That’s a Wrap

I read a quote recently, attributed to avant garde street artist Banksy, that posited, “Film is incredibly democratic and accessible, it’s probably the best option if you actually want to change the world, not just re-decorate it.” Those words gave me pause.

Do I believe that filmmaking can change the world? Sure I do. Actually, I think it already has. Things are vastly different now in our society than they were when the first Kinetoscope film was shot by William Dickson in 1890. We’ve gone to the moon. We have the internet and laptop computers. We have become a global community.

Ideas like this were first presented in the written form. For centuries people read about heroic feats of accomplishment and amazing phantasms that generated excitement and wonder, but little else. We didn’t think of those literary heroes as real people. They were heroes and in our collective consciousness, that meant they were much larger than life.

Then along came the movies. Suddenly, we were presented with the visual representation of human beings doing unfathomable things. People who looked and acted just like us! It was only then that we, as a collective, began to consider the possibility that the realization of seemingly impossible dreams could be more than merely fiction.

The people who have made the internet what it is today were all science fiction geeks. Sir Richard Branson watched a lot of movies when he was young. So, too, did the people who founded the Robotics Institute in 1979. I don’t see any of that as coincidental.

I mean, think about it. It wasn’t H.G. Wells and Jules Verne who inspired us to literally reach for the stars. It was screen heroes like Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Captain Kirk. If THEY could do it, then dammit, so could we!

Now, I admit, we made a lot of discoveries before the invention of moving pictures, but moving pictures made the realization of dreams a universal theme. We create change within our own lives, by following the cinematic examples of fictional representations of the people we really want to be. In that respect, movies can, indeed, change the world.

That said, much of what changed this year in the continuing struggle to create a viable film industry in southern New Mexico was, overall, very noteworthy. Though they may not have occupied the papers or saturated the airwaves like Ebola, celebrity meltdowns and police violence did in 2014, great strides were made. In fact, I believe the filmmaking community is much closer to realizing real change than it was a year ago. Allow me to elucidate.

January began with the announcement that long-time film advocate Dirk Norris – formerly the film liaison for Lincoln County and Outreach Programs Manager for the New Mexico Film Office – had founded the New Mexico Film Foundation. The mission of the NMFF is “To help support the independent film industry in New Mexico while offering financial assistance and educational opportunities to New Mexico independent film makers.” This was a fantastic way to start the year, as Norris is very SNM film friendly.

To help announce the creation of this new entity on February 12, Film Las Cruces, in association with the Regional Film Development Advisory Committee (RFDAC) and the White Sands International Film Festival (WSIFF), hosted a summit on The State of Filmmaking in Southern New Mexico at the Rio Grande Theatre. Invited to speak were Norris and Janet Davidson, president of New Mexico Women in Film and vice chair of Women in Film and Television International.

We had a lot to talk about, because in late January, the City Council voted unanimously to include film infrastructure to the 2014 Infrastructure Capital Improvements Plan, enabling the city to receive potential capital outlay funding through the state legislature. A strong first move and show of solidarity by the city, which provided, in the words of councilor Nathan Small, “a positive step forward and a promising future for film in southern New Mexico.”

Even councilor Miguel Silva, who has been supportive, yet wary, announced in that meeting that, “regardless of whether or not we receive the money from up north, we still need to move forward. We all recognize that the film industry has the potential to be a very viable industry down south.”

The really big news for Las Cruces, however, was the announcement that State Rep. Jeff Steinborn had lobbied for and appropriated $555,000 in state funds for the creation of a film backlot in Doña Ana County. The announcement was made during a community celebration on March 25 at the Rio Grande Theatre, with western reenactments on Main Street, followed by presentations and acknowledgements of support from city and county officials.

The move opened the door for debate amongst local filmmakers as to what, exactly, this would mean for Las Cruces. Though lines had been clearly drawn between those who are in favor of and those who are opposed to the building of a backlot, there is no doubt that the idea pumped much-needed energy into a the fledgling industry.

Meanwhile, as so often happens when momentous occasions crowd the media outlets, life went on as usual for filmmakers in southern New Mexico. Films like PRC Productions’ “Truth,” Rod McCall’s “Jim,” Phil Lewis’ “Retablo: Painting My Miracle” and Mark Medoff’s “The Heart Outright” continued shooting and most have wrapped successfully.

