Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Albuquerque Studios

Albuquerque Studios is going to the "auction block." Having defaulted on a $21.4 million loan, their creditor, Chicago Investment Trust, is calling in the chips, and The Studios (including their debt) is scheduled to auction on May 14th, in Albuquerque.

So, if this does happen, what does it mean for the New Mexico film industry?

It depends, but I think it will work out just fine.

Firstly, there was film in New Mexico before Albuquerque Studios, and there would be film after Albuquerque Studios, whether it was shuttered totally (unlikely) or if it was taken over by another studio entity. The notion that this spells the "demise" of anything (other than the careers of some studio executives and, perhaps, the name "Albuquerque Studios") is unfounded.

Secondly, Albuquerque Studios was built during an intense spike in production business in New Mexico, when our state was well out in the forefront of the "film incentive" game. At that time it made a lot of sense to build the world's largest studio for $100 million dollars. But that was before the economic downturn. And before dozens of other states launched their own film incentive programs. That being said, its possible that the current state of Albuquerque Studios as as much a result of management as economy. It's hard to tell.

Either way, under any circumstances, it's never easy to recoup $100 million sheckles.

Much of filming in New Mexico is location based, and not every picture or TV show is going to be mega-budget. Garson Studios in Santa Fe has been around since 1989, and have hosted major productions including No Country for Old Men, Legion, Brothers, Appaloosa and more. While they don't garner much press, they've been here for a long time, and will likely continue to be so. That all being said, there's much clout and function added to a film industry when we have the scope and scale of a facility such as ABQ Studios. So, to lessen its impact would be an oversimplification. And it would, in fact, be more difficult to draw in major, studio-based productions without it.

Yet a lot of film in New Mexico is also sustained by low to mid-budget pictures. While we do see mega-budget shoots that could require a mega-studio, it's the exception more than the rule. So, again, there's no shortage of productions not in need of a major studio, and I don't forsee much of a difference in the number of productions that will be landing in the State. However, without big-spending films, you could see overall expenditures drop. But everything is just conjecture at this point.

Many also felt that the studios were priced high. One of the benefits of filming in New Mexico is the lower cost of doing business, and, of course, our 25% cash rebate for productions. Charging high rates, however, can offset much of that benefit. Twenty-five percent back means little if you're already overpaying. My hope would be that new management would handle the equation differently, and to work with the incentives to make New Mexico an even more affordable destination. So, again, depending on how the cards play out, this could turn out to be a positive development.

Also, the former chief of ABQ Studios, Nick Smerigan, is accused in a lawsuit filed by Pacifica Ventures to have funneled film business to new studios in Mississippi, in which he has an interest (ie, his company Nick Smerigan is the founder of RoadTown Enterprises, the Los Angeles-based firm that is managing the studio.) These are lean times, and every production counts. I have no idea, but let's just say that for conversation sake it is true (its a much more interesting story this way, anway). I'd have to assume any future management would be under much more stringent oversight, and we'd be unlikely to have that happen again. So, perhaps, another plus. I also think there's quite a few parties interested in picking up a film studio for cents on the dollar, and I'd expect they're not a bunch of hacks.

Also, Santa Fe Studios is still firmly in the pipeline. While not nearly as large as ABQ, it would provide New Mexico with an incredible studio space that I feel is in alignment with more sustainable planning; smaller in scope with graduated improvements and expansions. The current situation in ABQ could also help foster a more streamlined process to getting SF Studios up and running - another plus.
It's always easy to hit the panic button, especially in such a tepid market and uneasy times. The real challenge comes in trying to find the good in any situation, because that's part of what helps open the way for new ideas and positive developments. Film professionals are by nature a resilient and inventive lot, and are able to weather a lot of ups and downs. After all, if you can't handle chaos, you shouldn't be involved in film.

Thus far, I'm not seeing anything that's making me reach for the life preserver, and I'd be one of the first to know if the ship is going down. Far from it. In fact, I'm interested to see how things unfold from here and believe that there are some great possibilities in store.

We're fine. Everything changes. There's usually some bumps and bruises along the way, often, in retrospect, just to keep us on the edges of our seats. And those of us in film should be used to that. After all, if we're the one's who create dramas, we should also be the best at navigating them.

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