Albuquerque Studios' soundstages booked solid

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The exact day Nick Smerigan knew that Albuquerque Studios would be a success was July 2 of this year. "I was standing on the balcony of my rented townhouse overlooking the golf course at the country club," says the studio's COO. The six-soundstage,

$74 million production facility that he'd been building for a year had finally opened on April 9, and he was anticipating a relaxing Fourth of July weekend. Then Jeremy Hariton, executive director of the studios, phoned. "The revelation of 'Omigod, it's really going to work' was when Jeremy called and said, 'Hey, I have all these contracts and deposits. We're totally booked up!'" recalls Smerigan. Turns out the weekend wasn't so relaxing after all, because they had to notify everyone with tentative holds that they were now fully booked. "But look, that's the best sales tool in the world: We have no more room," reasons the exuberant Smerigan.

With four 24,000-square-foot stages and two 18,000-square-foot stages filled, Smerigan is beginning a phase-two expansion with two more stages, 47,000 square feet of offices, 20,000 square feet of retail space and 8,000 square feet of executive bungalows, along with the 100,000-square-foot animation building they're constructing for Sony Imageworks -- all to be finished Labor Day 2008 -- bringing the total cost to $121 million.

Productions at the studios include USA Network's drama series "In Plain Sight" (which is shooting 11 episodes), AMC's crime series "Breaking Bad," Lionsgate's "The Spirit" and Lakeshore Entertainment's "Game." Then there are the support service companies: NES Rentals for heavy equipment, New Mexico Lighting & Grip Co.

(a subsidiary of NBC Universal), Axium Payroll Services, Clairmont Camera, Quixote Expendables, Star Waggons trailers and Studio Concierge.

"The film industry in New Mexico is not only going to be sustainable, it will start to become one of the production call centers in the business," Smerigan predicts. "Nothing against Canada, but these productions should be done in America. This is our industry."

But film and television production is just the beginning. When Sony Imageworks opens its satellite facility in 2008, Albuquerque Studios will also become a major center for visual effects, animation and digital online gaming. "We canvassed the entire world, and on our visit to New Mexico, it was both the general environment and the willingness to work with Sony to create a tax incentive," says Sony Pictures Imageworks president Tim Sarnoff.

"On my first visit there, I rode around Albuquerque with Mayor Martin Chavez, and he started introducing me to restaurant owners and shopkeepers," remembers Sarnoff. "I felt like I was in a small town, yet it was a very progressive town. I really liked that."

His staffers at Culver City like the sound of it, too. Sarnoff says more than 50 employees at headquarters have already approached him to relocate. Additionally, Imageworks has accepted the University of New Mexico as the newest member of its prestigious film and digital media educational program, Imageworks Professional Academic Excellence (IPAX), which also includes Stanford and MIT.

"There is the distinct advantage that there is already production going on in New Mexico. There is a willingness to grow this industry there," Sarnoff reasons. "In the visual effects industry, there is a history of people being willing to move. They go where the work is, and we're going to be placing the work in New Mexico." Such as, specifically? "Every job that's here, there will be a component there -- whether it's a texture artist or a visual effects supervisor." What's more, "Every film we're doing here will have a component in New Mexico -- they'll be working on (Paramount's) 'Beowulf,' on (Warner Bros. Pictures') 'I Am Legend,' on (Sony's planned 2009 release) 'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.'"

As Sarnoff sees it, "This is a brick-and-mortar group we're building there. We're laying down roots. We intend to be in New Mexico for a long time."

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