New Mexico filmmakers left behind as industry booms in state
By TRIPP STELNICKI
Feb. 18, 2017
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — It's a difficult, unpredictable business. Henry Valdez knows that. He wants in anyway.
Enter "Bad Broker," a mockumentary-style web series about a hapless Santa Fe real estate agent.
Valdez, 30, a real estate marketer himself, has carved out spare time to make shorts and a feature-length film with friends over the past decade. As the writer and director of "Bad Broker," he hopes it can be a cut above those projects.
He wants to tell Santa Fe stories, showing the different faces of his hometown, and he wants to find a local audience — one that can appreciate the comedy in a Santa Fe broker bending over backward to sell a ranch to a rich Texan. (Sample line: "You need a bolo tie to sell ranches!")
But Valdez says he feels like he's on the outside looking in, trying to crack what he describes as a celluloid ceiling for local filmmakers seeking funding, distribution and opportunity.
"There's a lot of stuff for film students, and you can work as crew, or take your shot at acting and hope you get a one-liner in 'Better Call Saul,'" he told the Santa Fe New Mexican (http://bit.ly/2l0xdLP). "But in terms of, 'I got a cast, I got a crew, I got a product — where can I go?' There's nothing."
Production companies descend on New Mexico for its gorgeous landscapes, its friendly tax incentives and its well-regarded crew base. Almost $400 million was spent by film companies in the state in the last fiscal year. The resulting projects regularly earn critical acclaim and invitations to Hollywood's most prestigious award shows. A film trade magazine recently named Santa Fe the second-best small city to live and work as a filmmaker in the country; Albuquerque ranked eighth in the larger-city category.
But amid the boom, some local filmmakers feel like a party is happening in their backyard — and they weren't invited.
When film productions come to New Mexico, they don't often hire a director or screenwriter on site. Less than 1 percent of the total jobs created by the film industry in the state from 2010 to 2014 were key creative positions, according to a study of the state's film tax incentives conducted by MNP, a Canadian accounting firm. Only a third of those jobs were filled by New Mexico residents.
Under former Gov. Bill Richardson, state-sponsored programs were initiated to help balance the scales. A $10 million fund for film and media in 2005 led to local trainings and workshops to develop "above-the-line" talent — directors, producers and writers. A contract award program provided thousands of dollars annually to fund local filmmakers' projects; an annual short screenplay competition chose a handful of New Mexico scripts for production and promotion; and Robert Redford's Milagro at Los Luceros hosted labs and workshops at a historic, state-owned ranch near Alcalde.
The programs were intended to create a "continuum of engagement" that would help the New Mexico film and TV industry generate homegrown projects, said Eric Witt, director of the Santa Fe Film Office and an adviser to Richardson during his tenure.
Anyone can enact a tax incentive, but "we were building an industry," Witt said.
The programs ended after Richardson left office. Some, like Milagro at Los Luceros, remain in flux. Requests for comment from the state film office and a spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez were not returned by press time.
"The shame is, it was halted with momentum behind it," Witt said of the film and media fund. " . It was allowing us to keep our best and brightest at home."
Now a clear distinction exists between the film productions that come to New Mexico and the filmmakers who live here, said Jilann Spitzmiller, a documentarian and film instructor. "In terms of getting something off the ground, finding financing, putting a package together, there really aren't any meaningful resources that exist for that right now."
An alternate member of the Santa Fe Film and Digital Media Commission, Spitzmiller said there is a particular need to connect local filmmakers with financiers and cultivate a network of local writers, producers and directors. To that end, the commission has planned an event in March for local above-the-line folks to get acquainted with each other and share their work.
Spitzmiller hosts a Santa Fe workshop to help others learn best practices for distributing their projects. But, she said, the bottom line is the bottom line.
"We can sit around and talk all day," she said, "but the question remains: Will we see some financial support for the things we identify and would like to create to foster more support for our local filmmakers?"
Spitzmiller's film, Still Dreaming, made with her husband and partner Hank Rogerson, premiered in 2015 and will air on PBS later this year.
State-aided programs were the right idea, said Dirk Norris, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Film Foundation, which offers grants and small stipends to in-state filmmakers. "It's gotta be more than just lip service," said Norris. " . There's moral support, but I haven't seen anybody with money."
In eight years in Albuquerque, Alejandro Montoya Marin, 35, has made numerous shorts, music videos and commercials. But he's been trying to get financing to produce a feature-length film, "Low-Fi." A Texas native who grew up in Mexico, Montoya Marin has wavered on whether he'll now have to move to Los Angeles. He says it's not an easy call.
"There are a lot of great resources here, and the state has been really good to me," he said. "I feel an obligation to stay and film and do as much work as I can."
Full-time film students might enjoy resources that older, emerging filmmakers, or those with full-time jobs, lack. Liam Lockhart, associate chairman of the film school at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, encourages his students to stay in the area if they can, and he said he sees more of them doing so.
A Los Angeles native himself, Lockhart said he would warn the student determined to leave for Hollywood that he or she might become a small fish in an ocean, with no guarantee of increased opportunity. Even Oscar winners wonder how they'll fund and produce their next project, he said.
Valdez and his co-creator, Michael Estrada, are launching an online fundraising campaign to help complete a full season of "Bad Broker." Valdez says he's received positive feedback, including at a December premiere event at The Screen on the University of Art and Design campus.
Rather than the finish line, he sees a screening or film festival appearance as a stepping stone.
"I'm more interested in what happens after that," he added. "How do I get more people to see this?"
Those wondering how to start from scratch might look to Matt Page, whose Albuquerque-based YouTube series "Enter the Dojo" has accumulated millions of views since its inception in 2011. In fact, many have — so many that Page, 39, began hosting seminars for inquisitive would-be content creators.
"I kept getting invited to coffee, and they would become two-and-a-half-hour coffee meetings," Page said. "We'd be walking out the door to the parking lot, and I'd say, 'Oh, do this,' 'Let me write down this,' 'Don't forget this.'"
Page began with resources he already had. His friend owned an Albuquerque karate studio. Page had a camera and a group of friends who could be free for a weekend. Most importantly, Page had a funny idea: An aggressive, self-assured, Ron Burgundy-esque martial arts instructor. Now he tours that character, Master Ken, with live stand-up appearances across the country every year. Page supports himself almost entirely through the show, all while new "Enter the Dojo" clips are posted like clockwork at least once a week.
Page, a 2005 graduate of the former College of Santa Fe, recommends much the same approach to others: Just start doing it, keep doing it and be patient. His experience was one of trial and error.
"If you feel like you want to be the lead in something," he said, "you may have to create it yourself."
Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, http://www.sfnewmexican.com