Fried Light: From Hollywood to Tamalewood

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By Roger Snodgrass

All that glitters is not stardust.

New Mexico has been offering lavish lubricants to the film industry for several years now in the form of loans and tax credits.

Nothing creates the illusion of success quite like subsidies. And no place in the country has a better record for booms that bust than the western United States.

Think gold. Think oil. Think celluloid.

For a while, everybody wants the glamour. Everybody imagines the bucks. Everybody wants to get in on the act.

But guess what? Subsidies are one hard act to sustain and a harder act to follow.

There’s a bigger fool born every minute; foolish state governments are in perpetual session. Those that are fresh and relatively unburned by dream weavers and those that are attracted by bright and shiny things, are bound to make a better offer sooner or later.

What happens when New Mexico’s rundown urban locations representing the ’70s go out of style, just like the so-called open spaces of the Wild West when they ran out of horse operas?

Filmmakers are overpaid or underpaid like everybody else in this economy. Celebrity filmmakers can usually go where they want. As a rule, though not always, the risk-takers and the subprime talent are more likely to go where there’s an inducement.

For now and with a longer run than in past years, New Mexico has been in a movie boom.

As the governor totes up the asset portion of the account, more than 90 major feature film and television projects have shot in the state, pumping $1.6 billion into the economy.

This has been a prosperous time for some local artists who have lived hand-to-mouth for the decades between “Silverado” and “Milagro Beanfield War” to the “Valley of Elah” and “No Country for Old Men.”

It’s also been great for the local artists who long ago realized they could only make it in the industry if they moved to California.

Now they have started trickling back, taking care to keep one foot in the desert and one foot in tinsel town.

That the hot ticket coincided with the now-thwarted ambitions of a powerful governor may mean the party’s already over.

There’s talk of “Tamalewood,” – surely the death rattle of a name.

Another troubling sign of a bubble about to burst is that the biggest movie yet, the next movie in the blockbuster “Terminator” series with a $185-million budget, has started production here for the summer and is based in Albuquerque Studios.

On Friday, the governor’s office announced that the movie “Sex & Lies in Sin City,” would film mostly in New Mexico this month, surely a Sodom-and-Gomorrah-like omen if there ever was one.

Last year some state legislators started nosing around the big pile of money that neither they nor their constituents were sharing at the trough, knives sharpened to kill-off what still seemed like an egg-bearing goose.

They’ll be back – a little hungrier next year.

Although all the commotion seemed to attract a lot of collateral production, none of the 13 films given loans at that time out of New Mexico’s severance fund had returned a profit to the state; six had repaid their loans; four were yet to be released; and two had skipped.

As a former film and video documentarian, who made a mythical pilgrimage to Hollywood to sell a screenplay, I love this courageous gamble by New Mexico and would really like to see it take root.

But I don’t have much faith in the studio system and even less in the alternatives.

I fought for years to import a few trickles of money out here to the loony boondocks, before finally choosing the better part of valor.

As a realist, I watch with amusement as another soar, crash and burn sequence lights up the landscape.

E-mail Roger at roger@lamonitor.com.