Post 'Breaking Bad,' New Mexico Sees Spike in Hollywood Productions

Ben Rothstein/Netflix

Todd Christensen, the state's new film commissioner, also talks about the Georgia backlash and how he aims to boost incentives with an influx of cash from Netflix, which plans to spend more than $1 billion on production there over the next 10 years.

In states' increasingly competitive bid for film and television productions, New Mexico has emerged as a formidable contender. Among its victories: Netflix’s acquisition of Albuquerque Studios, where it plans to spend more than $1 billion on production over the next 10 years, and NBCUniversal’s separate in-state studio investment, through which it plans to shell out $500  million over the same period. Appointed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to the post of state film director earlier this year, former locations manager Todd Christensen, 70, will be tasked with keeping the Southwestern state a top filming destination. Christensen’s efforts will be helped by newly passed legislation that raises the amount New Mexico can pay out to qualifying productions from $50 million to $110  million a year, as well as $225  million to pay down an accumulated backlog in incentives. Christensen spoke to THR about his new role, the backlash against Georgia and Breaking Bad’s mark on New Mexico.

What’s been your first order of business since you stepped into the role of film commissioner?

The new legislation really opened the door to New Mexico really getting on the world stage in a way. I’ve worked on a lot of good movies with great producers and directors and they all loved working in New Mexico. They love the fact that it was close to LA and they liked the crews that are here. In this position, I feel like I can promote that to productions who haven’t been here and help them settle in. I also want to get the Native population more involved in the entertainment industry. I plan to meet with the 19 Pueblos as well as the two Apache tribes and the Navajo Nation to get them more involved with filming on their lands and getting their community more employment. They have stories to tell.

What’s been the impact of the state’s new filming legislation?

What it did is it removed the $50 million rolling cap. So they got rid of that and they put $110 million cap in. What the rolling capital produced was a huge backlog in production companies not being paid. It was going to take years because that was the law. And, well, it was done in an administration that I believe didn’t care about filming. And so when that backlog was understood more clearly, what they did was brilliant. They got the money in that legislation to pay off the backlog — and I think the last payments were done in September.

Wasn’t there a bit of uproar from studios that weren’t getting their money back?

It was going to take years to get some of the money back, so who wants to come back and do another movie if it’s going to take six or seven years to pay it off? I can’t imagine how hard it was in legislation, but they got the money to pay all the backlog off. And now it’s a better environment for production companies to come in and film.

What other region do you see as your biggest competition?

I don’t know if I look at it that way. Different production companies make decisions that are about a lot of different things, not just who’s got the best incentive but who’s got the environment they need for the project? A lot of things are story-driven. But New York is still big. LA is still big. LA’s got incentives now. But New Mexico was actually one of the first state to do incentives — and partly it was that the movies of the week had moved to Canada and it was a way back then to get business to come to New Mexico. And so they did this incentive that at the time was 15 percent. I did a movie called Off the Map that was the second movie to be done under the incentive, and it just grew organically in many ways. Mostly people came to New Mexico to do Westerns, and when they saw that they could do other kinds of stories here and there was a rich landscape and environment of different looks, it slowly built up over the years. 

Is there a project that’s done more for New Mexico than Breaking Bad?

It’s wild. And now there’s a Breaking Bad tour. I love it.

What’s on the Breaking Bad tour?

I haven’t really been on it, but it goes to the locations where they filmed. I have friends from L.A. who would come out and visit me at different times over the years, and they’d say, "How can we see the Breaking Bad locations?" And back then I’d go, "I don’t know, I’ll call the location manager." And then the Breaking Bad tour opened up and they just drive them around to all the familiar locations.

Netflix and NBCUniversal have set up expansive production hubs in the state. How did the legislators sell them on New Mexico?

Netflix came in toward the end of the last administration and the beginning of the new one. Then NBCUniversal became a partner as well. The partnerships mean that they have to spend X amount of money every year and create X number of jobs — and they are also not part of the $110 million. They’re separate from that pot of money. What it says is, "Come in and be a partner. Make New Mexico a bigger film location than it is now. Let us grow with you."

What has New Mexico done to capitalize on Georgia’s vulnerability in the wake of its controversial abortion legislation?

We welcome people with open arms. With their decisions to leave those places [because of] the draconian laws that were being put in place, my point of view was, "Come to New Mexico. Make your film here." They don’t have to change any of the dialogue; some of the settings they can change. We have a lot more diverse locations than most people realize. 

Which projects have specifically relocated from Georgia?

I don’t think it’s important to say which ones came here. What’s important is they did come here.

Any projects you can share that have shot in the state recently?

News of the World and Bios, both starring Tom Hanks. Tom must love New Mexico.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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5 NEW (AND IMPROVED) SHOOTING INCENTIVES AROUND THE WORLD

Philippines

The Centennial Year of Philippine Cinema officially started in September, and to help mark the occasion, the Department of Tourism and the Film Development Council of the Philippines jointly launched two new incentive schemes. The Film Location Incentive Program is open to feature films in any genre, television series and web content made in partnership with a registered Philippines line producer. The International Co-Production Fund applies to feature films (live action, documentary or animation) made with a certified Philippines producer or production company. Production costs in the Philippines must be at least $155,000, and a cash rebate of up to $193,000 is available on approval through either scheme, according to FilmPhilippines.

Russia

Russia announced a rebate program this year as a test run. Foreign crews are eligible for rebates of between 30 and 40 percent of money spent by productions in Russia, with the exact size of the rebate set on a case-by-case basis. This year, only about $2.3 million is earmarked for the rebate scheme, but the budget for the incentive is expected to be raised to $22.6 million by 2021. To qualify, a foreign production has to spend at least 75 million rubles or hire at least 80 percent of the crew locally or have at least 19 shooting days in Russia.

Sweden

Sweden has been an outlier in Europe having, until this year, no tax-rebate scheme for film and TV production. However, the Nordic nation has corrected that with a pilot production tax-rebate program to be financed by the Västra Götaland County region and administrated by Film i Väst, Scandinavia’s leading regional film fund. The scheme, dubbed Västra Götaland Production Rebate (VGPR), will cover up to 30 percent of qualifying local expenditure, with a minimum budget for features of $4.2 million and $840,000 per hour for TV drama. Also, the minimum expenditures for shooting and postproduction in the region should be $525,000 and $315,000, respectively.

India

India is set to launch a rebate scheme that will offer a 30 percent tax break on feature films shot in India, capped at 20 million rupees ($300,000) per film. The scheme would initially be endowed with $7.5 million and be administered through the National Film Development Corp., which is seeking to attract international productions to shoot in the land of Bollywood. The discount would be matched by another scheme helping international co-productions.

Saudi Arabia 

Saudi Arabia this year introduced its new 35 percent cash rebate targeting international film production. The base 35 percent rebate on local spend jumps to 50 percent for spending on Saudi labor employed on productions. The move comes after The Kingdom lifted its ban on movie theaters in 2017.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 6 daily issue at the American Film Market.