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Albuquerque Studios' Gigantic Sound Stages Give the Film Industry Space, Flexibility

By Andrew Webb
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    What do blockbuster movies like "300," "Spider-Man" and "The Lord of the Rings" series have in common? Answer: huge sets to film scenes and actors and then more space to digitally graft the players into computerized shots. In other words, space. Lots of space.
    The new Albuquerque Studios, the emerging $74 million complex of cavernous sound stages south of the Albuquerque International Sunport, will provide just that.
    Industry insiders say the new studios, along with an anticipated post-production facility to be opened there by Sony Pictures Imageworks, could be the linchpins in the state's efforts to provide "soup-to-nuts" filmmaking capability.
    "Big movies like 'The Mummy' and 'Indiana Jones' require a big space, and height to the grid," said film tech union representative Jon Hendry, referring to the maze of wood stringers along the top of a stage from which lights, microphones and other equipment are hung.
    "It seems like the business is going in the direction that Albuquerque Studios is serving— a combination of (computer generated imagery) and live action," said Hendry, business agent for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 480.
By the numbers
    Nearly complete, seven months and two record-breaking storms from last summer's groundbreaking, Albuquerque Studios comprises:
  • Eight sound stages, four of which are 24,000 square feet and four sized at 18,000 square feet; each 45 feet to 55 feet high;
  • 40-foot-high soundproof "smart walls" that can be opened between the stages, creating up to 48,000 square feet of sound stage space;
  • 78,000 square feet of furnished office space, wardrobe rooms and other flexible areas for filmmakers, including apartments to house staff during the typical three to six months it takes to make a feature film;
  • 70,000 square feet of "mill," or production support space, for storage, construction, welding or other work;
  • Massive backlot space, with supplied power;
  • A growing network of industry suppliers with offices here, including Claremont Camera, heavy equipment provider NES, StarWagons and NBC Universal Lighting and Grip.
        Albuquerque Studios executive director Jeremy Hariton said customers are lining up, and the first unnamed production is expected to begin using two of the 24,000-square-foot sound stages soon. Besides movies, he said the studios could house television dramas and game shows, music videos and special events.
    Built to film
        Stages are clad in soundproofing "blankets" and built with wood floors on which to bolt multi-story set pieces.
        They are so big a tractor-trailer has been driven in through a door and around in a circle.
        "It's definitely bringing us into the next phase of our strategic plan; we're pretty thrilled," said Lisa Strout, director of the New Mexico Film Office. "I think it's really going to help us in terms of making this industry sustainable."
        Movie making has become a multimillion dollar industry in New Mexico, largely driven by incentives, like a 25 percent gross receipts tax rebate and interest-free production loans promoted by Gov. Bill Richardson.
        As production has ramped up, state and city film offices have scrambled to find warehouse or industrial space, such as the former Philips Semiconductor plant, to serve as sound stage stand-ins.
        "There have been a number of projects that we couldn't consider because we just didn't have anything large enough," Strout said.
    Despite all delays
        Pacifica Ventures, a Santa Monica, Calif., real estate firm serving the film industry, broke ground on Albuquerque Studios in August.
        "We wanted to take advantage of what I believe is the best film incentive program in the country," said Hal Katersky, director of Pacifica Ventures, which he said is exploring construction of more studios in the U.S. and overseas.
        Despite heavy summer rains, a major snowstorm and worldwide shortages of concrete and steel, the project is nearly complete.
        "Due to the rain and snow, we periodically lost time, but then we'd make it up," said Albuquerque Studios COO Nick Smerigan, adding that employees from builder Jaynes Corp. and various subcontractors sometimes worked weekends and built roofs in a blizzard to stay on schedule.
        "These guys were great," he said.
        The tilt-up concrete panels that make up the sound stages weighed up to 92 tons and required a special crane to lift.
        Pacifica bought the land— about 28 acres for the first phase— and has options for another 26 expansion acres from Forest City Covington, which is building the 12,000-acre master planned Mesa del Sol. Albuquerque Studios will be one of Mesa del Sol's anchor industrial tenants.
        Two union pension funds, one in Chicago and one in Washington, D.C., provided financial backing for the project and share some ownership of Albuquerque Studios with Pacifica Ventures.
        Smerigan is quick to point out that, despite an incentive-driven film industry here, Albuquerque Studios received no breaks or investments from the state or city.
        "We're paying our property and sales taxes," he said.
    Unbeatable benefits
        Albuquerque Studios and Pacifica do not make movies. Instead, they will rent the space to producers. Rates for a 24,000-square-foot stage would run about $5,000 a day.
        "We're 15 to 20 percent less than what major studios would charge in Los Angeles, before the (state's tax) rebates," Hariton said.
        Hendry adds that the benefits of shooting in New Mexico extend far beyond Albuquerque Studios' massive indoor spaces.
        "The next studio this size is in Los Angeles, and the only thing you can shoot in Los Angeles is Los Angeles," he said. "Within 20 miles of Albuquerque Studios, we have everything from classic New England antique streets to New York to an African savanna at the back of the zoo."
        Indeed, Pacifica's Katersky says the group is putting together a book for filmmakers demonstrating the versatile filming locations around Albuquerque and the state.
        "As we see it, Albuquerque is the best place for film production," he said. "It's close to Los Angeles, the government at city and state levels are friendly to production, and these soundstages are not duplicated anywhere else in the world."
        Changes to existing incentives, as well as a few new perks, should keep the film industry rolling here.
        During this year's legislative session, lawmakers made the popular tax rebate program permanent and extended its benefits to post-production work, such as computer animation— likely a key component in luring Sony Pictures Imageworks to open an office here.
        The Legislature also increased the amount of the state's permanent funds available for interest-free film production loans by $43 million and set standards for small towns that would allow them to offer tax abating industrial revenue bonds to filmmakers.
    A complete package
        Strout said Albuquerque Studios complements several other studios already in operation here, including two 14,000-square-foot sound stages at the College of Santa Fe and Albuquerque's 2,000-square-foot Rio Grande Studios. Film production company LionsGate is also in ongoing negotiations with state and city officials to build a studio complex in Rio Rancho.
        "To have a true sound stage complex, with all the amenities, is so phenomenal for us," she said. "There are a lot of neat things coming our way, from very small to very large."