there.

Selig Polyscope, another Patents Company, became resident of Las Vegas in 1914. Led by its own star/director, Tom Mix, it produced as many as 25 or 30 short Westerns over the next two years. Mix impressed the local population with his expansive personality and his insistence on performing all his own stunts, some of them quite dangerous.

The Talkies

At the end of the silent period, two remarkable film projects came to New Mexico: a watershed Western about Native Americans and one proposed feature-length documentary on the same subject.

Acoma was to have been an anthropological documentary-drama along the lines of the classic Nanook of the North (1922), directed by the gifted Robert Flaherty, who had practically invented the documentary form.

The actor Richard Dix starred in the other feature, Redskin (1928), shot on the Navajo Reservation in western New Mexico and in Gallup. A dramatic tale set against a backdrop of complex racial bigotries, Redskin also made use of Acoma locations. The film is notable on at least two levels: the compassionate treatment given Native Americans (they are the heroes of the story), and the ravishing color (partially in Technicolor), used as emotional underscoring, amber-tinted black and white man, full color for the sequences of Indian life.

It is interesting that the first period of New Mexico’s film history should begin and end with rapturous vistas of the land and romantic depictions of Native Americans against it. In between, movie stories ran the gamut from cowboys to labor unions, from menacing rattlesnakes to haggling tourists. The constant theme for filmmakers, though, has been the majestic landscape and its inhabitants.

Billy the Kid

The story of Billy the Kid has been an enduring subject for film work in New Mexico, evolving along with style and technology. Gallup also drew the accomplished director King Vidor when he made Billy the Kid in 1930 (starring Johnny Mack Brown). The advent of sound in motion pictures – “talkies” – brought challenges to location filming similar to those facing the Edison Company when they began to film outside the studio. In this case the decision of where to hide the microphone was as pressing as the camera setup. MGM’s gift to help Vidor capture the essence of the Southwest expanse was a new wide-screen process they called “Reallife.” Shooting Billy the Kid on 70mm film in an extreme rectangular image, twice as wide as high, provided tremendous sharpness. But theater owners were not about to invest in new projection equipment for 70mm; they were already complaining about the investment in the new sound film equipment. Vidor wisely shot simultaneously in 35mm and this was the film that was widely released.

Billy the Kid resurfaced in the cinema roughly three decades later in Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun (1958). This time the location was Santa Fe; the actor playing Billy was Paul Newman. Cinematography had developed to meet the needs of a new introspective style of acting, Method acting, which meant more extreme close-ups of faces and hands, and flexible camera angles. To underscore the psychological drama rather than highlight background details as in many action Westerns, the film was shot in black and white, and Penn used swirling camerawork to stylize the gunfights.

Another 30 years passed and yet another Billy was to appear, in the form of Emilio Estevez in Chris Cain’s Young Guns (1988). Again responding to the trends formed by audience demand, the cinematographic technology had evolved to the present-day sharpness of color, crisp image and clarity of sound that could be as mobile as the galloping horses and gun battles being filmed. This production emphasized detail in surroundings and turned the real-life village of Cerrillos into old Lincoln of the 1870’s. Shot in the wide-screen format Cinemascope, Young Guns brings to light the simple fact that in spite of the advances and refinements made in cinematography, motion picture cameras still function in essentially the same way as they did a century ago…telling a good story.

Economic Impact

In the last ten years, New Mexico has been particularly aggressive in courting Hollywood. The state has become one of the top filming destinations in the country by offering filmmakers a 25% refund of all in-state production costs and interest-free loans of up to $15 million. More than 150 film and television projects have taken advantage of the incentives since they were introduced in 2002. No small city in the state has seen more film action than Las Vegas, which has hosted such films as No Country for Old Men, North Country, The Longest Yard, and Wild Hogs.

Unlike scores of states seeking film shoots that pack up and leave when they are finished, New Mexico is zeroing in on the nuts and bolts of Hollywood. By luring the support companies that form the bedrock of the Los Angeles entertainment economy, New Mexico aims to lay the foundation for a top-tier movie and TV production business.

Sony Pictures Imageworks plans to move a major chunk of its visual effects business – and more than 100 jobs – from Culver City to Albuquerque Studios.

In nearby Rio Rancho, Lions Gate Entertainment is gearing up to build a $15-million production center on 20 acres provided by the city, and with the help of a pending $10-million loan from the state.

The New Mexico State Film Office and State Investment Council notes in the Executive Summary of its January 2009 Report on the Economic and Fiscal Impacts of the New Mexico Film Production Tax Credit:

New Mexico has provided tax incentives to film productions since the film production tax credit was adopted in 2002. The program has attracted more than 115 major film productions to New Mexico since its adoption in 2002, including 22 films that were assisted through the State Investment Council’s loan participation program. In 2007, 30 films were produced in New Mexico generating $253 million of spending benefiting the New Mexico economy and generating higher state and local tax collections.

The benefits of New Mexico’s film production tax credit program extend beyond the direct and indirect economic impacts of film production activities qualifying for tax credits. In addition to the film spending, New Mexico’s economy also benefits from capital investment to support the film industry’s growth in the state and additional film-related tourism.

  • Film production activities in New Mexico created 2,220 direct jobs in 2007. This employment impact includes approximately 1,670 below the line employees earning $49,500 annually and 550 actors, directors, and producers working in New Mexico. These 2,220 direct jobs created 1,609 additional jobs in other industries, resulting in a total employment impact of 3,829 jobs.
  • Film-related capital expenditures and projected film tourism spending attributable to 2007 productions generated an estimated 3,769 direct jobs and 1,612 indirect jobs, resulting in 5,380 total jobs attributable to capital expenditures and film tourism.
  • Combining the 2,220 direct jobs from film productions with the 3,769 jobs from capital expenditures and film tourism results in 5,989 total direct jobs attributable to the film production tax credit. These direct jobs create a total of 3,221 indirect jobs, resulting in a total employment impact of nearly 9,210 jobs.
  • The economic activity created by the film production tax credit program also results in higher state and local tax collections. State tax collections resulting from film production activities in 2007 totaled $22.6 million. Additional state tax impacts from capital expenditures in 2007 and film tourism during 2008-2011 are estimated to total $21.5 million in 2007 dollars, resulting in a total state tax impact of $44.1 million.
  • Film production expenditures in 2007 qualified for $49.4 million of state film production tax credits to be paid in 2008. Expressed in 2007 dollars, these film credits total $47.1 million. Based on the 2007 value of present and future year tax receipts and the 2007 value of state film production tax credits, the program earns $0.94 in additional tax revenue for each $1.00 that is paid out in incentives. Local governments in New Mexico earn $0.56 for each dollar of state credits, resulting in combined state and local tax collections of $1.50 for each $1.00 of state credits.

Movie making is alive and well in New Mexico!

Stephen Siegfried
New Mexico Business Journal, March, 1998

Joseph Dispenza
New Mexico Film Museum

J. B. Smith
New Mexico Film Museum

Kate Linthicum
Los Angeles Times, July 20, 2009

Richard Verrier
Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2007

Economic and Fiscal Impacts of the New Mexico Film Production Tax Credit;
Prepared for the New Mexico State Film Office and State Investment Council

January, 2009




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