Studios Off the Beaten Path


They may be off the beaten path, or at least away from the bright lights of Los Angeles and New York, but they’ve been spot on in making cities like Austin, Texas and Albuquerque, New Mexico burgeoning production beds for both big-budget and indie moviemaking. Yes, there’s a bumper crop of movie studios outside the Hollywood mainstream—with more on the way—that are drawing crews inside and onto soundstages in more remote, more affordable locations.

The trend not only bodes well for local economic development, but also provides moviemakers with cost-effective alternatives for shooting that, in the end, can yield better product.

“There are probably four or five really good reasons why these studios are important to the industry, but the number one is cost,” says Dana Arnold, CEO of Pacifica Ventures, the powerhouse parent company behind Albuquerque Studios. “It’s very expensive, if not impossible, to meet budgets in New York, Los Angeles or London, where most of the assets are in terms of producing these days.“

Agnes Varnum, director of marketing and communications manager for the Austin Film Society, which operates Austin Studios, agrees: “People are eschewing the places that are more expensive for better deals and incentives. They need to make their films in the most economical way.”

Albuquerque Studios, which opened in 2007 and has such titles as Terminator Salvation, The Book of Eli and Let Me In to its credit, is now booked through the end of 2012. With its eight 18,000- and 24,000-square-foot stages, 13,000 acres of backlot and concierge services, the studio is “like a resort for filmmakers,” says Arnold. “We have 12,000 trained film professionals, from grips to set builders. Filmmakers need great locations where there are major incentives and crew capability in place, so they can come, make their movies and meet their budgets.”

Since its inception, the facility has almost tripled the state’s income from film production to more than $400 million and has been well received by Albuquerque residents. Soon to be joined by similar Pacifica complexes in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, the studio serves major productions exclusively.

Austin Studios, on the other hand, looks to attract both the Hollywood and local moviemaking communities. The newly renovated 20-acre property boasts the largest cyc wall in Texas, at 87 feet long (perfect for green screen), as well as five wireless stages and 10,000 square feet of office space; plans call for an additional 75,000 square feet next year.

“Our partnership and below-market lease with the city of Austin allow us to operate on a sliding scale, so we can work with low-budget productions,” notes Varnum. “We want to be a media facility for everyone, from indies to big-budget features.”

Austin Studios began welcoming moviemakers in 2000 and has helped in cultivating the city’s film business and culture. Such pictures as True Grit, Stop-Loss and Friday the 13th called the city home for a time. “We have this group of filmmakers who don’t want to have to go to Hollywood to shoot their movies,” Varnum adds. “Establishing Austin Studios was a way for them to stay here.”

Spiderwood Studios, just 25 minutes from Austin in Utley, Texas, is helping to keep moviemakers in the area as well. The full-service, fully equipped center with a groomed-for-production backlot is situated on 200 acres of diverse terrain along the Colorado River.
New to the off-the-beaten-path family is Mississippi Film Studios in Canton. As part of Mississippi’s groundwork to become a force in film production, the Canton Convention and Visitors Bureau—in conjunction with the Canton Film Office—has spent more than a decade developing this state-of-the-art film complex, which became operational this past April. Nestled on 31 acres just five minutes from Canton Town Square, the studio complements a 36,000-square-foot soundstage with approximately 3,000 square feet for production support services. Mississippi’s main objective is to attract out-of-state productions and compete with New York City and Los Angeles, while also supporting the already strong local film community.

“In 1995, A Time to Kill came to Canton and the city saw what an economic engine the film industry was and how it created jobs on all levels,” explains Nick Smerigan of RoadTown Enterprises, the studio’s development and operations partner. “So it decided to build a facility that could entertain productions in a real professional manner. For moviemakers, having a facility like this makes it much easier to come and shoot, rather than having to first retrofit a warehouse.”

“You always have a lot of interior work, no matter what you’re shooting,” adds RoadTown principal Jeremy Hariton. “This provides the opportunity to do more in one spot and root in one location without having to assemble multiple crews. For any city, a studio acts like an anchor to build the industry there.”

Even smaller, privately owned studios are getting in on the action, with the best interests of independent moviemakers in mind. Sono Studios in Norwalk, Connecticut, is one example. Writer-director Bret Stern took over the building two years ago when it was known as Stage 18 and gave it a dramatic facelift. Today the full-service production house looks to bolster local moviemaking and grow the job market through on-set and post-production work.

“Connecticut is a great place for small filmmakers to shoot, and we want to make it more financially friendly for low-budget films,” says Adrian Fitzsimon, Sono’s production manager. “As a filmmaker himself, Bret relates well to budgetary constraints. We’re a small team, but we really want to boost indie filmmaking.”

Vegaswood Studios in Las Vegas, Nevada has the same mission, albeit with a spin: The facility, owned by independent moviemaker Derek Stonebarger, can best be described as a “studio without walls.” Since 2007, Stonebarger has built Vegaswood throughout the city, with production space in one location, an edit bay in another and a theater for shooting and screening elsewhere.

“We’re really tapped into the Las Vegas market and have taken film production here to a whole new level,” says Stonebarger. “With the way technology has shifted, we have all the necessary equipment and can move it anywhere in the area to shoot. We’re like a ‘little Hollywood’ right in downtown Vegas, and we’re still evolving. We’ve been able to survive by having low overhead, and we pass that on to our clients.”

What all these studios share is an invaluable contribution to their local economies. When a production sweeps in, it brings along a crew in need of lodging, food and transportation, which translates into increased revenue for local hotels, restaurants, catering companies, gas stations and more. Add to this such ancillary needs as lumber for construction, materials for costumes and trucks for hauling heavy equipment and a local film industry is born.

Mississippi’s Smerigan points out that, “All these things become economic drivers for the community and the entire state. Over time, as you build a crew base, you find that affiliated businesses are opening and hiring people.”

“It’s estimated that every dollar brought in has a three to six times rate of return,” adds Albuquerque’s Arnold, “so the impact of a $150 million film can really be half a trillion dollars.”

Moviemakers in search of production space outside Hollywood can also reap the benefits of incentives and facilities off the beaten path overseas. Pinewood Indomina Studios in the Dominican Republic, in the beach town of Juan Dolio, about 40 miles east of Santo Domingo, broke ground in February 2011. The new property will be state of the art and “will target production companies wanting access to the Caribbean and Central and South American markets and their population of 580 million, as well as the 47 million strong Hispanic and Latino market in North America,” according to a recent press release.

Still, government support and tax incentives are critical and can make or break some studios. Michigan, for instance, had to cancel building after new legislation cut the state’s whopping 42 percent incentives package. Meanwhile, in New Mexico and Texas, business is booming thanks to unwavering, positive backing of the film industry. In Mississippi, lawmakers keen on capitalizing on film growth have taken a steady course, improving the state’s incentives regularly.

Vegaswood’s Stonebarger is happy to report that Nevada, among a handful of states without any incentives, is poised to leave that pack behind, with a 25 percent tax credit awaiting final approval and slated to go into effect in January of 2012.

“These studios open the playing field for a lot of different genres and levels of filmmaking,” says Fitzsimon. “The industry is no longer run just by Hollywood. It’s become a fair game.”

Arnold concurs: “The fact is that filmmaking is increasing in all centers around the world. It’s a major growth industry, and while L.A. may be bemoaning a loss of feature films, there’s more than enough to go around.” MM

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