In August, the debate began to heat up again when the city council invited award-winning Albuquerque Film Liaison Ann Lerner to give a presentation. Her expertise was drawn upon to better explain how the New Mexico film incentives work, how direct spending has impacted the city of Albuquerque and what the potential is for southern New Mexico, as well as to help the council better understand the role of a film liaison.

At the same time, the big-budget studio film, “Captain Fantastic,” starring Viggo Mortenson and Frank Langella, was busy filming in Picacho Hills. The symbiosis of these two events was not lost on policymakers. If Lerner left the council with one thought worth remembering, it was this: “It is tolerance for ambiguity that makes you successful. Flexibility is key, but more importantly, remaining friendly and supportive.” Presented with the opportunity to experience this phenomenon first hand, the City of Las Cruces gained a much better understanding of film economics.

Interestingly enough, it was Lerner’s cross-examination by city councilors during her appearance that tipped the scales away from considerations of a backlot in Las Cruces. With news of financial woes and bankruptcy up north, and Lerner’s admission that the city of Albuquerque not only doesn’t have a backlot, but rather considers the entire city to be one big backlot, both the Las Cruces City Council and the RFDAC went back to the drawing board and looked at the concept in more detail.

On December 15, the RFDAC made its final presentation to the city council, in which it was revealed that Rep. Steinborn would be returning to the legislature at the beginning of 2015 to not only redirect the funding already received, but also to lobby for more money, toward creating infrastructure.

This latest proposal would expand the original idea into a full-service commercial complex, complete with sound stage, offices and academic partnerships with NMSU and the Las Cruces Public Schools. The concept of a backlot hasn’t been dismissed outright, but rather revised into a more organic formula dictated by the needs of the industry at large. The city and county will provide the land, the new plan suggests, but if a studio really wants a backlot, they will have to build it.

The upshot of all this is, we’ve come a long way in a little over one year. When the RFDAC was formed in October of 2013, it was with one goal in mind: to educate the city on the potential of the film industry in southern New Mexico. The agenda quickly expanded to include generating interest and funding for the creation of a viable infrastructure from which to launch this industry.

Both have seen great accomplishment, and with the unanimous approval of the newest proposal for a film center – not only by the mayor and the council, but also by filmmakers, business people and academic leaders – the future is looking very bright for the film industry in Las Cruces. Considering how hard it was to get anything even remotely related to film on the city council agenda even two years ago, this can certainly be viewed as a victory.

The year wasn’t without its setbacks, however, the most notable being the decision in late September by the board of directors for the White Sands International Film Festival, to dissolve the event after ten years. The question of whether or not the festival will be revived by other parties continues to be bandied about by members of the filmmaking community who believe the loss of the film festival could damage efforts to create a viable industry in Las Cruces.

Less deleterious, though no less notable, was the flap over the hiring of a new film liaison, after an almost two year vacancy of the office. Despite numerous presentations by RFDAC, the admission by councilor Small that “a robust liaison position will help local small business owners and entrepreneurs make headway” and Lerner’s revelation that her job is “24-7” rather than 8 to 5, the position of film liaison in Las Cruces was slotted as 30 percent of one full-time position within the Economic Development office.

The person appointed to that position, Cruz Ramos, has a long uphill path to tread, in part because there is very little faith in the film community in his ability to do the job set before him. A businessman from Iowa with a background in business development, corporate fundraising and arts advocacy, but absolutely no knowledge of the film industry, his presence has once again raised questions concerning City Manager Robert Garza’s understanding of industry needs. Having sidestepped several opportunities to introduce himself to key players and thus allay fears, Ramos is currently viewed as a wild card. Still, in light of recent announcements, many are willing to take a wait and see stance.

What will 2015 bring? More opportunities are always a good start. Many eyes are on Steinborn and his legislative crusade. Film Las Cruces, long a staple of the film community, is being restructured to be more of a networking platform with – according to organizer Phil Lewis – screenings continuing to take place at the Rio Grande Theatre on a quarterly basis.

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual for men and women who make up southern New Mexico’s fledgling film industry. Eventually, 2014 may be looked back upon as the year that changed everything, but only time will tell if those changes were substantial enough to make a long-term difference. Some of us, despite the setbacks, remain ever hopeful.

This article originally appeared in the December 24, 2014 issue of the Las Cruces Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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