‘Stranger Things,’ ‘Better Call Saul’ Further New Mexico’s Explosive Film and TV Boom

The explosive growth of film and television production in New Mexico has broadened perceptions about its eclectic landscape in a short amount of time, but despite increasingly well-documented evidence to the contrary, some misconceptions stubbornly persist.

“One of the main comments I hear is ‘I didn’t know New Mexico has trees,’” says Amber Dodson, director of the state’s film office.

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While the state’s natural elements are undoubtedly beautiful and have stood in as a range of locales for countless film and TV productions, they’re only one factor in the state’s transformation from a short-term production location to a true hotspot for studios looking to put down roots.

New Mexico first established its production tax incentives in 2003, at the same time many states discovered the economic benefits of attracting entertainment industry business. State leadership quickly began developing infrastructure to support production.

“We wanted to change New Mexico from being just a location that you came here and shot and left, to an actual production hub where the creativity, the locations, the training and the support was located,” says Alicia J. Keyes, the New Mexico cabinet secretary of economic development.

Netflix took notice as the state’s offerings grew; the streamer purchased Albuquerque Studios in 2018, its first U.S.-based production space. The streaming giant doubled down a year later by signing a 10-year commitment to the state, which includes a guaranteed $2 billion spend. Underscoring New Mexico’s allure, Netflix signed on in 2020 as the state’s first official film partner.

The film partnership program, established during Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s first year in office, complements legislation to increase statewide production incentives. The program is designed to create symbiotic opportunities for studios and producers that commit to a decade of business in the state.

Since becoming New Mexico’s first official film partner, Netflix has produced 10 projects there — with more on the way — whose immediately recognizable locations anyone in New Mexico can visit.

A trip to Albuquerque can entail stops at Skate-o-Mania or Cafe 66 as seen in Season 4 of “Stranger Things.” Other destinations in the city, like Ski-Hi Liquors or the Rail Yards Market, can inspire a pilgrimage for fans of “Army of the Dead.” Visitors to the Los Lunas suburb can enjoy a meal at Europa, just like in “End of the Road.” Outdoorsy types can explore the Diablo Canyon Trailhead at the Santa Fe National Forest, just as characters did in “The Harder They Fall.”

And of course, “Breaking Bad,” the hit series that has spawned location tours in Albuquerque, including the “Breaking Bad” RV Tour, in which guests shuttle around the city in a replica of the Fleetwood Bounder in which Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) cooked up their meth.

Recognizing a good thing, in 2021, NBCUniversal signed on as New Mexico’s second film partner. Since then, the powerhouse has opened its own production space in Albuquerque and produced an additional eight projects in the state. They also committed to spending $500 million over the next decade and creating an additional 330 jobs.

Further broadening the state’s reach, 828 Prods. became a film partner just last year. The shingle committed to building a 300,000-square-foot studio, establishing a 20-acre backlot and generating at least 100 high-paying jobs in Las Cruces, a city only 41 miles from the Mexican border.

The city is growing in popularity for Spanish-language productions as well. Dodson cites the district’s state senator, Jeff Steinborn, as a huge champion of the incentive.

And, for all the talk about building studios, these are not the only employers in town. Some other recent successful productions have included ABC’s “Big Sky,” Amazon Studio’s “Outer Range,” AMC’s “Better Call Saul” and Hulu’s “Flamin’ Hot.”

Executive producer Chris Long, who worked in New Mexico on the Fox series “Deputy,” notes that the state can readily double for some parts of Los Angeles, noting that “a lot of crew that were capable and willing to work hard.”

Ensuring the employment base is up to par with their counterparts in other cities and states, New Mexico has developed and implemented a multitude of educational opportunities. Qualified crew are as imperative for a thriving film metropolis as the facilities themselves. Cinematographer Greg Gardiner worked in New Mexico most recently on the latest offering in the SpongeBob universe, “Saving Bikini Bottom: The Sandy Cheeks Movie.” Gardiner notes that in calling to hire the local crew he found himself “rewarded with a great group of excited and supportive filmmakers.”

There’s an additional benefit to working in the state as well: “You can spend all day out in the sun and wind, but then return to the lovely Santa Fe [with] relaxed evenings and great restaurants,” says Gardiner.

To date, there are 15 film and media programs around New Mexico that have been training students in all facets of the industry. “The New Mexico crew base can do world-class entertainment,” notes Dodson.

Capitalizing on its film partnerships, the state has developed industry-supported educational opportunities as well. NBCUniversal backs an annual director shadowing program that brings a local on board with either a showrunner or director on one of their productions.

Netflix is poised to offer a similar opportunity specifically for New Mexican Native directors. Additionally, Netflix is offering production accounting training and production assistant workshops. A partnership with Stowe Story Labs will result in learning opportunities and training in screenwriting, with a focus on recruiting talent from rural and tribal communities.

Keyes reflects that the film community in the state is like a family. “This is someplace that really cares about what’s going on with our people,” she says.

In 2022, the New Mexico Media Academy was established specifically to invest in the next generation of filmmakers in the state. All three current film partners, as well as IATSE Local 480, are contributing to its curriculum. Students may also take advantage of internships that can count towards union membership hours.

The financial incentives in New Mexico are robust. A 2021 study examining the program noted $1.5 billion of economic benefits to the state, in both direct and indirect returns. However, it takes more than that to secure a future in the industry.

With the state’s low cost of living, outdoor activities and other amenities at the ready, “I think it’s just been snowballing,” says Dodson of the state’s production success stories. “New Mexico has this incredible setting, a world-class crew. You’re close to L.A., [there’s] awesome weather.” It’s everything a production needs packaged into one very reasonably priced state.

Over the years, the state has doubled for locations including Montana, Texas and even Manila, capital of the Philippines. Long gone are the days when New Mexico’s production virtues were slightly off the radar and used for very specific projects, such as “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “Independence Day” and “City Slickers,” for instance.

“Now, we have studios based here, working with us [and] collaborating with us, not only on legislation, but on workforce and also just community involvement,” says Keyes.

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