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Editorial: A New Mexico whospentit

Has there ever been a more exciting time than now for New Mexico’s film industry?

As Journal arts and entertainment editor Adrian Gomez reported Aug. 23, the industry directly spent $525.5 million in New Mexico during fiscal year 2019 – nearly $20 million more than the last record-breaking spending year.

There’s no question that the film and television industry is a friend to New Mexico. But we pay dearly for the pleasure of its company.

New Mexicans pay 25 cents for every dollar spent by the film industry, and more on some long-running television series. It’s those heavy subsidies that make it worthwhile for industry giants like NBCUniversal and Netflix to do business here. If those subsidies dried up, you better believe the film and TV industry presence in the Land of Enchantment would too, probably in about the time it takes to shout, “Lights, camera, action!”

A law that more than doubled the cap on the dollar amount the state can pay film and TV productions each year is expected to spur that number on to even greater heights.

As the cameras and the good times keep rolling, though, there’s a nagging question that has yet to be clearly answered.

Is it all worth it?

Remember Louisiana learned the hard way it wasn’t. In 2016, its incentives generated $63.2 million in taxes and cost taxpayers $282.6 million. Lawmakers there quickly adopted a cap in 2017.

So for the taxpayers quite literally supporting the industry’s presence in New Mexico, the state government and film and TV companies need to finally get serious about economic impact transparency.

Think of all the New Mexicans who get a piece of the action throughout a production: Businesses and private citizens who rent out their properties for film locations. Construction crews brought in to build sets and furniture. Actors, whether lead, bit part or background. Restaurant owners who score catering deals for crews of hundreds of people. Car rental companies. Hotels. Hardware stores.

So we know there’s a definite benefit to New Mexicans from being the Hollywood of the Southwest. The problem is we don’t know how much of a benefit.

The New Mexico Film Office has a well-designed, information-packed website that hosts a searchable directory of local industry workers, a robust FAQ for film and TV producers about benefits the state provides, and a pages-deep list of potential filming locations. What it doesn’t have is a dollars-in, dollars-out transparency tool aimed at the taxpayer to show them their subsidies are worth their cost. Neither does the New Mexico Economic Development Department’s site.

Creating such a tool would be a huge signal to taxpayers that their contribution to the film and TV industry in New Mexico is money well spent.

Think about it. The state already requires productions to report certain figures within three months of a project wrapping up, and it obviously has access to the dollar amount of subsidies it pays out.

A centralized website could host all sorts of features. A map of the main locations where filming has taken place, perhaps with dollars broken down by goods and services. How much did the cast and crew of the latest “Jumanji” sequel spend in the Farmington area on food? How about on lodging? On construction? What about the producers of “The Comeback Trail,” featuring Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones and Morgan Freeman, slated to film on location in Albuquerque, To’hajiilee and Yrisarri, as well as at Bonanza Creek Ranch outside Santa Fe?

If the state needs an organizational partner, the Motion Picture Association of America – read: the people who give movies their ratings – also has access to spending figures. Last year, for example, the association put out a press release describing the economic impact filming for Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule” had on the Las Cruces area.

This tool wouldn’t just be a memo to taxpayers. It would allow film and TV creators to demonstrate what a good neighbor they are to the people of New Mexico. And it could serve as a beautifully built marketing tool for New Mexico’s business community at large, demonstrating the many opportunities there are for companies to provide auxiliary services to the film and TV people.

At its heart, though, such a website would provide easy-to-understand balance sheet data to the public and its duly elected lawmakers, who are responsible for deciding the future of subsidies. And that’s long past due, since to date they’ve been working without a script.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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