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Los Ranchos de Albuquerque Bans Film Production Companies From Residential Areas

By Juan-Carlos Rodriguez
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    Film production companies can no longer shoot in residential areas of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, Mayor Larry Abraham says, because the practice violates village zoning ordinances.
    Last week, Abraham, acting on complaints from neighbors, refused to issue a permit to a Sony film crew that wanted to shoot at a home popular among TV producers and moviemakers. Abraham said the filming amounted to a business at the home, which he said violates village ordinances.
    The film ban will affect all residential areas of Los Ranchos, Abraham said.
    "We're relying on our residential zoning ordinance, which says single family only, no commercial activity," Abraham said.
Popular location
    During the past two years, the home of Mark and Judy Caruso has been used as a film location on 51 days, according to village records.
    Productions included the TV shows "Wildfire," "Husband for Hire," "In Plain Sight" and "Breaking Bad," as well as the feature film "Swing Vote."
    The TV movie Abraham blocked was "Sex and Lies in Sin City," a biopic about Las Vegas casino legend Ted Binion.
    Mark Caruso said he and his wife charge film companies about $5,000 a day to film on their property, which is on a quiet, shady street just west of Rio Grande Boulevard in the south end of Los Ranchos.
    Each time, the Carusos obtained a special event permit from the village. Last year, the village even gave the Carusos a home occupancy business license specifically for filming.
    The village board of trustees approved the license, but the special event permits were issued by the administration.
    "Why is it now, all of a sudden, not OK?" asked Judy Caruso. "We are taxpayers. How can you tell me what I can and cannot do in my home?"
    Abraham said that just because permits were issued for filming in the past doesn't make it legal.
    "Obviously, it was a new thing, and everyone was probably star-struck. I think we erred in the past by issuing them a license. Once we determined that was not proper, I have to keep the integrity of the ordinances," Abraham said.
    Lloyd Colton, who lives down the street from the Carusos, said he built his home in the area about 30 years ago for its quiet, rural qualities.
    He supports Abraham's decision and submitted a petition to the village with the signatures of 14 neighbors opposing filming in the area because of the traffic created by crews and the large trucks that park on the streets.
    "They do as they please," Colton said of film crews. "They shut the street off, and you try to come home to your house and they say, 'Oh, no, we're making a movie now. You're going to have to wait.' It's no good."
    Caruso said there were problems with crews in the street in the past, but he has since created a five-page contract that prohibits parking on the street, requires uniformed security guards and contains various other requirements designed to keep production companies from being a nuisance to neighbors.
    "We fixed these problems," Caruso said.
Adapting to industry
    As the film industry has taken hold in New Mexico— last year it brought the state $642 million in economic benefits— many different communities have struggled with how best to handle this unusual form of business, Lisa Strout, who heads the New Mexico Film Office, said.
    "Film permitting is such a unique situation. It's not like you're running a tile company out of your house; you're renting your house to the company for a few days," Strout said. "We've certainly seen an evolution of the permitting process in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Vegas."
    She said in both Albuquerque and Santa Fe, for example, production companies must get signatures of residents in areas they want to use for shooting.
    Hours of operation are strictly controlled, and, in some places, there are limits to how many days a year companies may use a location.
    Albuquerque has its own film liaison who deals with the companies, the police and fire departments, and any other agencies that may have an interest in the production.
    Jon Hendry, business agent for the film technicians union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, said production companies face the same issues that have arisen in Los Ranchos when shooting in other locations all over the world.
    "Movie companies will figure a way to shoot their movie respecting whatever restrictions that you put in to protect your location," Hendry said. "I think you've got an absolute right to tell the companies, 'Here's what it will take to shoot a picture here.' There are models. But to just say 'No,' that's not fair."
Economic boost
    New Mexico has worked hard the past few years to attract film productions to the state.
    Strout said that, since Gov. Bill Richardson took office in 2003, the state has instituted a variety of economic incentives such as tax rebates and no-interest loans for production companies.
    Several colleges in the state now offer courses for those wanting to become qualified to work on film crews.
    Strout said the state has seen about $1.8 billion in economic benefits from both film and TV productions so far, including money spent on labor, hotels, food, set materials and other necessities, such as portable toilets.
    The 100th major film to be shot in the state since 2003 was recently announced, Strout said.
    "When we started offering the incentives, there was only one other state doing it. Now there are 42," Strout said. "The reason all those states have done it is because of the unique economic engine it represents. It's a clean industry with high-wage jobs that brings massive amounts of dollars."
    According to Lester Berman, who produced "Wildfire," the Carusos' home is popular among production companies because it's luxurious and not a Southwest style house.
    "It's not adobe," Berman said. "If you're filming and you're looking for a location that is exotic and upscale and beautiful, it's a wonderful location."
    Most of the homes in that area are on 3-acre parcels and, in general, are quite large and expensive.
    Abraham said Sony offered to donate $5,000 to the village if it could film during the past weekend. But Abraham stood his ground.
    "Our rural lifestyle is not for sale," Abraham said.
Community decision
    The dust-up attracted the attention of Eric Witt, a Richardson adviser who works with the film industry.
    Witt said he was notified of the disagreement by the New Mexico Film Office, which had been contacted by Sony. He then called Abraham and left a message asking whether he could help at all and saying whatever Abraham decided would be fine.
    "That's a decision that's left totally to the community," Witt said he told Abraham. "We will respect any decision you guys make."
    Abraham said he will ask the Zoning Department to research if there is some other method to potentially allow film crews to use Los Ranchos residences as sites.
    "There might be a way on a very limited basis with plenty of restrictions and regulations, but we'll see," Abraham said.
    David Manzanares, unit manager for "Sex and Lies in Sin City," said that the situation was compounded by the fact that one location in Santa Fe had already fallen through and that time was running short on finding somewhere to shoot.
    He said filmers finally found an alternative location in Tesuque.
    "It was an emergency for us," Manzanares said. "But we're the ones that were putting them out. It's not like we contacted them months in advance and applied for permits. But it ended up working out, and we all move on."